The cost of attending the Masters falls as companies lay low

The anemic economy and companies' concerns about the public appearance of the gentleman's game have driven down demand this year for one of the most cherished corporate perks: a trip to the Masters.

For the millions of viewers in more than 180 countries who tune in to watch a resurgent Tiger Woods and the rest of the field tee off next Thursday in the tournament's opening round, nothing will seem amiss. The impossibly verdant grounds of Augusta National Golf Club are sure to be as lined by spectators as ever. "A tradition unlike any other," the CBS announcers will intone. But behind the scenes of golf's first major championship of the year -- and the only one of the four to be held at the same venue every year -- what is traditionally a week-long party in Augusta, Ga., is expected to be noticeably more subdued.

Local companies that rent private homes, and arrange dinner parties and transportation for corporate and other groups during tournament week, report business is off considerably. Chris Cheek, vice president of Augusta-based Executive Marketing Services, said his company had to drop its catering prices 30 percent. Housing prices, he said, are down by half, with a four-bedroom home in a gated community within a few miles of the club going for $4,000 to $5,000 for the week and a "host" house of five or more bedrooms fetching between $7,000 and $15,000, depending on size.

Why the skittishness? Part of the answer is pure economics: if a company has to cut costs, hosting clients at the Masters is a nonessential one. But another factor is a desire to avoid the kind of intense criticism heaped on corporations such as Northern Trust, which sponsored a PGA Tour event in February after receiving federal bailout funds, and AIG by government officials and the media.

"They're coming in smaller groups, they're coming a little more quietly," says Diane Starr, president of Corporate Quarters Inc., which brokers accommodations during Masters week. "Certainly, if you just laid off a good many people, you're not going to make a big deal about bringing people down to the Masters."

The current market for Masters tickets is also quite different from years past. Although the event is sold out as always (a waiting list, begun in 1972, has been closed for years), far more tickets than usual have been available from online brokers. StubHub, owned by eBay, has sold 35 percent more Masters badges this year than last -- and at prices far lower. As of April 1, the average selling price of a ticket to all four days of competition was less than half what it was in 2008: $1,918 compared with $3,930.

But even those in Augusta who stand to make less money from the tournament this year than in the past are quick to assert that the Masters retains its cachet. "The Augusta National is not going to lose one ticket holder," said Tom Webb, who is renting his house three miles from the club -- on Rae's Creek, the tributary that snakes through the course's famed Amen Corner -- for $2,000 less than he got last year. "Everyone is going to be there. If they can't come themselves, they'll sell their ticket to someone."

Starr, who's been finding Masters week renters for houses in the Augusta area for more than 30 years, including 15 with the city's chamber of commerce, heartily agreed. Despite companies' belt-tightening and heightened discretion, the Masters, she's been told over and over again in so many words, remains "the feather in the cap of corporate entertaining."

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