The 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links offers an iconic view for RBC Heritage golfers and spectators. PHOTOS COURTESY RBC HERITAGE

He and his team pivoted to reschedule the tournament to June 2020 with no spectators after the pandemic outbreak. They managed a limited-capacity crowd with COVID back at peak numbers in 2021. Through all that, RBC tournament director Steve Wilmot says the 2022 edition of the PGA Tour event, set for April 11-17, presents the biggest challenge of his career.

“The evolution of our ticketing is without doubt the biggest change in my lifetime of 36 years running the event,” Wilmot said of the new electronic ticketing system. “This is four or five years in the making, it didn’t happen overnight. We’re evolving with the times, we’re leaning on the learning of other events that have made this move and we’re ready. The end result will be a better experience for the fans and that’s always job number one for us.”

For folks like Wilmot’s 18-year-old daughter, smartphone-based ticketing is now second nature. But even the most tech-averse have adapted as arenas, all pro sports and now even middle school sports events use the technology.

The bulk of the general admission crowd will see this change when they park at Honey Horn Plantation. That’s where your ticket will be scanned and you will receive your wearable badge.

“And we know that those badges and tickets are collectibles, so we’re making sure that’s still part of the experience,” Wilmot said.

The new system leads to new operational hurdles. While it will lead to smoother crowd control at Harbour Town, mastering the system at Honey Horn presents a potential bottleneck.

“There will be hiccups, we’re ready for that, but we have an amazing team to make sure it doesn’t impact the spectator experience,” Wilmot said. “And the end result will create an even better fan experience next year and beyond.”

Managing crowd control has always been more of a manual count and anecdotal feedback. Now, Wilmot and his team will have analytics to point to, as the wearables will provide hard statistics on attendance.

“We’ve had studies before that told us our weekly badges were used 3.2 times over the week, but we didn’t know when, so we’d have to staff for the entire week,” Wilmot said. “Now, we will know where the hot spots are and be better ready to anticipate and improve the experience.”

Wilmot said that while the tourney had record attendance numbers in 2019, they heard the feedback from sponsors and spectators.

“It was too much, it hurt our effectiveness in all corners of operations and we know that,” he said. “So a full-capacity crowd that we’re expecting this year will not look like it did in 2019.”

Fans will also notice a revamped website at rbcheritage.com that went live in February with a fresh design and easier user access to key information and even more historical information about the tourney.

Area charities depend on donations from the Heritage Classic Foundation with $47.5 million donated through the years. Decreased attendance and revenues led to $1.7 million in giving last year, but Wilmot said he expects a sharp increase in that total as the tourney gets back to full capacity in 2022.

And on course, fans will notice a continued evolution in concessions as the SERG food and beverage enterprise now handles all back-of-the-house operations. Civic groups will still be a crucial part as the front-facing folks taking orders.

“Working with a premiere group like SERG, it’s just a win-win for everyone here,” Wilmot said. “It’s just another example of the community partnerships that are so vital to us continuing to evolve and grow this event.”

In terms of the actual tournament, the 132-player field will notice that holes 2, 5 and 17 at Harbour Town will play a bit longer this year. That field will be among the strongest that has ever competed in the Heritage.

“When we moved to June in 2020, we had players like Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka play that would usually take the week after the Masters off and a lot of them left saying, ‘I need to rethink that. I need to be here,’” Wilmot said. “This is the perfect respite after the pressure cooker of Masters Week and an escape for their families to a world-class event and destination.”

The Heritage has established a reputation as one of the top spots on the Tour with an attention to every detail of hospitality, including the top daycare team in the sport.

“It’s Easter week, we will have 80 to 100 players’ kids here, full families, and we keep them busy with dolphin cruises, beach walks, putt putt and so much more,” Wilmot said. “Our volunteer team there is just amazing and so focused on fun for the family.”

Just who will those players be? Commitments so far include Team RBC players like Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Graeme McDowell and Ryder Cup captains Henrik Stenson and Zack Johnson, a long-time Heritage fan favorite.

The field is full of World Golf Ranking top 20 players and will continue to evolve until the field is set at 5 p.m. April 8. The Masters winner will have an hour after his final putt to decide if he’s coming to Harbour Town.

“We have set spots from PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour rankings and outcomes and we have players that we’re holding exemptions for that might earn spots on their own and that gives us more exemptions to give,” Wilmot said. “We’ve said ‘no’ to about 60 players thus far, just because of the strength of the field.”

One player of particular note is Bluffton-based PGA Tour player Bryson Nimmer. Playing with an exemption in 2021, Nimmer rebounded from an opening-round 80 with a 68 on Day 2 to barely miss the weekend cut. He got his second Tour start of 2022 at March’s Puanta Cana Championship, earning his way in as a Monday qualifier and finishing tied for 11th place at 12-under par. A top-10 finish would have given him an automatic spot in last week’s Valero Texas Open and more of a chance to solidify his case for playing the Heritage.

“Players like Blake Kennedy from the island, Bryson or Ben Martin, they’re still in play for sure. We have a couple more exemptions to decide,” Wilmot said.

Wilmot feels for players on the outside looking in. No matter how many accolades he gets locally and nationally for his work on the tourney, he still remembers when island legends like Joe Fraser, John Curry, Deke DeLoach and Angus Cotton gave him his first shot.

“They took a chance on me and I’m forever grateful,” he said. “I still hold their lessons very close. Papa Joe always said the day you’re content is the day you get passed. The day I stop learning is the day to get out of the business. That learning is all about making the fan experience better and better.”

Tickets for the 2022 RBC Heritage are extremely limited, with only individual-day grounds badges still available. Visit rbcheritage.com for more information.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. timwood@blufftonsun.com.