COLUMBIA — When the RBC Canadian Open was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, South Carolina's head of tourism saw a chance to step in, offering up its courses as a replacement venue and blasting its message that the Palmetto State is open to visitors.
In exchange for $6 million in sponsorship dollars, the majority of which will go to pay for a four-day, 32-slot advertising blitz on CBS and the Golf Channel, South Carolina lured the Palmetto Championship at Congaree PGA tournament, to be held June 10-13 at the Congaree Golf Club in Ridgeland.
"In my 10 years here, we haven't had an opportunity to invest in something on a national basis like this," said Duane Parrish, director of South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "This is a chance to showcase what golf is in South Carolina."
It will be the third PGA Tour event in the state in as many months.
"We will be the top of the golf world," Parrish said. "This is a big deal for us. This allows us to play alongside some of the larger (golf) states that we haven't been able to before."
South Carolina's 2021 golfing triple crown will start with the 53rd annual RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island in April, followed by the PGA Championship at The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island near Charleston in May and then the one-time, 156-golfer event of the Palmetto Championship a month later.
The Palmetto Championship, at a course 80 miles southwest of Charleston, also will run in conjunction with another PGA-sponsored event, Korn Ferry Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am presented by SYNNEX Corporation in Greer.
"We can expect to be seeing ourselves on the television, in ads on sports channels, wall-to-wall during those three months," S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said.
State leadership is hopeful that the weekend of advertising will draw visitors back to South Carolina and serve as a boost to a tourism and hospitality industry that has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
The state's tourism industry was down by $5.7 billion in 2020, a 41 percent drop in revenue compared to the year prior, according to PRT figures. And the job losses in the industry have been among the slowest to rebound in the state.
But golf has been one of tourism's bright spots during the pandemic, with the once-struggling sport experiencing a renaissance of new players eager for a safe, socially distanced pastime.
"The number of rounds of golf played in South Carolina since June of last year has seen double digit growth every month," Parrish said.
And the game had an estimated $2.6 billion annual economic impact in 2019, according to PRT reports.
The Congaree Golf Club had already been chasing its first PGA Tour event, having launched a failed bid for the 2026 Presidents Cup, said Pamela Lackey, a former AT&T executive and an ambassador for the club.
But this meant the club was on the last-minute short list as a replacement when the Canadian event was canceled. The club has stepped up, with just 70 days to prepare.
"We're long been aware of the reputation of the Congaree Golf Club," PGA spokesman Stewart Moore said.
Hosting three major PGA events could set the state up to reel in more championships in the future.
Designed by Tom Fazio, Congaree was named No. 39 in Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses when it opened in 2017 and was voted Golf Digest’s “Best New Private Course” in 2018.
Coupled with the championship coming back to Kiawah for a second time in a decade, Moore said it "sets South Carolina apart from many states in its ability to host annual as well as major championships and provides a unique opportunity to bring a new event to the market."
"It speaks a lot to the state and to the golf club," he said.
The Palmetto Championship sponsorship is being paid for using $6 million in sports marketing dollars already allocated in the state budget.
"And this is sports marketing on steroids. Everybody in the whole golf world will be tuned in," said McMaster, who sees this investment as a way to further help tourism-dependent business.
In-person attendance of the event will be limited. Those numbers are still being finalized, Moore said, but PGA events in Florida have been attracting 5,000 spectators per day.
It also puts the club's charitable mission in the limelight, with broadcasts of the event expected to reach 121 million U.S. households and one billion international households.
Opened by billionaires Dan Friedkin and the late Bob McNair, who owned the NFL's Houston Texans, the club asks members to serve as “ambassadors” in order to join. Instead of hefty dues, they participate in a mentorship program for financially disadvantaged high school students wishing to learn to play the game.
Dozens of students come to Congaree each year for a week-long program that includes a mix of educational and golf instruction.