Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that up to 10,000 spectators will be coming out to the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort every day of the PGA Championship in May wouldn’t necessarily be great news. 

When the major championship came to the swanky seaside getaway for the first time in 2012, the number of daily golf fans in attendance was about triple that. 

But now, in early 2021, it’s the kind of news tourism officials have been waiting on for months. 

Having lost out on about $5.7 billion in visitor spending in 2020 because of the health crisis, South Carolina’s visitor sector is anxiously awaiting a more robust period of recovery — one they hope will be kicked into higher gear by the news that spectators will indeed be allowed on the Ocean Course May 17-23 to watch the championship in-person. 

“Regardless of the fact that this year the PGA Championship won’t be of the same scope that it was in 2012, we’re excited about it,” said Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort. “And we’re excited because we think it’s going to be a great catalyst to begin the resurrection of the very resilient tourism industry in the Charleston area.”

Warren said he wants the championship to be a “momentum-builder,” one that’s much needed for a sector that’s been hit harder by job and revenue losses than any other during the pandemic. 

“We have to focus on the opportunity we’ve been given, and make everything we can out of it,” Warren said.

The 10,000-spectator limit was announced Feb. 23, along with other COVID-19 rules. Face masks will be required at all times, including outdoors, and fans will be encouraged to practice social distancing. 

Having an event like the PGA Championship on its planned date with a limited number of spectators — last year’s championship in San Francisco was postponed and no spectators were allowed — is evidence of a new phase of the pandemic, said Daniel Guttentag, the director at the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis. 

“I think it’s symbolic of where we’re at in a good way — that nobody has any illusions that life is normal now, or that in May, life is going to be normal, but we’re also getting back toward normalcy,” Guttentag said. “It’s another step in that progression as we return back to normal, both in terms of hospitality and tourism and just life in general.”

Though limited attendance means fewer people, and fewer people means less overall spending, every dollar carries more weight now that the industry is in major recovery mode. 

Kiawah's Ocean Course (copy) (copy)

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort is hosting the 2021 PGA Championship May 17-23. File/Provided

According to the PGA Championship, the event can usually generate more than $100 million in economic impact, and prior to the pandemic, a more than $200 million impact for the Palmetto State was predicted. That will not be reached because of the limits on attendance, but the effect on the economy will be significant, more for its timing than for its total. 

A year without a tourism 'kickoff' for Charleston with SEWE, Wine + Food canceled

Usually, the Charleston area’s tourism season would get a jumpstart in mid-February with the three-day Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. That would typically be followed by the Charleston Wine + Food festival the next month and the Cooper River Bridge Run shortly after. 

But, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter two called off their 2021 events entirely, and the bridge run was pushed to September. 

And another major sporting event, the Volvo Car Open, won’t be allowing spectators for its annual stop on Daniel Island this April. 

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Because of those cancellations and changes, the PGA Championship will be the Charleston region’s first large-scale tourism draw of the year.  

Golf was one of the few bright spots for South Carolinians in the travel and leisure business in 2020 — many courses logged record numbers of rounds played — making it a somewhat fitting kickoff.

More events could follow, especially now that the state is lifting a 250-person cap on special events starting March 1. 

South Carolina tourism director Duane Parrish said he expects the event calendar will really start to fill up again in the fall, but the PGA Championship could give the Lowcountry a bit of a head start. 

SC golf was outlier in 2020, with many courses logging record numbers

“I think, by May, you’ve got more vaccinations by that time, more people feeling comfortable about things, the weather is warmer, and cabin fever for people who haven’t gotten out will be at an all-time high,” Parrish said. “I think it’s a great coming out party for golf, and it’s putting South Carolina at the forefront. That’s a big deal.” 

That momentum, Parrish said, should carry through the summer and into fall, the state’s prime season for golf. 

It’s not known yet what the revised economic impact estimate for the event will be, especially since ticketing has to be sorted out. Passes for the championship were sold out, meaning only a portion of the buyers will be allowed in, and it’s unclear at this point how many of the 10,000 spectators per day will be coming from out-of-town and how many will be local.

The higher the percentage of visitors, the higher the direct impact on spending, since those fans will be booking hotel rooms, dining out at restaurants and visiting nearby attractions. 

Media exposure, however, won’t be diminished by the lower gallery numbers. The championship is broadcast in 164 countries and territories reaching more than a half-billion households, according to the PGA of America.

Golf is an area where the Charleston region can “stand on the world stage,” said Helen Hill, CEO of the tourism marketing agency Explore Charleston. Its rise started when the memorable 1991 Ryder Cup was held at the Ocean Course — it marked the first time the event was televised live — and that reputation was boosted again in 2012 when the PGA Championship came to Kiawah for the first time.

It was somewhat opportune timing then, too, since the tourism sector was still trying to recover from the Great Recession, said Warren, the Kiawah resort’s president. A noticeable increase in business followed in 2013, he said, and the boost was felt in other parts of the Charleston area, not just on the island. 

The Explore Charleston chief agreed.

“We saw a spike in the amount of interest internationally,” Hill said of the 2012 event. 

True recovery is still months and millions of vaccinations away, but building interest among domestic and international travelers is still the goal, especially since an eventual boom in tourism is expected as people crave travel after a year spent largely at home. 

Direct economic impact during May’s event won’t include future travel bookings from TV viewers who’ll see the Ocean Course and then decide to add South Carolina to their list of post-pandemic destinations.

Parrish, the state’s tourism chief, said that’s the “intangible” benefit that could make the biggest difference.