- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Corporate customers at the Masters normally keep chef Karl Kwoka busy all week prepping gourmet dishes like Angus beef filets with bleu cheese fritters and crepes de mer with lobster cream sauce. Catering to elite fans and their top clients during the April golf tournament typically accounts for a quarter of his income.

This year, the unpalatable economy has piled Kwoka's plate with more cancellations than customers. Four large corporations that in past years hired Kwoka to prepare private meals have backed out, leaving him with a single company to cook for, not enough to justify hiring the usual 30 extra workers. Kwoka estimates the cancellations cost him more than $70,000, and the temporary staff is missing out on big money, too.

In its 75-year history, the Masters has established itself as the Super Bowl for those who prefer single-malt scotch to Miller Lite, a sort of Mardi Gras for the country club crowd. The Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the tournament pumps more than $100 million into the economy of this city of 200,000, which relies on the Army's Fort Gordon, a medical college, several hospitals and a smattering of manufacturing the rest of the year.

That kind of cash infusion isn't coming this year. Augusta business owners who have come to count on Masters money are seeing huge cutbacks by big-shot visitors who typically spare no expense on trips to the tradition-laden tournament.

“The companies are scaling back, and a lot aren't coming at all,” said Kwoka, who wouldn't name those clients but whose past Masters customers include the international law firm Jones Day, which represents many Fortune 500 companies. “If you've got people in danger of losing their jobs, the last thing you want to come across as is spending money, having a good time at a golf tournament.”

Diane Starr, president of Augusta rental agency Corporate Quarters, said it's largely banks and finance companies that are bailing on the 2009 Masters, which starts Thursday after three days of practice rounds popular with fans. Starr's company usually rents about 400 homes - from two-bed condos to sprawling eight-bedroom houses in gated neighborhoods - to high-end Masters clients.

“Normally they're gone in September,” Starr said. “That's what makes this year so unusual.”

She expects to fill no more than 300 for next week's tournament, even at steep discounts. Lavish party homes that usually fetch $25,000 for tournament week have had price tags slashed to as low as $16,000, Starr said.

That's not to say Masters week is shaping up to be a total bust. Augusta hotels are reporting solid reservations, though some still have vacancies, and restaurants expect long lines of customers.

Those are generally a different class of Masters customer, however, said Alfred Monsalvatge of TravelMasters, a company that normally books VIP hospitality packages for the tournament for up to 20 large companies spending a full week at the event.

“I've got zero this year,” Monsalvatge said. “I've got people coming, but I've just replaced them with people that spend a lot less money. Basically they're coming in for a day or so to Augusta, see the golf course, maybe go out to dinner and will be gone the next day.”

Corporate sponsors pump vital revenue into the PGA Tour, but for companies that took federal bailouts, especially banks, cutting back on hospitality is a public relations move more than a cost-saving measure.

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