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Lavish corporate tents folded at U.S. Open

/ Source: The Associated Press

There are fewer corporate hospitality tents at this year’s U.S. Open, but you wouldn’t know there’s an economic downturn by watching the massive souvenir tent at Bethpage State Park.

Business has been brisk as fans have turned out to see early-week practice rounds.

“It amazes me that people are willing to spend $500 on this stuff,” said New Jersey car dealer John Bustard, taking a moment outside the tent Tuesday to grouse about his own financial situation.

“And yet they don’t have any money to buy a new (Honda) Civic.”

Debi Nagy of Buena Vista, Ga., whose son Matt is among the amateurs competing this weekend, was spotted carrying a bag of souvenirs away from the tent. “Oh yes,” she said with pride. “I have been there twice already.”

Like the other major sports, golf has felt the impact of recession.

A few tournaments have lost title sponsors, and the PGA Tour — with events that are structured as nonprofit organizations and donate proceeds to local charities — has estimated its giving may decline as much as 14 percent this year.

“We’re satisfied to be doing as well as we are,” said Pete Bevacqua, chief business officer for the USGA. “We’ve been affected by the economy, but we’re hanging in there.”

Bevacqua said that because there were fewer hospitality tents, where the Wall Street crowd traditionally wines and dines clients inside air-conditioned tents that more closely resemble fancy catering halls, additional tickets became available for fans last week.

He said those tickets were quickly scarfed up and the four-day weekend tournament that begins Thursday is sold out — 42,500 fans are expected daily.

Bevacqua declined to list the companies that are hosting hospitality tents, saying they prefer anonymity.

He did say that the tournament’s four corporate sponsors — IBM, Lexus, American Express, and the Royal Bank of Scotland — did not waver about supporting this year’s tournament at Bethpage Black.

“In light of the economy, we have and will continue to take necessary steps to host clients in a more appropriate environment,” said Joseph Goode, a spokesman for Bank of America Corp.

He said the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank has reduced its spending tied to the U.S. Open, though the company did not disclose its costs surrounding the event. He said the bank is sharing its hospitality tent with several other companies.

American Express Co. has scaled back some of its spending on the U.S. Open — including its tent — though it remains one of the financial firm’s larger events for providing perks for customers, said Joanna Lambert, a spokeswoman for the New York-based financial services firm.

“The U.S. Open is a really important event for us,” said Lambert. “We continue to do a lot of activities for card members.”

The financial firm has planned a cut in spending on marketing and promotions of up to $500 million for the year as part of its broader $2.6 billion cost-reduction plan.

She said the company has focused on doing things for card members at the U.S. Open such as lending them portable television and radios to listen to commentary and receive updates while on the course.

“Corporations would not be spending money at sporting events like this if they did not think it was cost-effective,” Bevacqua said. He also complained that golf has somehow become “an unjustified, unwarranted” symbol of past corporate excess.

“We’ve done a good job in dispelling that myth, but it’s still out there.”

James Forney, taking a photo of his two daughters just steps from where Vijay Singh was practicing his putting, said he was suspicious of any talk of corporate cutbacks.

“They’re here to wine and dine,” he said. “I think their idea of cutting back is making two executives share a corporate jet to get here instead of each one flying in their own plane.”