Rory McIlroy and BMW

As the BMW International Open tees off in Germany this week, we see – once again – that the bond between professional golf and the automotive industry remains as strong as ever. In fact, taking football and the Olympics out of the equation, golf is one of the major benefactors of sponsorship investment from carmakers.

For the brand, the benefits are obvious. In the days and weeks leading up to a major tournament, the back pages and sports channels are filled with coverage, with the the editors and presenters obliged to mention the brand as part of the tournament’s name. Indeed, some brands become intrinsically linked with the competition. The Volvo PGA still rolls off the tongue, despite the Swedish carmaker calling time on its link with the PLG Championship in 2004.

Volvo was the first overall corporate sponsor of the European Tour, but despite remaining active in the sport, especially in the Far East, it saw greater long-term potential with sailing. Volvo’s approach to assessing new sponsorship opportunities is simple – DISC, or Does It Sell Cars?

Volvo Golf Championships 2011

Volvo has been involved in UK sailing since 2001 and invested heavily during the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics. By investing in grass roots and youth sailing, Volvo prepares for the future. The result is that a sailor or someone actively involved with sailing is seven times more likely to buy a Volvo than the average man in the street. It also helps that Volvo offers a significant discount to the 100,000 or so members of the RYA.

Porsche adds golf to its sponsorship portfolio

But back to golf, which continues to attract significant levels of investment. Earlier this year, Porsche announced it will become a title sponsor of the European Open taking place in Bavaria this September. Speaking about the decision to invest in golf, Bernhard Maier of Porsche AG said:

“We have been looking all over the world before entering into professional golf…and in the end, as a sports car producer with a long tradition, we consciously decided in favour of the European Open.

“Last year alone we saw 8,000 customers line up for the 150 tournaments around the world. This constantly rising enthusiasm shows that golf presents us with another ideal opportunity to increase the loyalty of our existing customers, attract new target groups to the Porsche brand and strengthen the sporting core of our brand.”

With the increasing popularly, not to mention importance, of the Cayenne, Panamera and Macan, the shift into golf makes a great deal of sense for a brand more associated with motorsport and tennis.

A recent global sponsorship analysis showed that the car industry is now spending $1.285 million on general sports, with Toyota’s involvement with the Olympics, Chevrolet’s shirt deal with Manchester United and Nissan’s investment in the UEFA Champions League and Rio 2016 being the headline act. Quite what the recent alleged corruption at FIFA will do for Hyundai’s and Kia’s involvement in world football remains unclear.

Mercedes-Benz at Augusta

The demand for luxury cars, especially in emerging markets such as China and the Middle East, means that sponsorship managers are climbing over each other to get involved with golf, tennis and sailing. The report highlights Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Cadillac as the big-hitters in this area.

Golfers need transportation

But the relationship between carmakers and golf is nothing new. An article on the Golf Today website takes us back to 1958, the year in which General Motors created the Buick Open at Warwick Hills, Michigan. In a message to spectators in the tournament programme, Buick’s general manager, E.T. Ragsdale, explained the rationale behind the move:

“Golfers need transportation; automobiles provide it. It’s as simple as that.”

Which is a refreshingly honest approach to sponsorship. Honda employed a similar thought process when the Honda Classic was created at Palm Beach Gardens in 1982. Speaking about the sponsorship of the PGA Tour event, Dick Colliver, American Honda’s executive vice president in charge of sales and marketing, said at the time:

“The demographics of the viewing audience are exactly what we are looking at to build awareness for the Honda Classic. You get golfers around the world who are watching the tournament and talking about it, and at the same time you’re reaching them with messages about your product.”

You only need to look at this photo from the BMW International Open to see what Colliver was talking about. Banners, flags and even a floating sign leave you in little doubt as to who is behind this golf tournament. Naturally, BMW has created a BMW Customer Lounge for its VIP guests, but there will be millions of armchair golfers tuning in to watch the event live on television.

BMW International Open

History is littered with dozens of similar events, including the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, the Nissan Open in Los Angeles, the Chrysler Classic and the Volvo China Open. Groups within golf can also be targeted, as demonstrated by the Volvo Cross Country Challenge of 2005, in which Volvo could focus on their ‘female target group’.

Carmakers want a slice of the golf pie

The fact is, carmakers know that the majority of golfers have a high level of disposable income and will need a car to get to their chosen club. Automotive websites ‘reach out’ to golfers, telling them how much they love the sport.

Mercedes-Benz is ‘immensely proud of its long-standing involvement with the sport’, referencing the Masters in April, the Open Championship in July, the PGA Championship and the MercedesTrophy, which attracts 60,000 amateur golfers from over 60 countries.

Not to be left out, Hyundai points to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii as its way to encourage golfers to trade-in their luxury vehicle in exchange for a Genesis, Equus or Santa Fe.

But it’s not all rosy for the sport. Earlier this year, Volvo announced it would be withdrawing from the World Match Play Championship and the Golf Champions event in South Africa to focus solely on the Volvo China Open. It left the future of the tournaments in doubt as the organisers searched for new backers.

Of course, the relationship between golf and cars extends to a player-level, too. Last year, a British golfer shot a hole-in-one and won himself a new BMW i8 in the process. It took place at the BMW International Open and James Heath was understandably delighted with his prize.

Ian Poulter Tailor Made Ferrari FF

Meanwhile, Ferrari doesn’t need to invest in corporate sponsorship, because it has a walking brand ambassador in the shape of Ian Poulter. Having bought a Tailor Made Ferrari FF in 2012, the Brit was one of a select group of customers invited to order a LaFerrari, an opportunity he accepted with open arms.

So it would appear that the sport’s relationship with the car goes much deeper than working out if you’ll be able to fit a set of clubs in the boot of your new luxury saloon.