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Golf Follows the Green With the $1,500 Ticket

March 02, 1997|Ron Sirak | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Golf may well be on the verge of a great leap forward. Still, the game could trip over its new-found popularity and fall flat on its face.

Greed and arrogance have turned off the fans of more than one sport.

And those who control golf better not forget that the welcome embrace by more fans could trigger a rush for the buck that makes the game less inclusive and spawns the elitism that soured followers of team sports.

There are no better professional athletes to deal with than golfers. They are accessible, honest, generous with their time and knowledgeable about their game.

It seemed impossible that a golf course--the most democratic of fan venues where everyone mingles equally--could be roped off into areas for the rich and the non-rich. Until this week.

Starting with last Wednesday's practice round for the Nissan Open a new age come to golf. For $1,500 for five days--$300 a day--about 1,000 fans will get to walk in front of the 20,000 regular folk who paid $20 a day.

To thank for this is GolfWatch, the brainchild of Jack Vickers, chairman of Strategic Marketing International LLC and the founder of the Sprint International on the PGA Tour.

GolfWatch, an official licensee of the PGA Tour, provides express walking lanes on the course, preferred viewing areas around the greens and hospitality sites all over the course.

It will be at four events this year--L.A., a the Buick Classic, the Sprint and the Tour Championship. The group hopes to be at a dozen tournaments next year and 20 or more the year after.

Clearly, this is not for Joe or Jane fan, but for corporations who can offer the spots to clients.

The argument for GolfWatch is that it will generate money to increase purses for players and benefit the charities supported by the PGA Tour.

One thousand spectators paying $1,500 would generate $1.5 million. It would take 15,000 "regular" spectators a day paying $20 a day to generate the same income.

"A premium ticket is not for everyone," said James Curtis, Strategic Marketing International's chief marketing officer. "But the tremendous response we've had to this concept by the corporate marketplace has assured us that our instincts were right when we felt there would be a demand for an exclusive, turn-key, hospitality package."

The word "exclusive" is the operative word here.

How is someone going to feel if they've been standing in a spot for an hour waiting for their favorite player to come along only to have several dozen "exclusive" fans stand in front of them?

The folks at GolfWatch say no problem. The "exclusive" fans who walk in front of the regular gallery will be encouraged to sit in folding seats. On some holes, the GolfWatch customers will be on the other side of the fairway from the common folk.

The GolfWatch folks are clearly aware of possible conflicts with the regular-paying folks. Five times in a three-page news release the group made the point that its services would not interfere with the viewing of others.

"This is golf's version of NBA courtside seats," said Vickers, who said he got the idea for GolfWatch while stuck in a traffic jam and watching cars speed by in the carpool lanes.

The difference is that carpool lanes are used by those willing to share while GolfWatch promotes speedier travel for those willing to pay.

How does the PGA Tour feel about all this?

"GolfWatch is a unique concept that will afford golf enthusiasts the opportunity to enhance their spectating enjoyment, while not affecting other members of the gallery," said Ed Moorhouse, executive vice president of the PGA Tour. "We welcome GolfWatch to the PGA Tour family."

All well and good, but don't forget the regular folks.

Last year, the PGA Tour tried to ease the autograph demand on players by instituting autograph areas. Maybe it's a good idea or maybe it will just create more distance between the fans and the players.

Some players who have felt betrayed by reporters writing things said off the cuff in the locker room now want writers barred from the locker room. Maybe writers need to do a better job of policing themselves, but is creating a greater distance between the writers and the players the answer?

And is adding another layer of fans--the "exclusive" fan--to the course the way to broaden the game or will it just create greater distance between the fans and the game?

Only time will tell.

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