By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - To wander the immaculately manicured grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the U.S. Masters is to take a stroll back in time.
A time before the marriage of sport and commercialism where scoreboards are operated manually and the only signage directs you to someplace picturesque rather than entice you to buy a car or smartphone.
One of the world's most elite clubs, Augusta National operates under the principle that if you are obscenely wealthy there is no reason to advertise it, the only label here is the ever-present Masters logo.
Outside the Augusta National walls, however, it is all business as some of the world's biggest brands cozy up alongside golf's most celebrated event to share in its glow.
This is, as one corporate executive put it, Spring Break and Coachella melded into one big corporate CEO-filled mosh pit.
"The Masters is the number one corporate event of the year," Kenny Dichter, co-founder and CEO of Wheels Up, a private aviation firm providing luxury service to the Masters, told Reuters. "When you have CEOs and different corporate executives together in one place that's when magic happens.
"We just want to create the platform, the canvas, for our members to meet and talk and create."
That canvas is an expansive one of mansions, private jets, celebrity chefs, limousines, cigar bars and premium liquor.
It is part loyalty program, part new business.
For StubHub, Primesport and the 1018 Club, the Masters is their business, securing hard-to-acquire entry badges and setting up first-rate hospitality experiences within a well-struck Dustin Johnson three-wood of Augusta National.
For IMG, a global talent management company, and auto giant Mercedes-Benz, one of three Masters global sponsors, it is all about brand loyalty and providing a first-class experience for their friends and partners.
Over in 'Mercedesville,' the luxury car maker has not just set up a Masters corporate hospitality headquarters but rather a village of mansions anchored by a lavish multi-deck pavilion that serves as a restaurant/entertainment centre on the Savannah River in Augusta's posh River Island neighborhood.
Each night Mercedes hosts guests in an elegant setting where they are entertained by golfing celebrities such as brand ambassador Rickie Fowler, who finished an intimate chat on Tuesday by signing autographs for a smitten audience.
In the morning there will be no need to be up early and rush to the course to secure a prime spot in Amen Corner with the rest of the Masters mob.
That chore will be left to staff who make the dawn trek to set up folding chairs in prime locations while guests enjoy a leisurely breakfast back in Mercedesville.
"Everyone is just trying to stand out," said John Terzian, whose brand-building company has hosted events at the Super Bowl, Monaco Grand Prix and top film festivals. "To me, sports and entertainment have become the same thing in a good way.
"People are expecting and demanding the highest level when it comes to things like the Super Bowl.
"We operate on a very elite VIP level. We cater to extremely high-end business people."
What makes the Masters so attractive is that it is one of those rare events that seems to be on everyone's bucket list, from weekend duffers to Fortune 500 CEOs.
Rated one of the most coveted tickets in all of sport, those lucky enough to land a Masters badge do not want to lessen the once-in-a-lifetime experience by cutting corners.
A week at the Masters with a private plane, car service, a mansion, personal chef, driver and masseuse can easily top $100,000.
But companies like 1018 Club offer a taste of the Masters VIP experience for hundreds of dollars at their setup near the course with perks that include valet parking, buffet breakfast, lunch, beverages and shuttles to and from the gate.
Everything but the badges.
Without a Masters badge, however, a trip to Augusta this week would be a meaningless visit to Georgia's second biggest city where Textron Specialized Vehicles, who manufacture 90 percent of the world's golf carts, is based.
"The Masters is a unique event and a lot of people are paying premium prices for this event so we put a lot of investment in and make sure the customer experience is the best it can possibly be," StubHub spokesman Cameron Papp told Reuters.
"The Masters has grown in popularity every year on StubHub and it has really turned into one of those bucket list events."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)