Amid Ohio's economic woes, golf fans seek savings

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — There may be no better place to witness two different worlds in the same economy than a professional golf tournament in Ohio.

The pros drive up in luxury cars, wearing high-end ensembles that include a pair of shoes and a belt buckle worth several hundred dollars apiece. In the trunk they have oversized golf bags festooned with corporate logos, carrying cutting-edge drivers with a retail price higher than an average middle-class worker's pay for a week.

The fans standing behind gallery ropes have shelled out money for tickets to see the world's best players, even as the state unemployment rate nears double digits and their paychecks are stretched tighter and tighter.

Those scenes will be played out over the next three weeks in golf-crazy Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the recession. This week the top professionals over the age of 50 are in suburban Cleveland for the Senior PGA Championship at Canterbury Golf Club, the year's first major championship for the game's elders. Two weeks later, Woods and the rest of the PGA Tour are expected at Muirfield Village Golf Club in suburban Columbus for the annual stop at the Memorial Tournament.

Times have changed for those who put on golf tournaments, however, just as they have for those who belong to country clubs or clip coupons to play municipal courses.

"We're no different than anyone else. We're seeing the effects of (the downturn)," said Dan Sullivan, executive director of the Memorial Tournament.

For years, the Memorial - founded by Ohio's own Jack Nicklaus - appeared to be untouched by the rise and fall of the stock market and housing prices. Tickets were hard to come by. The purse climbed every year, up to $6 million last year when Kenny Perry walked off with the first-place check of just over $1 million.

Now weeklong tournament badges are not only available, they're being hawked in countless TV spots. The tournament also is trying to entice buyers by throwing in free admission for a friend to the practice rounds with each badge sold. For the first time in 14 years, the total purse is unchanged from the previous year and the winner will collect the same amount for the second year in a row - that hasn't happened since 1989.

None of this is surprising.

Ohio's unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent in the latest statistics - the highest rate since April 1984. Almost 600,000 Ohioans are without jobs and the numbers are expected to get worse.

In that financial climate, golf is an expensive form of entertainment. At the Memorial, a weekly patron badge costs between $155 and $235. At the Senior PGA, a similar multiday pass goes for $100 to $210.

For those who like to play the game, a membership at a private club such as Muirfield Village or Canterbury may have an initiation fee of up to $50,000 plus monthly fees of several hundred dollars more. A set of clubs for an average golfer can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. And greens fees at public courses - most of which are begging for players - are dropping in the face of a glut of choices and golfers looking for deals.

Officials at both of the Ohio tournaments declined to discuss ticket sales, but it's clear that fans no longer are rushing to hand over so much cash to watch their golfing heroes.

"Everybody's feeling it," said Jay Haas, the defending champion of the Senior PGA Championship. "The Champions Tour has lost three events from last year. There's obviously been cutbacks in a lot of different areas."

Even tournaments lucky enough to have the wildly popular Woods on hand are feeling the pinch.

For years, Morgan Stanley has been the presenting sponsor of the Memorial. But now that the global financial institution has received a federal bailout of almost $2 billion, it has cut back on its presence at the Memorial. Its contract with the tournament ends in 2010, leading to some anxiety for tournament officials.

The Memorial is hardly alone. Troubled automaker Chrysler removed its name from the Bob Hope Classic, as did Wells Fargo Bank from the Quail Hollow Championship.

In terms of participation, it's a buyers' market. Weekend hackers and dew-sweepers aren't necessarily putting their clubs away, but they are definitely looking for bargains.

"Through the first quarter of the year, we've seen that rounds played are up about .7 percent and revenue was flat with last year," said Joe Steranka, CEO of the PGA of America. "The numbers inside the numbers are that people are trading down like they are with a lot of their retail purchases. Municipal golf participation is having its highest growth in a decade whereas resort golf is down as much as 20 to 25 percent, depending on the price point."

Jim Remy, president of the PGA of America, said his organization is trying hard to spread the word that golf is not a sport only for the wealthy - whether you play it or pay to watch it.

"It's affordable. Regular people, everyday people, play golf," he said. "You tend to hear about the elite golf courses and the exclusive golf courses and the big sponsorships and all that when in reality 70 percent of the rounds of golf in America are played at public golf courses."

One thing is for certain: Golf courses or tournaments can no longer expect people hooked on the sport to readily open up their wallets. Money is too tight.

"The fans are still coming out," Haas said. "But maybe it's a tougher sell for the tour administration and tournament itself trying to sell sponsorships and stuff like that."

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