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Corporate sales are down at Augusta

Joe Mullins' house has all the makings of a perfect Masters party pad — five bedrooms, 61-inch television with ceiling-mounted speakers, whirlpool bathtub and deck with attached gazebo.

During the tournament last year, the huge deck groaned under the weight of partying New York executives noshing on prime rib, sushi and drinks served by waiters in black tie.

But Mullins — a former sports agent who now arranges tickets, lodging and catering for VIP sports fans — won't get his $10,000 rental fee this Masters. His Fortune 500 clients canceled plans to rent houses and asked him to book hotel rooms instead.

"Normally, I wouldn't deal with any hotel rooms. And I've got two houses sitting empty," said Mullins, who declined to name his clients. "Instead of using limos, they might rent a van. That's a big change. It's real low-key for them."

Blame Martha Burk's protest against the all-male members of Augusta National Golf Club or the weak wartime economy — as most residents do. But more Masters high rollers are slashing spending on Augusta's Southern hospitality.

One of the hottest ticket in sports, the Masters is always a sold-out event. Augustans who house, feed and chauffeur tournament visitors say it's a different crowd this year, with fewer fat expense accounts and more casual fans paying out-of-pocket.

It's hard to pinpoint which companies aren't coming and which are scaling back. Augusta businesses zealously guard identities of their Masters clients.

But Augusta National dropped its three sponsors — Coca-Cola, Citigroup and IBM — to shield their image. American Express chairman Kenneth Chenault, an Augusta National member, has said the club should admit female members.

American Express spokeswoman Molly Faust said the company hasn't held Masters hospitality functions for several years and won't this year, either. As for whether Chenault will attend, Faust said, "We don't discuss his travel plans."

The Southern Company, the large Atlanta-based electrical utility, has axed the Masters from its sports entertainment budget this year, said company spokesman Todd Terrell. Any employees attending the tournament will do so "on their own ticket and time," he said.

Some caterers insist many corporate clients are returning.

"I suspect a lot of the corporate people will come, but only under their own auspices," said Kevin Goldsmith, owner of Pullman Hall catering services. "They won't come with the big banners, big catering and big houses. They'll just quietly come and get a hotel room and go to dinner."

Other businesses who count on what Goldsmith calls "Christmas in April" are feeling the pinch. Waters Van Rentals normally rents 400 vans during the Masters. This year they're doing half that, said owner Bill Waters.

Caterer Terry Wick relented to giving a discount to a new corporate client after a major telecommunications company backed out over the controversy surrounding Augusta — and soon regretted it.

"He tried to nickel and dime us on everything else," said Wick, who operates The Clubhouse banquet hall across from Augusta National.

Few give Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's' Organizations, any credit for the leaner Masters year.

"She's been given, I think, way too much credit for what's going on," Goldsmith said. "If you've got a major corporation that's lost 60 percent of their (stock) value, I don't know how prudent it is to blow lots of money at golf parties."

Outside the course gates, this year's crowd will include up to 900 protesters, based on permits approved by the Augusta-Richmond County sheriff.

Besides Burk's NWCO and allies from the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, permits have been granted for many Burk opponents, including a Ku Klux Klan splinter group and a group supporting the military.

Sheriff Ronald Strength has ordered protesters to use a 5-acre tract about a half-mile from Augusta National's front gates. Burk has challenged his authority to dictate protest locations in court.

Some ticket holders are asking whether they'll have to wade into the fracas.

"We've had a couple of clients ask, 'Will we be having to walk past protesters?'" said Lewis Blanchard, president of Executive Marketing Services, which arranges hospitality for sports events. "We're telling them right now our sheriff and commission have not allowed that."

 

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