Down to business with golf

Ever since the game was invented half a millennium ago, golf has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with commerce. The structure of the game, designed for between two and four people to play together, and its unhurried pace makes it the perfect environment for a bit of informal “biz dev”.

Over the years, golf’s relationship with business has matured, becoming more entrenched and creative as seasons pass. Along with Formula 1, it is pound-for-pound one of the most monied sports in the world. Tournament winners are instant millionaires and the richest young golfers, like the richest young racing drivers, can reasonably anticipate dollar-billionairedom by the time they retire.

Despite a drop in form, failure to win a major tournament since 2008 and the loss of several valuable endorsements, Tiger Woods is estimated by Forbes to have made $61.2 million last year. He is sixth on its list of top-paid sports people in 2014 and, despite a costly divorce, is said to have retained about $600 million of his estate. Business Insider calculates that he has made $1.3 billion during his career so far.

But golf fans offer riches too; brands targeting ABC1 audiences could scarcely find a better channel to connect with them. According to Chris Burton, vice president of global sponsorships at SAP, the sport has the highest proportion of fans classed as business decision-makers sprinkled among its 80 million disciples.

The most direct way brands connect is to sponsor a big tournament, but this “massive outlay, massive return” model suits only a few advertisers – the sort that can stump up for a two-minute TV infomercial right before the Super Bowl – so clever marketers have devised a spectrum of ways to piggyback golf’s mighty appeal.


Player sponsorships and amateur tournaments are two ways brands have achieved penetration. But they have also concentrated hard on sweating these “assets”. Rather than just pinning a logo on a polo shirt, sponsorships drive morale, connect with partners and chime seamlessly with other, more direct, marketing channels such as social media.

“Our vision for golf is to create a credible and unique story that demonstrates the power of SAP technology and how it can transform the way golf is consumed from player performance, on course analysis and ultimately fan engagement,” says Mr Burton, whose employer sponsors German golf champion Martin Kaymer.

The sport has the highest proportion of fans classed as business decision-makers sprinkled among its 80 million disciples

SAP tracks and manages sponsorship return on investment based on leads, opportunities and deals closed, but it also works with Kaymer on developing its technology to enhance the sport for players and viewers globally.

It’s a similar story for accounting giant EY, which sponsors 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. As part of the sponsorship package, McGinley met with senior executives at EY and client businesses to explore leadership and team-building principles. His journey was captured in six films and posted across social media.

“Sponsorship should never be about tickets and advertising. If it was, we could do that and not worry about being a sponsor,” says Steve Wilkinson, managing partner, markets at EY. “We chose the Ryder Cup to convey our work in building a better working world. Part of that is about delivering exceptional service to our clients and it’s achieved by getting diverse talent to work together.”

Air Energi, a global workforce provider for the oil and gas industry, has sponsored British golfer Jamie Donaldson, also part of the Ryder Cup team, since 2010 to help promote its brand globally. Graeme Lewis, its group commercial director, says sponsorship gives it “a bit of personality that piques the interest of clients and job candidates alike”.


For those looking beyond sponsorship, there is no finer template than the William Hunt Trilby Tour, according to Glen Halsey, general manager of Kings Hill Golf Club in West Malling, Kent. The tournament is for amateur players, but offers high cash stakes under professional conditions.

Adding to the tension (and the money), games are screened on Sky Sports and draw large television audiences, principally due to the dark thrill of seeing mid-handicap golfers sweating under championship pressures.

For the tournament’s inventor, William Hunt, the benefits are just about endless. The golf clothing and equipment company retains control of the tournament and charges 1,000 players entrance fees of £265 each. Simple maths there. Sponsorships add to the value of the event and venues pay for essential costs, such as staffing and hosting.

A professional tailor by trade, Mr Hunt provides apparel for the golfers, including the trilby hats they all wear to play, as part of the fee and mines valuable data from the 10,000 applicants the competition receives each year. This makes it very profitable indeed.

Kings Hill Golf Club itself has a corporate partnership with Jaguar Land Rover. As part of the deal, display cars are parked at the club and the site is used as a showroom for new models, directly marketing the vehicles to their ideal customers.

“It is a good brand for us and we are a good brand for them. The partnership has been fruitful for JLR and we are making good use of the brand association,” says Mr Halsey.

But what of the classic corporate golf event? Four hours of hooking and slicing with business partners followed by networking, partying and, occasionally, the same thing again the next day? Will Hewitt, director of golf, spa and leisure at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, says the appeal remains strong, although the recession has changed its format in some cases.

“People place a premium on their time out of the office and focus a little more on return for their time invested. Many days have reduced in size to ensure a better ratio and more attention lavished on those who attend,” he says.

“We have experienced great success with shorter fun experiences, such as adventure mini golf, group tuition at our golf academy, snag golf and our golf simulator, which can make a great bolt-on to meetings and events, and appeal to beginners.”