Rarely is the build-up to a golf tournament comparable to that one normally associates with a Las Vegas-based heavyweight title fight.
Yet whatever the sporting setting, whenever a young pretender appears poised to muscle in on an established champion’s turf, the boxing analogies become even flowerier than usual.
Both players embark upon their respective first rounds at Augusta today (Thursday), but all week, the talk has been of an ultimate showdown between four-times Masters champion Tiger Woods versus new-kid-on-the-block Rory McIlroy.
There’s no need to repeat what Woods has been through over the past couple of years, though it’s worth recalling that 12 months ago, McIlroy was set to win the US Masters.
That was before he unexpectedly imploded with a hook into the trees on the 10th, a three-putt on the 11th, a four-putt on the 12th and another hook into the trees on the 13th, a succession of shots with which most amateurs can associate, though in McIlroy’s case, they effectively eliminated him from the running. It was sporting drama at its most compelling, heart-rending best.
McIlroy bounced back in spectacular fashion, showing considerable mental fortitude to take the US Open, while Tiger’s win at Bay Hill a fortnight ago convinced bookies that he would be the man to beat this week. It couldn’t be anything other than a head-to-head battle come Sunday afternoon as both men stride down the 18th fairway against a background of azaleas and dogwoods, each with a chance of winning that coveted green jacket, could it?
It’s not difficult to imagine such a scenario, which partly explains why this year’s US Masters has been so eagerly anticipated. Like every one of the world’s most atmospheric sporting venues, Augusta has a unique ability to create a special aura within which great stories gradually evolve before they explode on to our collective sporting consciousness. It is for this reason that sponsors and broadcasters are so keen to associate themselves with what has become world golf’s greatest tournament whenever the opportunity arises.
For example, when General Motors (GM) was forced into bankruptcy in 2007, Cadillac, a GM subsidiary, which had sponsored the Masters for 40 years, had to relinquish its role as Augusta’s official automotive sponsor. Mercedes was quick to fill the breach.
“Our tagline is ‘the best or nothing’,” says Stephen Cannon, vice-president of marketing at Mercedes. “The Masters is meticulous about how they manage every blade of grass, about their history. And they’ve built a worldwide focus; (the tournament) is now broadcast in 185 countries.”
Apart from the guaranteed sporting drama, however, Mercedes’ substantial marketing expenditure will have also been influenced by PGA statistics which show that, on average, viewers of its sanctioned golf tournaments are 76 per cent more likely to have a household income in excess of $250,000. They’re also 50 per cent more likely to have bought a luxury car.
Before becoming an official Masters sponsor, Mercedes’ highest profile golf sponsorship was held in Hawaii. It was an event designed to capitalise upon the star rating of the competitors, each of whom had to have won at least one professional tournament in the preceding 12 months.
Yet the world’s very best golfers usually chose to skip it and TV audiences were tiny. Not so with the Masters, where despite a relatively small field, players rarely turn down an invitation to compete.
Cadillac may have to wait a while before Mercedes decides it’s had enough of being associated with springtime in Augusta.
Indeed, there are only four other corporate sponsors (Rolex, ExxonMobil, AT&T and IBM), proof that the US Masters has maintained its original intention not to be dependent upon corporate sponsorship.
The benefits to paying customers is immediately apparent: the most expensive ticket for any day’s play is $60.00 (£37.50).
Nor do broadcasters call the shots.