Open Championship defies recession

Golf Monthly's Robin Barwick reports on how the Championship appears to be pulling away from the recession in style, with a portfolio of patrons set to reach its blue-chip capacity

Oosthuizen and Dawson

The Open Championship appears to be pulling away from the recession in style, with a portfolio of patrons set to reach its blue-chip capacity.

They must be doing something right at The R&A. They may take the Open Championship to the odd golf club that shuns women members, and the weather at the Open can be pretty unfriendly too, but this most historic of tournaments is motoring towards a boom.

Certain numbers don't lie. Attendance figures are holding their own, as a total of 179,700 spectators flocked to Royal St George's, on the Kent coast, for the 2011 Open in July. Despite some pretty awful weather, this was only 3,300 less people than those who made the trip to Sandwich in much sunnier conditions the last time the Open was there, in 2003. Peter Dawson, chief executive of The R&A, said he was "very pleased with the number indeed".

Perhaps more telling is the statistic that the Open has hosted over 200,000 spectators six times in its 151-year history, and four of those occasions have been within the past six years.

Then there is the prize fund: in 1965 the Open's prize money reached the grand old total of £10,000, which was less than just the winner's cheque at all three of the United States-based Majors that year. In 2011, the Open's total purse reached £5 million for the first time, to keep pace with the most richly rewarded tournaments in world golf.

One of the primary factors fuelling the Open purse is sponsorship, which itself is on the verge of reaching new heights. The Open's top tier of sponsors - its patrons - numbered five this year: Swiss watchmakers Rolex, Japanese photographic specialist Nikon, South Korean construction and engineering giants Doosan, and for the first time in 2011, Mercedes-Benz and HSBC. At this year's Open it was announced that Mastercard will become the sixth patron for 2012, and in a move that will send reverberations around the international golf apparel trade, Ralph Lauren is soon to be unveiled as the Open's seventh and final patron for next year's tournament, which will be held at Royal Lytham.

"The programme is restricted to six or seven patrons - seven maximum," says Dawson. "This year we have five patrons on board, whereas in recent years we have had six, but we know already that we will have seven patrons for next year, which will take sponsorship of the Open Championship to an all-time high."

Like the Open, new patron Mercedes-Benz has been quick to recover from the recession. The German car manufacturer enjoyed its best ever ‘first half of year' in 2011, with a year-on-year sales increase of 9.7%, and Mercedes-Benz has identified the world's finest golf tournaments as ideal sponsorship partnerships. In addition to embarking on a five-year agreement as Open patron this year, Mercedes-Benz is the official car of the US Masters, the PGA Championship and also the 2012 Ryder Cup.

"To be associated with the world's oldest Major golf championship we need our patrons to have international business interests," confirms Dawson. "Mercedes-Benz clearly fits into that category: Mercedes-Benz is a long-established, quality name, and quality is the prime criteria."

The international profile Dawson refers to is a mutual requirement held by the Open and its sponsors for each other. For the Open's part, in 2011 its field featured golfers from a total of 22 countries, spanning six continents, and tournament coverage was delivered to a potential 458 million households around the globe by almost 40 broadcasters.

As for Mercedes-Benz, it sells cars to 43 global markets, with the United States and Germany the leading countries in terms of retail sales. China is third at present, with the UK fourth, although due to the rapid growth of the Chinese market, Mercedes-Benz expects China to be its number one market by 2015.

"Mercedes has experienced tremendous growth in China," explains Lueder Fromm, director of global marketing & communications for Mercedes-Benz, "and we can see that golf as a sport is growing in China in a similar way, so there is a lot in common between Mercedes and golf.

"History is an important part of the Mercedes brand, but we must also look to the future, and that is the same in golf and with the Open. The Open Championship has become the tournament it is today because of its history, but today there is a young generation of golfers growing up, with exciting personalities and great talent. It is impressive to see what is in the past, but it is exciting to think about what is coming in the future - that is the same for the Open and for Mercedes-Benz. We have a five-year contract with the Open and we are interested in supporting golf on a long-term basis."

Freelance Writer

Robin has worked for Golf Monthly for over a decade.