Rarefied atmosphere

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When executives for Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge go marketing for guests, they know their strongest selling point.

Print ads feature clubhouse interiors and a manicured golf course designed by its namesake. But the centerpiece, of course, is Mr. Palmer himself. After all, why would anyone in his right mind drop five-figures on a Bay Hill membership at a course PGA pros lament for its difficulty?

Because, as one ad boasts from the pages of Robb Report, Forbes and Fortune, "Arnie plays here every day." Tiger Woods, who lives nearby, had won the Bay Hill Classic four straight times before this year.

"These are affluent men we're looking for," says Ed Gilbert, CEO of Orlando ad shop Gilbert & Manjura, which has handled the Florida resort's account for two years. "These ads aren't even looking for a woman golfer."

Mr. Palmer's marketing caddies know golfers are a different breed of sports buff. Martha Burk and her battle with Augusta National's men-only membership notwithstanding, many golf courses skew decidedly male-approaching 100% at Bay Hill, Mr. Gilbert says, with annual incomes topping $250,000.

From the affluent to the weekend hacks, golfers identify with life's more luxurious trappings. Their travel and daydreams admit it, as evidenced in the May issue of Golf Magazine and its "Dream House" survey. When given the chance to custom-create a home at the upscale Reynolds Plantation community and club outside Atlanta, readers requested fireside Jacuzzis, high-definition plasma screen TVs, humidors, wine cellars, and indoor swing simulators and putting greens, all in a hunt club atmosphere.

One gent even suggested "two blondes to serve cigars and beers at the end of each day."

Boorish? Maybe. But it points in part to the psychology of today's golfer, says Chris Wightman, publisher of the Time4Media title.

"The mind-set is key," he says. "Golf is basically an addiction for that person who gets hooked on the game."

So Mr. Wightman and other marketers play enabler to penetrate the upscale-minded market. Golf has partnered with Callaway Golf Co. in a "Retail Alliance Program" to drive a club test to 313 retail stores nationwide. Promotions like the "Dream House" lure marketers including GMC and Delta Air Lines. The magazine hosts clinics and schools nationwide.

At Premier Golf, the Duluth, Ga.-based official travel company of the Professional Golfers' Association of America, packaging travel for golf enthusiasts tends to be over the top. In 1997, 60 people dropped $20,000 a head to fly on the Concorde to Spain with the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Premier has chartered luxury cruise ships and had helicopters deliver clients to the first tee at the Belfry Golf Club in the British Isles, just for the chance to play where the Ryder Cup has been played.

"Ryder has arguably become the biggest event in sport," enthuses Premier President Jim Ward. "Because of the exclusivity of the event and its demand, it's a high-end demographic."

Over at Advance Publications and its Golf Digest Cos. unit, the namesake title has partnered with resort destinations to appeal to golfers. Executives worked with destination marketer Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday and its April Golfapalooza Festival. Some 40,000 golfers, ranging in age from 30 to 50 and most in the "higher affluent" range, congregated in the coastal town like it was Sunday behind the 18th green at the Masters.

Marketers came in kind, rolling out demonstrations and clinics, skills contests and celebrities. Participating brands included Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra, Brown-Forman Corp.'s Gentleman Jack whiskey and, of course, golf equipment makers such as TaylorMade, Ping, Top-Flite, MacGregor Golf, Tommy Armour and Wilson Sporting Goods.

Golfers, whether as vacationers or as corporate clients looking for incentive travel, yearn to hit the links, enjoy their experience and gather with the like-minded, says Nancy Weber, senior VP-marketing and creative services at Golf Digest Cos.

Immediately post-9/11, golf travel went into decline, but it's now picked back up. Golf Digest Cos.' sports marketing group has created custom outings for corporate clients like Phoenix Wealth Management and Yurman Jewelers to treat their top customers.

The publisher is working with Casa Blanca Resort & Casino in Mesquite, Nev., to create the Big Stakes Match Play. The May 2005 event will be open to 128 two-man (and they'll mostly be men, Ms. Weber says) teams, each dropping $50,000 per player for a chance to split $9 million in winnings with 31 other teams.

"What they're looking for is a unique experience," she says. "Affluent golfers like to compete, and they like to vacation together."

But for marketing simplicity, no one seems to outdo Bay Hill. And the reason is simple, says Mr. Gilbert. Play a noon shotgun in January, and chances are Arnold Palmer will be on the tee with you.

"We have an easier time than most," Mr. Gilbert says. "Mr. Palmer is inviting you to his place. That's a rare commodity."