GOLF: Why American Express will do nicely for women's Tour

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The women's European Tour, on the point of bankruptcy two years ago, was given a facelift yesterday, when American Express announced a three- year sponsorship. In a corporate deal along the lines of Volvo's commitment to the men's Tour, the company is hoping to carry women's professional golf over the threshold.

After tying the knot, John Petersen, the vice-president of public affairs at American Express, described the coupling as a "marketing partnership." However, for public affairs read private dowry. Both parties were reluctant to put a figure on the deal.

"I won't give the price because it could change our negotiating stance in the future," Petersen said. "There are very few occasions where we would state publicy what we would pay for anything." When pressed on the matter, he replied: "$1m a year - if you want to say that."

Whatever the figure, it will do nicely for the WPG, who would have gone under in 1993 but for a donation of £50,000 from the Royal and Ancient. The circuit, which will now be known as the American Express Tour, has grown from nine tournaments with £1m in prize-money to 19 this year with £2.2m. Terry Coates, the chief executive of the WPG, predicts that in another five years the purse will have risen to £10m.

"From being moribund, we now have a very secure future," Coates said. "These are exciting times for us. We have more tournaments and more prestigious venues." Next week, 120 women professionals will compete in the first qualifying school at La Manga in Spain.

The Tour will visit 12 countries in Europe, and in May the Ford Classic moves from its traditional home at the Woburn Golf and Country Club to Chart Hills in Kent, a course designed by Nick Faldo. As part of the package, American Express will also become the Tour's official card, travellers cheque and travel agent. Petersen said he had rejected overtures from the men's Tour because it did not give "value for money".

He thought the WPG would help the company move away from what he described as the F factor: businessmen who were fat, 40 and flying up front in the plane. "An increasing percentage of people who fly are ladies," Petersen said, "and golf is their number one sport. We have 4.5 million card-holders in Europe, and we plan to provide privileged access to each golf event, and offer our best customers the chance to play in the pro-ams."

The announcement of the "most valuable sponsorship ever negotiated for women's golf in Europe" was made at the exclusive Oxfordshire club in Thame, where an attempt to purchase drinks proved difficult. "Sorry sir," said the barman. "We don't take American Express."