It used to be a rite of spring: corporate jets full of golf-loving, expense-account-toting executives would wing down to Georgia to take in the Masters.
But the economic downturn, along with new scrutiny of corporate entertainment, put a damper on the annual junket to venerable Augusta National golf course. Travel agents cut the price of Masters packages in half last year as they scrambled to sell tickets to the event.
And it appears that not even the return of Tiger Woods can boost the value of the Masters to its prerecession heights.
It remains a relatively cheap ticket, despite Mr. Woods return to tournament golf since humiliating tabloid revelations about his sex life. A day on the course watching Tiger, Phil, Sergio and Ernie navigate Amen Corner costs about $600 (U.S.), down from $1,200 to $1,500 as recently as 2008.
Sports travel executives say there is a core golf audience that will travel to the Masters no matter who is playing, but that crowd shrank last year, due to the recession and heightened sensitivity to entertainment spending by business.
Masters packages typically sell out months in advance of the event, but according to Jeff Wills, vice-president of Roadtrips Inc., a Winnipeg company that arranges high-end sports travel packages, 15 to 20 per cent of this year's sales came after mid-March, when Mr. Woods confirmed he will vie for his fifth green jacket, awarded each year to the winner. "Tiger's little meltdown killed interest in the Masters. His return to the tournament instantly boosted our sales," Mr. Wills said.
Even casual golf fans are showing renewed interest in the Masters due to the return of Mr. Woods. Revelations of infidelity may have trashed his reputation, but they have heightened interest in the golfer's game.
"Our phones blew up for the first two days after Tiger's announcement, but demand has settled down since," said Alfred Monsalvatge, who runs TravelMasters in Augusta, a company that puts together golf packages. He added: "Without Tiger, this event was flat-line, it was dead in the water."
The initial spike in sales quickly ebbed as the event drew near; golfers tee off on Thursday. Roadtrips still has packages available, with tickets, hotel and meals in Augusta fetching anywhere from $1,100 to $10,000.
The Augusta National Golf Club sells a limited number of what it calls badges - and the rest of us call tickets - that get select patrons into the four-day tournament for just $200 (U.S.) each.
A small number of these badges are resold to scalpers and tour operators, and Mr. Monsalvatge said a four-day badge was fetching $1,800 prior to Mr. Wood's return. The price spiked to $2,400 in the days that followed.
"Now, there's a lot of supply on the secondary market, due to the soft economy," said Mr. Monsalvatge, and he predicted patrons will once again be paying $1,800, or less, for four-day badges by Thursday.
Single-day badges are fetching $500 to $650, tour operators report, after commanding up to $1,500 prior to the recession. Some travel agents offered a "Tiger clause," U.S. sports media reported last week. Before Mr. Woods' announcement, corporate buyers agreed on a base price for a Masters package. If Mr. Woods confirmed he would tee up, promoters promised additional perks.
While Mr. Woods' presence is expected to translate into sky-high TV ratings for the Masters - odds makers have him as the favourite to win, ahead of archrival Phil Mickelson - ticket brokers say there was a strongly held view that the scandal-plagued golfer would play, and that was always reflected in the price of badges.
In the wide world of the sports travel business, the Masters is a relatively cheap and accessible event.
"The Masters is a crown jewel of an event for a select audience, but it doesn't have the global appeal of the World Cup," Mr. Wills said. He ranks the once-every-four-years soccer championship as the biggest ticket in sports, with the NFL's Super Bowl one level down. The Masters is on the next tier of events, alongside the NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four and the Kentucky Derby.