Buick to scale back on courtesy cars at tourneys

Buick to scale back on courtesy cars at tourneys

(AP) — In another sign of fragile financial conditions, some PGA Tour events are trying to figure out transportation for players after learning over the weekend that Buick will not be providing courtesy cars to most tournaments next year.

“We’ve already started scrambling to try to approach local dealers or national suppliers to see if they’re interested,” said Clair Peterson, tournament director of the John Deere Classic. “The car industry as a whole is in a tough spot. We’ve already had one company tell us everything has been frozen in ’09.”

Other tournaments that Buick will no longer supply include the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, the AT&T National in Washington and the Transitions Championship outside Tampa, Fla. The Shell Houston Open remains hopeful of keeping its Buick courtesy car deal.

The Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles had a deal with Nissan, its previous title sponsor, that expired last year. Tournament director Tom Pulchinski said he tried to arrange a deal with Buick and was turned down.

“The business model has changed,” Pulchinski said. “It’s definitely going to be an expense. We probably would provide cars, even if it’s a rental deal where we pick up the cars and foot the bill. We talked to Buick, but they could not swing it.”

Buick is the official car of the PGA Tour and for years has provided courtesy cars to a majority of tour events. But General Motors posted a $2.5 billion quarterly loss earlier this month and has said its cash burn has reached the point where it could have the minimum amount required to operate by early next year.

“We’re taking a hard look at everything right now,” said Larry Peck, golf marketing manager for Buick.

He declined to discuss which tournaments have lost courtesy car arrangements because nothing has been finalized or announced.

“Most of those deals are regional offices, which are in a similar position with everyone else,” Peck said. “There are budget cuts. Every line item where a dollar is spent is getting a lot of scrutiny. I can tell you it has not all been finalized. But some will be cut back. We have to look at things differently.”

One tournament official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Buick has not made an announcement, said four tournaments will continue its deal with the company, including the two Buick-sponsored events.

PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw said that number was not consistent with the tour’s conversations with Buick.

Other tournaments have their own deals, such as the Memorial (Lexus), the Wachovia Championship (Mercedes-Benz) and Colonial (Cadillac), along with those tournaments that have automakers for a title sponsor (Mercedes, Honda, BMW, Chrysler).

That leaves other tournaments in a precarious spot. They compete with each other for the best field, but having to provide courtesy cars is another expense in their shrinking budgets, which likely means less money for their local charities.

“We’re looking at alternatives,” said Dan Croak at the U.S. Bank Championship. “It’s certainly great if tournaments that don’t have them come up with a suitable solution. But it becomes someone’s expense.”

Twenty years ago, it was not unusual for most players to arrive in town and rent their own cars. Joey Sindelar, who now plays on the 50-and-older Champions Tour, recalls dragging his golf gear through the airport to get a rental car, paying for practice balls on the range and getting concession coupons for meals.

Players now have a car waiting at the airport, and a tournament volunteer drops them off at the airport at the end of the week.

“We’ve been so lucky out there,” Sindelar said. “I hope this is an attention-grabber.”

Kym Hougham at the Wachovia Championship, which has some of the biggest perks of any event, has had a deal with Mercedes-Benz since its inception in 2003, first through a local dealership which has become a regional contract.

Even so, he can see other tournaments having to tighten their finances.

“We all had it good for awhile and it was on cruise control,” Hougham said. “Now we’ve got to get creative. We all try to do as much as we can for the players, and they’ve come to expect it. Like anything in life, it’s hard to take something back.”

The deals with Buick varied with tournaments.

In some cases, the company provided 180 courtesy cars and a cash donation, receiving spots in the pro-am for Buick clients, car displays throughout the golf course and hospitality tents on the 18th green. At the John Deere Classic, Peterson said Buick donated a car for auction in its “Birdies of Charity” program.

Gerald Goodman, tournament director at the Transitions Championship, said Tampa Bay is the 10th-largest market for Pontiac-GM-Buick dealers and he usually had more than 200 cars. Now he is working with 14 local dealers, hopeful that GM might still offer incentives for the dealers to provide them to the tournament, then advertise them at reduced prices with minimal mileage.

Otherwise, he might try to strike a deal with a rental company, especially with the tournament coming less than two months after the Super Bowl in Tampa.

“We’re searching,” Goodman said. “I’m completely positive I can get us a car deal. I haven’t thrown in the towel.”

How the players respond to the changing economic climate is what concerns these tournaments. All the younger players know is being catered to from when they get off the plane to when they return to the airport.

“The pendulum is swinging in the other direction,” Peterson said. “How far it goes is the unknown.”

Kevin Sutherland finished a career-high 18th on the PGA Tour money list this year with just over $2.5 million. He has been on tour a dozen years and can remember times when he rented his own car at an airport.

“I expected some of the perks we’ve gotten in the past are going to be cut back, and it only makes sense,” Sutherland said. “It’s easy to take this for granted. You show up, you get your car. You bring in your dry cleaning, they do it for you. Some of this stuff is over the top, and you get spoiled over time. But so many companies are struggling.”

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