COLUMBIA — Winning the state’s top tourism award Wednesday kicked off what promises to be a big year for the Golf.com World Amateur Handicap Championship.
The competition, which attracts thousands of golfers to the Grand Strand every year, is planning an even bigger event this year as it marks its 30th anniversary. Expect more celebrity appearances, a return of the expo and beefier goodie bags for participants. Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which organizes the competition, didn’t have more specifics Wednesday, but said details would be announced likely in March.
“This is a big year for us,” Bill Golden, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said after picking up the Governor’s Cup award Wednesday. The 30th anniversary is “a big opportunity for the event. We want to raise the bar.”
But Wednesday was about celebrating how far the event had already come.
It was one of two statewide award winners from the Grand Strand during the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism & Travel, which wrapped up Wednesday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center with the awards luncheon and a visit by Gov. Nikki Haley.
During a brief speech to the roughly 400 attendees, Haley touted progress in the state’s $15 billion tourism industry and emphasized the state’s new plan to promote undiscovered gems in rural areas throughout South Carolina to move the industry forward.
“Now we have to look at undiscovered South Carolina,” Haley said. “It makes South Carolina look that much better.”
The World Amateur championship took home the state’s top tourism award for its $5 million economic impact and contributions to the state’s $15 billion tourism industry. Unlike the game it revolves around, the championship boasts high numbers: 3,100 participating golfers last year, roughly 20,000 lodging room nights and 18,000 rounds of golf.
In 2012, players came from 49 states – Idaho was the only one not represented – and 24 countries including China, South Africa and Germany. About 60 Grand Strand courses participated in the weeklong competition last year.
It also attracts national coverage on TV networks such as ESPN and CNN and in publications such as USA Today and the New York Daily News.
Golden credited the golf courses that lend their greens for competition play, the volunteers and businesses that chip in for the event with keeping it around for so long. And the golfers that participate -- a dozen have played in it every year since its start, he said.
“The award speaks to the longevity,” Golden said. “The secret is the community. It’s just a wonderful formula.”
The Grand Strand also took home the award for S.C. Hospitality Employee of the Year. Ronald Bessant, 59, won for his generosity as a server at the Original Benjamin’s Calabash Seafood restaurant in Myrtle Beach, where he tries to keep kids happy -- even keeping a stash of stuffed animals, children’s books and other items to give them.
“It’s just been in my system for years,” said Bessant, who has worked at the restaurant since 2009. “If you can make the children happy, the parents will be happy.”
And that’s only half of it.
Bessant also works at Kingston Plantation, where for 19 years he’s aimed to keep meeting and convention organizers and participants happy by helping set up meeting rooms for conventions on the property and giving guests tips on what to do around town. Bessant also served on the Horry County School board from 1990 to 2008.
Several hospitality students from the Myrtle Beach area also were honored.
Colette Eshleman, who will be graduating in May from Horry-Georgetown Technical College, received a new award given for a student’s contributions to nature-based tourism. The Richard Mikell Scholarship award recognized Eshleman’s proposal on ways to improve marketing of the niche segment of tourism.
Two other local students were among eight around the state recognized for high academic achievements: Kara Yeomans of Coastal Carolina University and Nicole Ramey of Horry-Georgetown Technical College.
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.