Coca-Cola and Citigroup won't sponsor Masters

When it comes to the Masters and super-secret Augusta National GC, reading between the lines is a necessary art form -- much in the same way taking note of whom was standing next to whom while reviewing the May Day parade was key to understanding the power structure in the old Soviet Union.

Sometimes what is left unsaid is more important than the words spoken, and often the timing of an announcement is as telling as the announcement itself. Such was the case last week when Hootie Johnson said commercial sponsors, chased off by Martha Burk, would be back in 2005.

Actually, only one sponsor is back. The real story is not that SBC Communications and ExxonMobil have come on board along with holdover IBM, but rather that Coca-Cola and Citigroup did not return. The loss of two longtime partners indicates corporate America still sees some risk in aligning with Augusta National GC as long as the club lacks female members.

The timing of the announcement also indicates the sensitivity of the subject. When the sponsors were relieved of their financial obligations to the 2003 tournament to help them avoid becoming protest targets for the National Council of Women's Organizations, the announcement came on the Friday before Labor Day with the clear hope few would notice.

The plan backfired because holiday weekends typically are slow news days. The story made the front page of The New York Times.

The return of the sponsors also was announced on a Friday afternoon, but this time it came during the Summer Olympics and on the eve of the Republican National Convention. It was not a slow news day. This time the story was relegated to page D-11 in the Times, probably where Johnson and the three companies preferred it to be.

The hint always was there from Hootie that the three sponsors on board when Martha appeared on the scene would be welcomed back. But neither Coke nor Citigroup expressed an interest in returning. "We have not spoken to them in two years," said a club source. "Neither side initiated talks. They've gone their way and we've gone ours."

While the upside to sponsoring the Masters is access to the largest TV audience in golf -- the 14.1 rating in 1997 is the high-water mark for golf since the advent of the cable era 25 years ago -- an indication that sponsoring the Masters is not without its risks is found in the fact that two backers of the event did not return.

"The stories of Coca-Cola and the Masters have been intertwined since the inaugural shot off the first tee 65 years ago," then Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Douglas N. Daft said in 2001. "Coca-Cola has always been a part of the Masters. We are pleased to raise our relationship with one of the most prestigious sporting events to a new level."

Citigroup had been involved with the Masters since 1958, the third year the tournament was televised. "The Masters is an extraordinary, high-quality event," said Sanford I. Weill, chairman and CEO of Citigroup, also speaking in 2001. "Our 43-year relationship with Augusta National and the Masters is a source of pride for all of us under Citigroup's red umbrella, and we're delighted that viewers around the world will receive expanded coverage."

Three years later, that delight turned to flight. Yes, the sponsors are back at the Masters. And yes, there are still no female members at Augusta National. Why does this have the feeling of "Here we go again?"

Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine.

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