COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The PGA Tour thinks the time is right for corporations to get back to business -- and it sees the Tour Club as a new way for CEOs to partner with professional golf.
The Tour Club, licensed by the PGA Tour, offers corporate members the chance to send clients, employees and guests to PGA Tour events, stay in luxury accommodations and even set pins with tour officials or watch TV broadcasts from the control truck.
The initial fee ranges from $200,000 to $690,000, then a yearly membership fee of up to $123,000 -- which Tour Club executive Ben Addoms says can be less expensive than a luxury box at a baseball or football stadium.
"We are extremely excited about the potential the Tour Club creates on a number of levels," said Tim Hawes, the PGA Tour's senior vice president for retail licensing.
Business has long been part of pro sports, from naming rights deals for stadiums to title sponsorships and luxury tents and skyboxes underwritten by corporations. But with a struggling economy, government bailouts and high unemployment, it hasn't been the best time for companies to plunk their money down on high-dollar sports entertainment.
Northern Trust bank was criticized last February for hosting lavish parties at the PGA Tour event in Los Angeles that bears its name while receiving federal bailout money. Wells Fargo, which purchased troubled Wachovia bank, chose to keep its name and that of its acquisition off the Quail Hollow Championships outside of Charlotte, N.C., despite inheriting a sponsorship deal through 2014.
"It's a little bit contrarian to start a club like this in the middle of what may be the worst recession that we've had in our lifetime," Addoms said.
But "if money being spent on sports entertainment is tightening, how are you going to grow your share of it over the long term?" he asked. "So it's a growth initiative."
The Tour Club's key selling point is its ability to offer greater access. Large corporate clients receive 100 full tournament passes, good for most all events on the PGA Tour, Champions Tour and Nationwide Tour. Tour Club passes get guests "inside the ropes" during tournament play, as well as into clubhouse areas previously off limits.
In today's bailout-fatigued climate, the Tour Club also lets members entertain customers without splashing their corporate logos all over a tournament venue.
"If I'm John Q. Public or a stockholder and you've got TARP money, I'm probably real curious why you need to send 24 people to the Masters," said Bill Sutton, a professor in the University of Central Florida's DeVos Sport Business Management Program.
Corporations have "never had to explain themselves and it might not be fair to make them explain themselves, but it's kind of the way of the world right now," Sutton said.
On Thursday, the Tour Club kicked off its first official event at the Northern Trust Open with eight members, whom Addoms declined to identify, setting pins in the morning at Riviera Country Club.
At breakfast, they met Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Jerry West. Afterward, the group toured the media center and visited the Commissioner's Hospitality tent.
After lunch, some watched golf while others played a round at a private course.
"We believe this is going to open up the tour to a large array of companies," said the PGA Tour's Hawes.
And it may give businesses a reason to again buy into a sport missing its biggest attraction. The sordid reports of extramarital affairs that forced Tiger Woods to take an indefinite break from the game has the tour deflecting talk of how appealing a Tiger-less tour will be for golf fans and corporate execs accustomed to seeing his amazing performances.
"This could be something to make up for the no Tiger thing," said Sutton. "I give the PGA Tour credit."
The Tour Club can also arrange passes for golf's four majors: The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA, all of which are run independently from the PGA Tour.
Addoms says the tournament experience will vary from week to week. It may include setting the pin placements before the final round of an event, spending an hour watching a broadcast from the TV truck, or flying on the team plane to an international tournament. There'll be a special golf outing during the week of the NCAA Final Four in April, and a poker-golf outing connected to the Las Vegas tournament.
At Augusta National, guests will have dinner with a "Masters' legend." Those attending The Players Championship will tour Golf Channel's broadcast location.
Membership also includes rounds and corporate outings at the tour's network of TPC courses, including Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship, and TPC Deere Run, which hosts the John Deere.
Corporate members can send guests to a Tour Academy for lessons, practice and club fitting.
There is also luxury lodging connected to tournament visits or playing at TPC courses.
The most inexpensive level available requires an initial fee of $200,000 and yearly dues of $39,000. Addoms says attending a PGA event holds its value through the year, unlike in baseball, where if the team is out of the pennant chase, "your box is going to be empty the second half of the year."
In April, the Tour Club will begin offering individual and family memberships, starting at about $125,000 for an initial fee.
Addoms and Tour Club president John Fechter had hoped to launch their venture in September. However, with job loss numbers continuing to rise and CEOs taking heat for unnecessary spending, they held back until now.
Slowly, the PGA Tour has seen signs of a recovery. The tour has renewed a half-dozen title sponsor contracts. Seoul Broadcasting System was new to the Kapalua event and Farmers Insurance Group took over last week's Torrey Pines tournament. Waste Management (Phoenix) and The Greenbrier (West Virginia) also are new sponsors.
Hawes thinks companies that have a good experience with the Tour Club might one day develop a bigger financial relationship with pro golf.
"We don't see this as competition at all," Hawes said.
For Michael Lewis, assistant professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, the venture is about building ground-floor relations that can blossom.
"The key thing is to build them now," he said, "and you'll have solid, loyal relationships" when better times arrive.