Ernie Els has a major corporate tie off the links

South African golf champion Ernie Els is paid a retainer to meet customers and executives at events a few times a year. ANDREW RENNEISEN/Staff Photographer
South African golf champion Ernie Els is paid a retainer to meet customers and executives at events a few times a year. ANDREW RENNEISEN/Staff Photographer
Posted: June 17, 2013

When pro golf pitches its air-conditioned tents near Philadelphia - at the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, for example - Ernie Els, two-time U.S. Open champ and 2012 British Open winner, stops by the Newtown Square offices of SAP AG, the software maker that has paid him to promote its brand for the last 10 years.

Heading to dinner last week with SAP bosses and clients atop the German company's sweeping, glass-walled U.S. headquarters, the tall, sandy-haired pro from South Africa and his entourage paused to admire a pair of curvaceous McLaren sports cars parked seductively outside by a dealer.

"I get a tingle," Els, wearing a charcoal-gray suit and electric-purple striped tie, said as the car doors rose silently in the moist evening air.

Els, like the people who run SAP, has a globe-trotting career that takes him to many places where fancy toys and buildings and the people who own them are part of the landscape.

"My deal with SAP came with Dr. Plattner," Els said, referring to Hasso Plattner, the SAP co-founder who bought the Fancourt golf resort near Cape Town in the 1990s. Plattner added new links and invited Els, whose father, a retired trucking executive, lived nearby. Els and Plattner hit it off, and now, "We get together every December and play."

Plattner, Els said, is "a larger-than-life character. Very outgoing. Such an intellect."

But does the engineer have the patience golf demands? Plattner, already an expert sailor, has cut his handicap to the mid-teens, not bad by corporate standards. But to get all the way to scratch, Els said, his patron needs more than a few intense sessions in South Africa's end-of-year summer months. "It needs time," Els said. "But he doesn't work that way."

Corporate sponsorships of golf have expanded since the days when Arnold Palmer pioneered deals with PNC Bank and a few other big companies. Car and electronics retailers with million-dollar budgets sponsor tour events in hopes of reaching affluent golf fans. Tech firms like SAP plan activities at and around those events to schmooze corporate clients and, increasingly, to promote themselves to individual users with smartphone apps and other mass-market products. SAP has a well-dressed hospitality tent at Merion for the U.S. Open.

"Our founders believed very strongly in golf as a sport that brings people together," said Chris Burton, head of marketing sponsorships for SAP. Burton travels so extensively in support of golf and other promos that Delta Air Lines recently put his picture on a thank-you billboard near New York's Kennedy Airport.

SAP is developing a golf-statistics smartphone app, similar to its new NBA and NFL apps, and it is putting together golf-improvement apps featuring Els as the instructor.

Like other pros sponsored by corporations, Els is paid a retainer to meet customers and executives at events a few times a year. He collects bonuses when he wins big events, such as the British Open, and cooperates with the company on charitable projects.

SAP has co-sponsored local golf events to help raise money for the $30 million autistic children's center Els and his wife are developing near their U.S. home in West Palm Beach, Fla. One of their children is autistic.

SAP said recently it planned to hire autistic math professionals with help from the Specialisterne foundation, which recently moved its headquarters to Delaware from Denmark. Els applauds SAP's plan, though he disclaims any credit.

Like his predecessor and countryman Gary Player, who also promoted SAP, Els backs another foundation that develops golfers in South Africa. American course operators fret that young business people have little time for the game. But Els said more are taking it up in faster-growing parts of the world.

Like Player and Jack Nicklaus, Els works with architects developing new golf courses - in Maryland and Hawaii, but also in the Middle East, South Africa, Malaysia, China, and other emerging golf markets serving the next generation of champs.

Growing into his role at the center of an all-around golf enterprise, Els has gone so far as to give Plattner advice on improving the layout of a green at one of his Fancourt courses.

"He didn't take it," Els added, laughing.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @PhillyJoeD.

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