AUGUSTA, Ga. – In front of the newly renovated Firethorn Cabin, just a few hundred yards away from the 11th tee, is an exact replica of the 18th green at Augusta National, with holes positioned for each day of the Masters.
When asked what the green Stimps were, one of the staff members simply answered, "tournament speed," which is all you have to know. They're fast, really fast. Just breathe on the downhillers.
The idea is for the patrons to get a feel for what the Masters contestants face. But not all the patrons, just a few, a few special VIP guests.
This week, I got to play the part of a VIP Mercedes owner. Putting on the replica green, friends (as Jim Nantz might say), was just the beginning. This was all you can eat, all you can experience.
Mercedes, now in its seventh year replacing Cadillac as a major sponsor of the Masters, brought in between 200 and 300 of its very important customers. Half would get to experience practice rounds, the par 3 contest and first round of the tournament; the rest would get to come for the weekend. They represented Mercedes dealers whose customer satisfaction numbers were the highest. And each dealer got to pick their most special customer. Criteria was up to them, but needless to say, most of these folks weren't on their first Benz, and most of them didn't own the C Class.
Masters Par 3 contest
The par 3 contest was just a couple hundred yards from the Mercedes-Benz hospitality cabin.
Corporate VIP hospitality: Sweating the details
A Masters ticket is one of the hardest to come by in sports, so for many of Mercedes' guests, this was their first time. But there were many added layers.
First off, it seemed like there was a staff member of some sort for every guest – drivers, valets, wait staff, concierge. Secondly, as you might expect, we were all chauferred around in a Mercedes. Sometimes, it was luxury coach that took us right down Magnolia Lane to Firethorn. Other times, it was the GL450 seven-passenger SUVs that picked us from the airport and provided transportation between the opulent houses of River Island to the neighborhood clubhouse, where we caught the shuttle to course and enjoyed nightly dinners and entertainment.
And as luck (or careful forethought) would have it, defending champion Adam Scott is one their guys. And so is Rickie Fowler, who has taken on a new coach, Butch Harmon, and a new hairstyle. Along with renowned golf writer Tim Rosaforte and the Golf Channel's Charlie Rymer, who did the interviews respectively, they were Monday and Tuesday night's entertainment. Later in the week, it would be sponsored players Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer. All of this took place in a very intimate setting, in front of an audience of about 120, which means no one had trouble asking a question or getting an autograph or even a photo.
"They not only represent Mercedes so well on the course, but off the course as well," Said Michael Schwartz, one of the VIPs from New York City. "He (Fowler) didn't have to do that, but he stayed until everyone who wanted a picture got one with him."
In between, we got Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish fame. He and his band were so close, you felt like he was performing for you personally. Yep, the Dolphins used to make me cry, too, Darius.
Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame
Darius Rucker up close and personal for the VIP guests.
The Masters and luxury brands: a perfect match
While Mercedes-Benz officials don't want to send out a message that only the wealthy can afford their cars, they do want to you know that their product is cutting edge, of the highest quality, comfortable and first-class. It's more than a vehicle; it's a lifestyle, said Stephanie Zimmer, department manager of brand experience marketing for Mercedes-Benz.
Mercedes-Benz USA has been hosting VIP customers since it started sponsoring the Masters seven years ago. The Masters alliance, in fact, represents a shift in strategy for the German company, which used to sponsor the PGA Tour's Tournament of Champions and other tour events. But after careful evaluation, the company felt it wasn't getting enough bang for its buck with the lesser events, so it started cherry picking. Mercedes now sponsors all the majors except the U.S. Open, and it also has its name all over the U.S. Open in tennis, and of course several other high profile championships around the globe.
The Masters experience is beyond first-rate. After door-to-door service to the hospitality cabin, we were free to come and go as we please, eat and drink as much as we wanted, store our souvenirs in lockers and retreat to private washrooms that were kept sparkling clean.
There was a full bar at our disposal, plenty of TV screens, outdoor patio dining and easy access to both courses, including the par 3.
Having been to the Masters a couple of times, I've got to tell you, it would be hard to go back to parking in somebody's yard a couple of miles from the course (and paying $20 or more to do so), battling the traffic and not having an open bar. But one of the highlights for me actually came Wednesday morning. That's when they let me take an S550 for a spin.
Mercedes s550 at Masters
Mercedes s550 proudly in display at the Masters.
I'm not sure what the definition of a super car is – much like a super model – but in my book this was it. With $150,000 price tag, you'd expect to be quiet and fast, but there are extra features I never even dreamed of. There's an option to activate a seat enveloping feature that hugs your body. It's like the car is alive. There's also a massage feature, which is pretty much like having a spa treatment while you're driving. And the sound system, and the handling, and the lack of road noise… I could go on and on, but I won't.
For many of Mercedes' VIP customers, this is standard operating procedure, and they probably expected their Masters experience to be that way, too. It was. Believe me, it was.