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What explains the timeless allure of golf?

The Masters Tournament, golf's most prestigious event, just showed why tradition, exclusivity and a sense of affluence sets golf apart from any other sport

To witness The Masters Tournament, you will need to be invited as a 'patron'.
To witness The Masters Tournament, you will need to be invited as a 'patron'. (AP)

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'Masters Week’ just got over and the excitement is yet to die down. Online golf forums are abuzz with fans’ analyses, while experts on sports broadcasting networks continue to debate over key takeaways from golf’s most storied event—The 2023 Masters Tournament. 

Even those who don’t play the game couldn’t have missed the expansive coverage of the tournament that dominated sports media last week. Just the fact that the phrase (Masters Week) is used pervasively without explanation or context underlines the brand awareness (not hype) that the event has created in popular imagination. The Masters Tournament is arguably the most coveted ‘Major’ tournament in professional golf—one of four marque events—that include the Open Championship (British Open), the US Open, and the PGA Championship. 

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For a marketer following the media coverage, The Masters presents a fascinating case study into what differentiates golf from other sports when it comes to the attributes it can imbue a brand merely by association. With traits like honour, integrity, honesty, etiquette, respect and sportsmanship inextricably intertwined with its character, golf is somewhat peerless in the legion of sport. 

When it comes to The Masters Tournament, exclusivity, scarcity and heritage, are key elements of the event’s identity that have been assiduously emphasised and preserved over the 89-year history of the event. The club’s focus has been on maintaining its reputation as one of the world's most exclusive and prestigious golf clubs, rather than maximising revenue. As a result, many of its practices, such as limiting sponsorships and commercialisation, are geared towards preserving the club's image and the Masters Tournament's unique character. And that permeates into every aspect of the event—whether it’s the elite tier of pros who make it to the field, or the golf fans who are lucky enough to attend the event. 

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Those in attendance are not referred to as the ‘gallery’, or ‘spectators’, but as ‘patrons’. To attend, the ‘patrons’ pay big premiums to acquire the limited number of daily tournament tickets, practice round tickets, and series badges. The messaging, which is now deeply imprinted in popular imagination, is that the Masters Tournament is special, and to witness it in any form is a privilege. That brand positioning is key for all the sponsors associated with the event. The major global sponsors—IBM and AT&T—pay unspecified yet clearly substantial amounts to be associated with the Masters Tournament. 

Given the unparalleled popularity of the Masters Tournament, the club could potentially make a substantial amount of money through sales of merchandise.  But here’s where the rub lies: Augusta National steadfastly chooses to preserve its exclusivity over bottom line figures. Sure, there’s a vast merchandising operation but it’s only active during Masters Week. So, while everything from apparel to home goods featuring the tournament's logo can be purchased, they are only available for purchase on-site, which further increases their appeal. 

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The single biggest revenue generator for Augusta National are the broadcasting rights for the Masters Tournament that the club negotiates with television networks, such as CBS (in the United States) and ESPN. These agreements are worth millions of dollars.

Augusta National is somewhat opaque when it comes to figures regarding traditional sources of revenue for a golf club—member’s fee and hospitality. The club has a small and exclusive membership, with an estimated 300 members. While the exact cost of membership is unknown, it's speculated that the initial fee ranges from $40,000 to $100,000, with annual dues of several thousand dollars. Again, that’s not really the point. To be invited to be a member here is something that people would pay any amount of money for. But you’d still need to be invited. 

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In the US, and most of Europe, this ‘exclusivity’ angle is one that’s complemented by the game’s accessibility and popularity. The game is played by millions of people and enjoys significant international coverage. Brands leverage this to promote their products and services to a wide audience, often through advertising or sponsorship deals with tournaments or individual players. In India however—as with other countries in Asia—golf isn’t accessible enough to have mass popularity. The game is associated with an affluent demographic, which is an attractive target market for luxury brands and high-end products. 

While specific sponsorships and partnerships may change over time, several brands have maintained long-lasting associations with professional golf. Some of the most prominent brands include golf equipment manufacturers, luxury brands like Rolex, sports brands like Nike, financial services companies like Mastercard and automakers including BMW. 

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Mastercard was in the news in India in March this year when it sponsored the Asian Tour’s DGC Open. The association with the event, and the prestigious Delhi Golf Club dovetails into the brand’s ‘priceless experiences’ campaign. “With sports being a key passion point for people cutting across geographies, Mastercard sponsors a variety of sports, such as soccer, tennis, rugby, and golf,” says Mukul Sukhani, Senior VP, Business Development, Mastercard.  “Through its partnership with the prestigious Delhi Golf Club (DGC), Mastercard aims to target affluent customers and HNIs, who are willing to pay for the exclusive experiences they can access by being a Mastercard cardholder,” he adds.

Rolex has probably had the most enduring and successful association with the game. Today, with tennis and golf, the luxury watchmaker has used sport to promote its brand image as an embodiment of success, precision, and elegance. Nike’s long association with Tiger Woods famously elevated the brand’s presence in the golf industry while BMW has successfully aligned itself with golf to strengthen its position as a luxury car manufacturer.

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There’s one last piece of the puzzle that helps golf score over other sports: Golfers often have long careers and can maintain a competitive level into their 40s and 50s. This longevity, combined with the loyalty of golf fans, means that brands can develop long-term relationships with players and their fan bases. Golf is rarely about instant gratification, and that needs to be factored into any brand strategy. It works, but you’ve got to play the long game. 

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.

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