[photopress:masters_logo_208_1.jpg,full,alignleft]AUGUSTA, Ga. – The Masters golf tournament is one of sport’s greatest spectacles. Every year since 1934, professional golfers the world over have pined for the opportunity to play on the rolling hills of Augusta National Golf Club, regarded as one of the world’s best courses.
But it isn’t just PGA Tour pros that yearn for an opportunity to gain access to one of golf’s most fabled and exclusive venues. The tournament, like most golf events, also has a tremendous appeal to businesses, which use it to foster relationships with top employees and clients.
Unlike other top golf tournaments, such as the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship or even the Canadian Open, at Augusta there are no tents dotting the fairways where business clients and employees can sip cool drinks and watch the rounds of golf.
That means gaining entrance to The Masters is difficult. After all, a pass to the event is known as the “toughest ticket in sports,” and regularly trades hands for more than US$10,000. There is a finite number of tickets, which can be willed from one family member to another, and a waiting list has been closed for a few years.
All of this means there is a premium placed on the business schmoozing that takes place during The Masters, which kicks off next week.
“Going to The Masters is an amazing way to solidify a relationship with a client and get to know them much better,” says John Barr, who who also operates the high-end golf travel service Perry Golf in Canada and runs a trip to The Masters’ final two rounds. “It is such a draw because this is usually the only way people will ever get to see Augusta National. Even corporate bigwigs rarely get to play the course.”
The appeal of The Masters to the corporate elite who use the event to entertain makes perfect sense given the course’s history. After all, Augusta National Golf Club was created by fabled golfer Bobby Jones and investment banker Clifford Roberts as an escape for their friends, many of whom were well-placed Wall Street executives.
The club’s membership, which has come under fire in recent years for its policy of excluding females from its ranks (though women can play the course), is small and exclusive, consisting of some of the top executives in the world. Members include recent inductee Bill Gates, Citigroup Inc. chief executive Sanford Weill, and numerous other kings of commerce. Canadians in the group include former Alcan Aluminum Ltd. CEO David Culver and former Toronto Dominion Bank CEO Dick Thomson.
Though the club embraces its relationship with the heads of some of the largest businesses in the U.S., The Masters tournament eschews most corporate endorsements, making it difficult for companies to get tickets.
The tournament does have relationships with a handful of companies, including computer giant IBM Corp. (the company’s former CEO, Lou Gerstner, was a member at Augusta), Coca-Cola Co., and Citigroup Inc. However, instead of getting the chance to run banners on the course with corporate logos, these companies are given the privilege of advertising on the CBS telecast of the event.
It is even hard to comment on whether the club’s advertising partners have any access to tickets to the tournament. An IBM spokesman refused to say whether the company takes clients to The Masters, citing “competitive issues.”
For several decades, a group of top Canadian powerbrokers had access to the tournament through an agreement that saw them donate money to a charity in the name of legendary golfer and Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones.
However, that trip, which included a charter flight to Augusta that returned later the same day, ended in recent years, leaving individuals clamoring to get access to one of The Masters’ tickets that allow access to the course.
These days, a trip from Toronto run by Mr. Barr is one of the few ways to guarantee access to the tournament, as well as hospitality service just steps outside of the club’s main gates.
But if you’re planning on taking a client down to Augusta from Canada through Mr. Barr’s service, be prepared to have your company open its expense account — wide.
A single-day trip, which includes a flight to Augusta, transportation to and from the tournament, and hospitality service near the course, costs around $4,000 per person. A secondary trip, which includes overnight accommodations at a nearby Ritz-Carlton Lodge and golf the following day, costs closer to $5,000.
Mr. Barr has only 50 tickets for each of the weekend rounds, obtained from a business contact in Augusta.
But he says the costs associated with the event are outweighed by the potential business relationship that can be developed during a trip to the Masters.
“No one will turn down a ticket to The Masters,” he says.
While Mr. Barr’s trip — comprising a flight to Augusta for all 50 in a luxury jet — may seem expensive, consider that tickets that cover all four rounds of the tournament are often sold for US$10,000. Two tickets, or badges as The Masters calls them, for all four days of this year’s tournament recently received a bid of more than US$12,000 on eBay.
But the cost of The Masters is secondary to the experience of attending the event, says one U.S. ticket broker, who asked not to be named.
“It is a once in a lifetime type of event for most people,” he said, adding ticket sales are brisk this year with Tiger Woods and last year’s winner, Phil Mickelson, both playing well. “This is a dream event for anyone, whether you are taking a client down or you are a dad going with his son.”
FAST FINANCIAL FACTS ABOUT THE MASTERS:
– Despite the high price of tournament tickets, concessions at Augusta National have remained unusually low-priced, especially when compared with other major sporting events. The best known snack, an egg and pimento cheese sandwich, cost US$1.25 in 2004, while a 14-ounce beer was only US$1.75.
– Spectators at The Masters are called “patrons,” and are discouraged from running while on the club’s grounds. However, they can place lawn chairs along the fairways, leave to watch other holes and expect the chairs to be in their original location when they return.
– There are no hospitality tents at the tournament, though members of Augusta National have access to the clubhouse and its facilities. Instead, a tent city emerges from the homes outside the main gate to Augusta and these facilities are used for corporate hospitality.
– With an estimated 300,000 people descending on Augusta for Masters week, there are not enough hotel rooms to go around. To deal with demand, the city runs a house rental service. Rent on some houses runs more than US$10,000 for the week and does not have to be declared as income by home owners.
– Golf Digest recently estimated The Masters event, including merchandising, earns revenue of US$44-million annually and a profit of more than US$6-million.