MYRTLE BEACH — Bob LeComte’s personalized South Carolina license plate says it all: “World Am”.
It wouldn’t be a misnomer to refer to LeComte as Mr. World Am.
He was a driving force behind the early establishment and development of the tournament, and he was honored for it Thursday night during 19th Hole festivities at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center for the 30th Golf.com World Amateur Handicap Championship.
Tournament operator Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday presented LeComte with a new World Am lifetime achievement award that is being named in his honor and will be awarded annually to individuals who have meant a lot to the event.“I think it’s his baby,” said Cecil Brandon, who was Golf Holiday’s executive director for 37 years through 1999. “Had Bob not liked the idea and sold DuPont on it, I’m not sure we would have ever been able to continue what we’re doing.”
LeComte, 82, was executive director of the World Am for 13 of its first 15 years – seven years as a DuPont employee and six years for Golf Holiday – and he arranged for DuPont’s title sponsorship, which began in 1986 and continued for 19 years.
The World Am was created after Grand Strand marketing/public relations company owner Paul Himmelsbach and Golf Digest southeast sales manager Marvin Arnsdorff met in 1982 and jotted down tournament ideas on a napkin.The tournament was initially run by Golf Digest, sponsored by Rawlings and attracted between 680 and 900 players in each of its first two years. But it was also $90,000 in debt after the second year.
Himmelsbach and Arnsdorff asked Golf Holiday to get involved, and Clay Brittain was the World Am’s most vocal supporter on the marketing cooperative’s board and convinced other board members to take over the tournament.
“I don’t know if they would have gone another year and lose another $40,000 or $50,000 or $60,000,” LeComte said. “Maybe they would have, but maybe not.”
LeComte worked in the central advertising department for DuPont and the company periodically moved him to different products and projects. In 1985, he was handling the marketing of engineering plastics. He had previously been involved in ski accounts and that’s how he met Bill Orr, who owned a television production company that filmed the Lange Cup ski event. In October 1985, Orr invited LeComte to play famed Aronimink Golf Club in Pennsylvania, and Dick Sheridan, the head of Golf Digest’s sports marketing department, was also one of Orr’s guests in the foursome. Orr had to leave immediately after the round, so LeComte and Sheridan were left to have a drink and chat, and the conversation eventually turned to the World Am, which Sheridan said was in need of a title sponsor. DuPont was involved in the golf business because one of its products, surlyn, was being used in golf ball production.
“I thought this could be something that DuPont would be interested in for a couple reasons,” LeComte said. “No. 1 we produced surlyn … and also, it was an opportunity to entertain customers, and I would look for opportunities to do that.”
LeComte took the idea of sponsorship to DuPont’s general manager of engineering plastics, Larry Gillespie, who said he’d put up half of the approximate $100,000 sponsorship if surlyn department head Joe Miller would put up the other half. LeComte asked DuPont surlyn marketer Debra Ruth to approach Miller, and he agreed on the partnership.“So many of these things happen like that, where you just run into somebody and it just happens that way,” LeComte said of his chance pairing with Sheridan.
The first sponsorship contract was for a few years, and subsequent contracts were for multiple years until DuPont ended its sponsorship after its 19th tournament in 2005.
“I had a full plate at the time and was not expecting to run this tournament because I thought the surlyn people would want to do this by themselves,” LeComte said. “But [advertising supervisor] Harry Davis said, ‘LeComte, you’re going to have to run this thing. Debra is not a golfer and she can work with you, but you’re going to have to take it over.’”
Before LeComte became DuPont’s executive director of the World Am, he knew of Myrtle Beach but had never been here. “I rented a car and went down towards the Breakers where I was staying,” LeComte recalled, “and I saw all these honky-tonk lights and I said to myself, ‘Uh oh, I don’t know if this is a good idea or not.’” LeComte remained the tournament’s executive director for DuPont from 1986-92. When Golf Holiday took over tournament operations from Golf Digest in ’92, he retired from DuPont, moved to Murrells Inlet and accepted a job as Golf Holiday’s director of the World Am, a position he held through 1998.
“When he retired to come down here we paid him for two days a week and he worked seven, because that’s the kind of guy he is,” Brandon said.
In his 13 years overseeing the event, LeComte made several changes and improvements that helped it gradually grow to a sellout of 5,000 players in 2000; 5,000 is considered the most the convention center can handle for the 19th Hole. Among LeComte’s World Am ideas and contributions, he: Created a championship round for flight winners for the 1988 tournament and ensured finalists would be treated with special hospitality. The player with the lowest score following four rounds was deemed the champion from 1984-87, but the scores were recorded on different courses so it wasn’t a fair process. Greatly expanded the 19th hole expo and offerings. Offered high-dollar grand prize drawings following the fourth round that included trips to islands and sporting events, and cars from companies including Lincoln, Buick and Pontiac. Enticed celebrities to make appearances at the event including Jeff Gordon, David Leadbetter, Dave Pelz, Doug Sanders and Gibby Gilbert. Kept DuPont happy as a sponsor by creating the company’s own guest hospitality rooms at its host hotels and tournaments within the tournament to better entertain the company’s clients. Gave golf writers free entry to give the event added exposure and promotion.
LeComte said DuPont ended its sponsorship because of more stringent government regulations and scrutiny on corporate client entertainment. “If it weren’t for that I don’t know if they would have ever ended their sponsorship,” LeComte said.
LeComte, who has been battling Stage 4 lung cancer for the past 14 months, also played an integral role for Golf Holiday in negotiations to bring to the Strand the Senior Tour Championship, which was played at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club and TPC of Myrtle Beach from 1994-2000.
He helped keep the tournament in Myrtle Beach after Golf Magazine backed out after one year of title sponsorship. LeComte put sponsorship proposals together for 20 companies, mailed them and followed up with phone calls, and Energizer jumped at the opportunity.
He recruited Mickey McCamish to join Golf Holiday to run the Champions Tour event, and McCamish eventually become Golf Holiday’s executive director and president. He knew McCamish from McCamish’s 10 as tournament chairman for the McDonald’s LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., where DuPont is headquartered.
The Robert J. LeComte award, and license plate, are well deserved.
And the plate is much better than the one his wife of 61 years, Marilyn, previously got for him: “Shanks”.
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.