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Hospitality tents a bonanza for U.S. Open

The real winner of this week's U.S. Open might be the United States Golf Association. The non-profit organization will bring in more than $20 million in hospitality tents alone.

At quick glance, corporate hospitality tents are bland. There’s a sluggish buffet, a handful of circular tables, non-descript carpet. They’re as exciting as a driving range.

But during the U.S. Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course, these tents will be buzzing – and costly.

All corporate tents – about five dozen – are sold out, from the Torrey Pines Village 30-by-30 foot Condo Tents ($110,000 apiece; includes 175 U.S. Open programs) to the 40-by-40 foot Ocean Village structure ($210,000; food and beverages not included). A little less expensive and no less popular are the corporate tables. The Fairway Pavilion I package was purchased for $35,000.

All in all, the United States Golf Association will bring in more than $20 million from its cornucopia of hospitality choices from the 2008 national championship.

It wasn’t always so. During the 1986 tournament at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, won by Raymond Floyd at the classic Southampton, N.Y., course, there were fewer than a dozen corporate hospitality tents. By the time the tournament appeared at Bethpage in 2002, nearly 80 corporate tents – filled by the likes of Goldman Sachs and AT&T – dotted the rough, even though the economy was faltering and 9/11 had occurred less than a year earlier.

Though Sam Snead and Ben Hogan never saw corporate tents when they played, in the era of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – who nearly nailed a tent on his errant final drive during the 2006 U.S. Open, which he lost with a double bogey on 18 – they are as ubiquitous as pine trees at Torrey Pines. The appearance of Woods as a pro in the mid-90s has driven growth, but there are other reasons as well.

”The backdrop of golf is as conducive to business development as any sport we’ve seen,” said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. “You pay a premium, but you get a top-flight experience.”

One aspect that attracts businesses is the golfers themselves. It’s no surprise, Carter said, that Sports Illustrated’s recently released Fortunate 50 of top-earning U.S. athletes featured Woods and Mickelson as No. 1 and No. 2. Forget their income: their endorsement money alone far exceeds other stars.

“As athlete endorsements have grown, the interest in having hospitality around these athletes has grown,” Carter said. “In this era where athletes get in trouble every few minutes, golf stands out as a safe bet. If you’re selling to an older, more educated audience, you have to have that consistent message (not distorted by scandal).”

Aside from the standard corporate tents – most of which were fully paid by the end of last year – Torrey Pines offers another revenue generator for the USGA not found at a Winged Foot or a Baltusrol. Two hotels situated within steps of the course – The Lodge at Torrey Pines along with the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines – is a rare treat for a U.S. Open site. Garden Rooms at the Hilton, off of the 18th green, sold out for $27,000 a day on tournament days and $12,000 apiece for practice rounds (seating for 20 “with a basic décor package” included). Then there’s the Gamble Suite, situated at The Lodge at Torrey Pines. A computerized scoring terminal and other amenities are promised for 70 guests. The buyer paid $332,000 for the tournament.

There are plenty of other moneymakers at Torrey Pines for the USGA, which uses proceeds from the Open to fund the 13 championships it puts on every year. The Open is sold out for the 22nd year in a row. Ticket prices merely to walk the grounds start at $100 for Thursday and Friday and edge higher for the weekend rounds, meaning the non-profit USGA will bring in millions of dollars in ticket revenue daily.

One can get lost in the 40,000-square-foot main merchandise tent – which may be the idea. From umbrellas to ball mark repair tools, almost anything related to golf is for sale with the U.S. Open or Torrey Pines logo. Those unable to locate the main merchandise tent are likely to stumble upon a satellite merchandise tent. NBC pays many millions to broadcast the U.S. Open. According to The New York Times, the USGA reported about $40 million in profits from its tournaments in a recent year, the lion’s share from the U.S. Open.

So while one may envy the players strolling about the stunning Torrey Pines tract, save some envy for the USGA too. Who else can pitch some tents and rake in millions every year?