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Car industry backbone of golf sponsorship

Honda, Ford, Chrysler, Buick, Mercedes. Is this an auto show or the PGA Tour?

Both, actually. As last week's Ford Championship at Doral and this week's Honda Classic at Mirasol demonstrate, cars and professional golf go together like cheese and burger.

Of the 34 PGA Tour events with either a title sponsor or a presenting sponsor, almost one-third -- 11 -- are sponsored by automakers.

It's only appropriate that cars are the Tour's largest single brand category, because the original corporate sponsor of the PGA Tour was a car manufacturer.

General Motors' Buick Division created the Buick Open in 1958 at Warwick Hills Country Club near Buick's hometown of Flint, Mich., to help celebrate GM's "Golden Milestone" 50th anniversary.

Scheduled for the week after the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, the first Buick Open was the brainchild of Waldo McNaught, who was president of Warwick Hills and director of public relations for Buick.

The tournament had a $52,000 purse, the year's biggest. Trying to entice spectators, organizers priced tickets at $1 for each of four days and provided free parking.

"We want what is referred to in advertising as 'visibility,'" tournament director Ed Titus told the Flint Journal. "We want as many people out as we can get, and we're making it as easy for them to watch a major golf event as possible."

In a message to spectators in the tournament program, Buick General Manager E.T. Ragsdale explained the connection between golf and cars:

"Golfers need transportation; automobiles provide it. It's as simple as that."

Billy Casper shot 285 for a one-shot victory over Ted Kroll and Arnold Palmer. Casper won $9,000, but that was all. The practice of presenting the winner with a car was decades in the future.

Three-round attendance (rain forced the tournament to end on Monday) was announced at 39,800, including 17,300 on Sunday, figures that some modern tournaments would be delighted with.

The relationship between cars and golf was off to an auspicious start, but it would be years before other automakers joined in.

The next coupling of a carmaker and a PGA Tour event was the ancestor of the Honda Classic. In 1981, the Broward County tournament founded by Jackie Gleason at Inverrary in Lauderhill was in search of a title sponsor.

American Motors wanted in. Gleason balked, reportedly complaining about playing second banana to a Jeep. (AMC had taken over the Jeep franchise.) So AMC was in and Gleason was out.

Honda stepped in the next year and has been the title sponsor since, the second-longest relationship between an automaker and the PGA Tour.

"I think you get a lot of things" out of sponsoring a PGA Tour event, said Dick Colliver, American Honda's executive vice president in charge of sales and marketing for the Honda and Acura brands.

"The demographics of the viewing audience are exactly what we are looking at to build awareness for the Honda Classic. You get golfers around the world who are watching the tournament and talking about it, and at the same time you're reaching them with messages about your product."

The tournament also serves as an entertainment vehicle for Honda's best corporate clients. Part of the reason Honda was in favor of the tournament's move from Heron Bay in Coral Springs to Mirasol was the presence of PGA National -- and its five golf courses that can be used for client golf -- right across the street.

"We bring 120 of our customers in to PGA National -- that's our headquarters hotel," Colliver said. "In total, we'll have about 240 people there for the better part of a week.

"They love to come down there and be part of the festivities."

In addition to the many Honda vehicles on display around the course and the Mirasol property, Honda has supplied 150 courtesy cars for pros. Also, any pro making a hole-in-one on the 14th hole will win an Acura NSX.

After Honda's entry into the PGA Tour, other manufacturers slowly began to follow suit. A year after the first Honda Inverrary Classic, Isuzu began a three-year run as title sponsor of the Andy Williams San Diego Open. Chrysler affixed its name to the Bob Hope Classic in 1986. Nissan became presenting sponsor of the Los Angeles Open in 1987 and upgraded to title sponsor in 1989.

Buick began expanding its PGA Tour involvement in the early 1990s. In 1990, it took over sponsorship of the Westchester Classic in Harrison, N.Y., and the Southern Open in Pine Mountain, Ga. (Renamed the Buick Challenge, the Georgia tournament was dropped from the Tour schedule this year.) In 1992, it turned the former San Diego Open into the Buick Invitational of California, then simply the Buick Invitational.

But Buick's biggest splash -- the biggest splash of any automaker -- came in 1999 when Buick signed the biggest name in golf: Tiger Woods.

For an estimated $20 million to $25 million for five years, Buick got its name on Woods' golf bag, replacing Titleist, and his presence guaranteed for print and TV ads and for some (but not all) of its tournaments.

The marriage of a young, hip, ethnic golfer and a carmaker associated with a much older customer base seemed strange to some, but not to Buick.

"Tiger broadens our audience appeal and we expect to attract new customers to Buick as a result," said Anthony Derhake, Buick's golf brand manager. "This also reinforces Buick's strong connection with golf."

Woods obviously has access to more Buicks than one superstar can drive. Some are auctioned for charity through the Tiger Woods Foundation. In July 2001, two teenage sports memorabilia collectors, with the support of their parents, successfully bid $60,100 on eBay for the Buick Regal Woods drove while winning the 2001 Masters.

Proceeds from the sale went to charities supported by the Tiger Woods Foundation.

This week's winner will receive the Honda of his choice. In 2001, Dudley Hart took an S2000. Last year, Matt Kuchar went for a Pilot. Last week at Doral, winner Scott Hoch took home a Ford Expedition, "wrapped in a $900,000 check," as Ford Championship tournament director Tom Neville put it.

That's just the way it is with the cars that come with pro golf -- they come fully loaded.

Driving for dough

Automakers have considered sponsorship of PGA Tour events a good bargain since Buick inaugurated the Buick Open in 1958. On this year's tour, 11 events are sponsored by car companies, including last week's Ford Championship and this week's Honda Classic.

Tournament, Site, First year*

Mercedes Championships, Hawaii, 1994-a

Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, La Quinta, Calif., 1986

Buick Invitational, La Jolla, Calif., 1992-b

Nissan Open, Los Angeles, 1987

Chrysler Classic of Tucson, Tucson, 2003-c

Ford Championship, Miami, 2003

Honda Classic, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., 1982-d

Buick Classic, Harrison, N.Y., 1990

Buick Open, Grand Blanc, Mich., 1958-e

Chrysler Classic of Greensboro, Greensboro, N.C., 1996

Chrysler Championship, Palm Harbor, Fla., 2003

 

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