It's a postcard-perfect day, clear and just a little breezy, and you're standing on your own little piece of paradise: the 11th hole on Kapalua's world-renowned Plantation Golf Course. You soak up the awesome scene before you tee off--the gently rolling carpet of green flowing into the crystalline sea, the eye-popping views of Molokai in the distance, the fragrance of plumeria in the air. It's not just the scenery that sweeps you away--it's also the idea that you're following in some very famous footsteps. These are the same links that Tiger Woods, David Duval, Fred Couples, and Mark O'Meara competed on just yesterday. It's all you can do to keep your eye on the ball and a firm grip on your club.

A Perfect Match Every January for the past five years, a select group of Mercedes-Benz prospects and clients, all amateur golfers, get their just rewards after a year's worth of hard work, or, more accurately, hard play. Having advanced through a series of local and regional golf tournaments around the United States hosted by Mercedes-Benz of North America (MBNA) retailers, the victorious four-player client-teams then get the chance to take each other on at the company's summit of amateur golf--the National Final of the Mercedes Retailer Championships at Kapalua, on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

To add to the thrill, the teams get to play out their final on the same course that a glittering roster of top pros have just done battle on during the previous four days at the Mercedes Championships. The professional tournament, the PGA Tour's first event of the year, is also sponsored by Mercedes-Benz.

The winning amateur team at Kapalua will have one more chance to strut its stuff at the Mercedes-Benz Trophy World Final, held each September in Stuttgart, Germany. There, 20 teams from around the globe go head to head. The event is "the frosting on the cake," says Bob Thompson, president of Thompson Marketing Inc., MBNA's sports marketing agency, based in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Thompson designed this program. "We wanted the amateur final to tie into the Mercedes Championships. From the outset, the emphasis has been on the program in the U.S."

For Mercedes-Benz, this year-long golf program is as much an incentive for its retailers and clients as it is a key marketing tool. "One of the two sports that indexes the highest in terms of our market is golf, so it's no coincidence that it's our focus," says Steve Potter, supervisor, sports marketing at Mercedes-Benz of North America in Montvale, N.J. "And our retailers tell us they find this far and away the most useful of all the incentives or other programs in helping them to sell cars."

Thompson Marketing came up with the idea of developing the tournament for Mercedes in 1993. "I went to see the Infiniti Tournament of Champions at La Costa Resort," says Thompson. "I felt that the event had great value--far beyond what it was currently producing for its sponsor."

About a year later, he learned that Infiniti was not renewing its sponsorship, so he sat down with key decision-makers at MBNA, including Mike Jackson, then senior vice president, now president and chief executive officer, to discuss taking Infiniti's place. "We thought this was a great opportunity," Jackson says. "It's the first PGA event of the year, which would put Mercedes, as the title sponsor, in a leadership position. And in addition, it was a champions-only format, meaning that the participants had to have won a tournament the previous year. That exclusivity matched up well with the image and reputation of Mercedes. La Costa is a world-famous site and that, too, dovetailed nicely with Mercedes."

With the name of the event changed to the Mercedes Championships, the first pro tournament was played the following year at La Costa--in conjunction with a new incentive program. "Because the Mercedes Championships was held so early in the year, we reasoned that we could also introduce a grassroots retailer program throughout the country, with the local retailers hosting tournaments for amateurs," says Thompson. This year, the tournament was moved to Kapalua, primarily because of the weather--and because the time difference allowed the tournament to follow NFL playoff football, live in prime time, as opposed to being opposite NFL programming.

Raising money for charity is a major goal of the amateur program, with the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation as the designated charity. Money is raised at the individual retailer tournaments and the total amount is announced at the Mercedes Championships. This year, Mercedes-Benz raised $565,000 and its overall program total is approaching $2 million.

First: The Local Tournaments The program kicks off each year in late January, when the retailers receive their entry forms. The company currently has about 310 retailers, divided into six geographic regions.

Retailers who agree to participate (more than 170 signed on last year) foot the bill for their local tournaments. "When the retailer returns the form and says, 'I'm on board,' he commits to a certain amount of money to host a tournament and that's charged to his parts account," says Potter. Retailers then receive a guide that lays out everything about the program. Thompson Marketing arranges for tee gifts for players, including caps, visors, and golf socks, all with the Mercedes Championships logo, plus test-drive premiums, which are displayed during the tournament. There are a number of contest holes, one in which a Mercedes is awarded to any player lucky enough to make a hole-in-one.

Because of weather differences around the country, the tournaments don't all start at once. "The first ones are in March, primarily in Florida and the South," says Thompson, while others start in the late spring. Typically, the tournaments are held at local country clubs and there are three possible formats: club tournaments, which are open to members of the club and their guests; VIP invitationals, for the host's clients and prospects; or a combination of these two.

In addition to the program fee, retailers pay for whatever hospitality they provide at the tournament. "The total bill for the tournament could be as little as $5,000, depending on the hospitality," says Thompson. "But the sky's the limit and some of the retailers can really be lavish." Players themselves pay a registration fee of $35 to compete, which is earmarked for the March of Dimes.

At the local level, entrants compete as individuals, with the goal of qualifying for one of four places on the retailer's team. To maintain an enjoyable pace of play, the maximum number of strokes allowed is twice par. There are four handicap index categories: Flight A: zero to 10.9; Flight B: 11 to 16.9; Flight C: 17+; and Low Gross.

After the tournament, there's an awards reception or a dinner for all the entrants. "Awards are presented, for instance, to the players who were closest to the pin and to the winners of the handicap categories," says Thompson.

Next Stop: The Regionals For the local champions, the next stop is the regional tournaments, held at six top golf resorts around the country. Those playing in the regionals usually make a weekend of it, arriving on Friday, playing on Saturday, and being wined and dined at several social events. Mercedes picks up the tab for travel, lodging, and hospitality for participants. Retailers are responsible for their local events. "With a program of this scope, it's good to have everybody participate actively and financially, because then everyone's committed to the same objectives," says Potter.

At least six teams of four players each emerge from the regionals, their sights now firmly set on Kapalua. Last year, however, 10 retailer teams went to Kapalua, because four of the regions sent two teams rather than one. If a region gets more than 50 percent of its retailers to participate, the region can send a second team to the National Final.

On to Kapalua The winning retailer teams arrive at Kapalua on the first day of the Mercedes Championships, in time to watch the pro event from their own VIP skybox on the 18th green.

This year, 30 champions participated in the PGA event. David Duval won running away by nine shots, shooting 26 under par. The prize: $468,000 in cash and a new Mercedes SL500 Coupe/Roadster.

Amateur participants get the white-glove treatment throughout their stay. They have access to practice rounds before their tournament and they're invited to every social function at Kapalua, including a private luau.

The Mercedes Championships ends on Sunday and the Retailer National Final is played the following day. "They play to the same pin positions that the pros play on the final round on Sunday, which gives their event a championship feel," comments Gary Planos, the tournament director. The winners (this year a team from John Sisson Motors in Washington, Pa.) each take home a trophy like the one awarded at the Mercedes Championships.

Maintaining Momentum For Mercedes, the event doesn't end in Kapalua. "After each tournament, the players receive letters inviting them to the host retailer's showroom to test-drive a Mercedes," says Thompson. "If they come in within 30 days, they receive an item they couldn't get anywhere else--this year, it's a Brioni polo shirt bearing the Mercedes Championships and Mercedes-Benz logos, which retails for close to $200." The intent is to provide an opportunity for the retailer to strengthen relationships with existing clients and perhaps sell a car to someone who wasn't planning to buy for a few years.

One indication of the tournament's success is the fact that the number of participants has risen every year, from 6,000 in 1994 to 14,000 in 1998. The number of teams has gone up accordingly, from 79 to 172. That growth has occurred at the same time that the number of Mercedes retailers nationwide has decreased from 420 to 314.

Another measure of how well the program does is the number of retailers who sign on again and again. "It's pretty unusual for retailers to hold a tournament one year and not do it the next," says Potter. "Once people start doing this, they don't stop." According to Thompson, 90 percent of the retailers who participated one year come back the following year. MBNA's sales also have been rising steadily: Last year, the company sold 170,000 cars, with a growth rate of about 10 percent a year.

There is no question that the Mercedes Championships contributes to that. Potter, who has little room in his own schedule to play golf, sounds a bit wistful about the opportunity to play the Plantation course.

"Kapalua is just spectacular," he says. "Almost every hole has a vista of the ocean. There's great contour, and the visual appeal is almost tactile. You don't even have to be a golfer--although it helps--to enjoy that."