It’s not about the game
Special to The Aspen Times
A common misconception is that competitive golf is played by the same sort of people who dominate the game at the recreational level – corporate, flashy and wealthy. In reality, however, top-flight golf tournaments are rarely flashy or corporate, just as good golfers are rarely wealthy, often removing their clubs from the trunks of cars that double as houses for most of the season. The one mammoth, blue-chip, Fortune 500 exception to this rule is the PGA Tour.
Last Wednesday was Pro-Am day at the 18th International Golf Tournament at Castle Pines Country Club outside of Denver. Wednesdays are always Pro-Am day on the tour, when top businessmen pay huge amounts of money – up to $5,000 a person – to play a round of golf with a PGA tour player.
Lined along the practice range before the start of play were immaculately dressed, middle-aged white men, most of them on cell phones and many surrounded by advisors and hanger-ons – these were the stars of the PGA. The businessmen – laughing and joking on one side of the range – seemed the least businesslike of anyone there. On the putting green, an illustrious pro snapped that the bottled water brought to him wasn’t cold enough. His corporate partner, standing next to him, seemed embarrassed by the display.
Notah Begay, a successful American Indian pro who seems slightly out of place amid all the splendor and schmoozing, said it didn’t take long for him to realize the corporate nature of the PGA tour.
“Professional golf is different from other sports in that it’s the only one when as an athlete you have to entertain and socialize at tournaments,” he said. “Unlike in other sports, a golf tournament gets most of its money from corporations, so there’s an obligation to court and woo the sponsors – they pay the bills after all. When you get out here, you learn pretty quick how to schmooze.”
This marriage between corporate sponsorship and the professional tour has proved lucrative for all involved. Corporations such as Sprint, a longtime sponsor of the International, get good publicity among golf fans, a wealthy demographic. And the tour has seen its prize money skyrocket in the past two decades. Bob Tway, a veteran tour pro for almost 20 years, won more money last year – without a victory – than he did in 1986, when he won four tournaments, including the PGA championship.
“Things have certainly changed since I arrived,” Tway said. “Back then you had to rent your own car at the host city, pay for range balls at the course. There was no food in the locker room.” He laughed, “Things sure have changed.”
At the International, even the media, typically at the bottom of the food chain, were given a taste of corporate luxury. The media tent, loaded with top-of-the-line electronic and computer equipment, had a large plasma TV screen so that no one need leave his chair to watch the event. The lunch buffet, complete with cocktail bar, was of restaurant quality.
For the week of the tournament, Castle Pines Golf Club was turned into a small corporate village. Volunteers, 1,600 of them, were on hand to entertain the close to 20,000 daily spectators, many of them affiliated with large corporations that rented hospitality tents.
And the hospitality was lavish. The course and clubhouse were in immaculate condition. New Precept Tour golf balls (which normally sell for $3 a ball) were available to the players in limitless supply. The fully equipped locker room was crammed with eager attendants waiting to meet any request of the players or officials, no matter how bizarre. No one blinked when Charles Howell III, a young tour pro with a voracious appetite, ordered 10 milkshakes from a locker-room attendant.
For spectators, golf is often more about the spectacle than the tournament. In just about any other sporting event, you are guaranteed the drama of victory and defeat. But for three of the four days of a golf tournament, nothing happens. No one wins. Spectators come for the experience of simply watching top pros. It’s more exhibition than competition.
For those who care about the outcome, Davis Love III was the runaway winner of the International. For the first two days of the tournament, he played near flawless golf, making 10 birdies the first day and three eagles the next. He called his play in his first 36 holes “the best of my career.”
But in the corporate hospitality tents that lined the course, no one seemed to notice. For many, the week was, more than anything else, about the experience.
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