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Bogey Time

The world of golf braces for a tough year as corporate sponsors tighten their belts and golfers cut costs
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

The color of golf has traditionally been green, and no more so than during the past two decades. We're not talking grass here, we're talking money. As the American and global economies burgeoned throughout the 1990s and made it over the hump of the 2001 9/11 tragedy, the game of golf benefited prodigiously. The Tiger Woods Effect was supposed to bring untold millions of players into the game. Instead, it brought in millions upon millions of dollars. Make that billions.

While the number of players didn't increase dramatically, the amount of money coming into the game did, at all levels. The PGA Tour's purse money shot up with the trajectory of a Woods drive; private clubs with entry fees of half a million bucks or more grabbed headlines; posh resorts asked as much as $500 for a greens fee; and club companies placed $500 tags on drivers. The price of a golf ball exceeded a gallon of gas. Private club rosters were close to capacity and public courses were, for the most part, making money. Golf meccas such as Scotland and Ireland, fueled by the American longing for the links land, gleefully turned dollars into pounds sterling and euros at an exhilarating pace.

Then the economy tanked, or is that shanked? Like a lot of industries, golf isn't likely to be the same. There are no gimmes anymore.

Buick parted ways with Tiger Woods. What does that tell you? With the reeling financial and auto industries heavily involved in golf from a promotional aspect, big question marks exist about whether the level of sponsorship can be maintained. The PGA Tour lost a tournament for the 2009 season, as did the Champions Tour. The LPGA Tour lost four.

The impact at the professional tour level, however, may not be as profound as it will be, and has been, in other areas of the game. Winter golf hot spots in Florida, the Caribbean and Hawaii saw steep declines in the number of players, and in many cases the level of greens fees they could charge.

Not even the Celtic Tiger was immune. Two golf resort properties in Ireland tanked, others dangled by a thread and a number of projects in development were stopped. Several golf clubs in the New York area were reeling from the double-bogey whammy of the financial sector meltdown and the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal.

What follows is Cigar Aficionado's survey of people throughout the game in America. All agree that the challenges ahead are significant, that the economic downturn is the game's most difficult up and down in decades. But they also share a common optimism, a belief that things will be better, that they will make this up and down, though it might require a 20-foot putt on the 18th hole.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, speaking at the season-opening Mercedes Championship at Kapalua, was in his best cautious-optimism mode. The trade winds on Maui were gentle while the ill winds of financial peril were rising. "It's going to be a tough go," Finchem said. "A lot of companies are cutting budgets, cutting advertising, cutting sponsorships across the country and around the globe, and it is going to make our work more challenging. But our value is still there.

"On the competitive side, there are two reasons we are excited. One is that not only do we have Tiger coming back at some point this year, but we have this great batch of really stellar performances the last few months [read that Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas] that we think are going to excite fans. "Secondly, we do like the reaction to the changes in the FedExCup this year. We think we are in a situation now where we have three levels of the FedExCup competition. . . . We know it's going to be more exciting."

Charismatic players and high-profile competitions can sell tickets, but ticket money is not the backbone of professional tour golf. Big corporations and television are the cash cows, the "Green Team," if you will. Without huge chunks of cash from corporations that provide tournaments with prize money and hospitality income, and provide television with advertising revenue, pro golf would not exist in its present form. Corporations are taking a hard look at how they will be doling out this promotional money, and Finchem invites that scrutiny.

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