big busi­ness, as in bil­lions

Golf Digest Middle East - - Play Your Best Competition Slug By Firstname Lastn -

W hat has changed, we sup­pose, is that they made only one Arnold Palmer, and there is an in­creas­ing demand for things signed by golfers, and such items ap­pre­ci­ate. De­pend­ing on who’s talk­ing, the an­nual world­wide col­lectibles mar­ket could be ap­proach­ing $400 bil­lion, and the sub­set of au­to­graphed sports things, from foot­ball hel­mets to base­ball bats to golf balls, is be­tween $1 bil­lion and $2 bil­lion.“Now is the time to in­vest in Jor­dan Spi­eth mem­o­ra­bilia, the youngest player ever to dawn [sic] the Green Jacket,” as­serts Sports Mem­o­ra­bilia (sportsmem­o­ra­bilia.com), al­though Tiger ac­tu­ally had an ear­lier dawn. SM lists a 2015 Mas­ters flag, signed by the cham­pion in a cramped scrawl, at $1,463.99; the same item with “Jor­dan” writ­ten above “Spi­eth,” in a spa­cious hand: $4,363.99. Leg­i­bil­ity is cru­cial to value.

The time had come to stand among the foot sol­diers. Au­to­graph chasers, as they are known in the biz, lack a col­lec­tive noun: a des­per­a­tion, per­haps? A scrib­ble? For in­ter­minable min­utes we ob­served Danny Wil­lett’s wristy chip­ping style. When fi­nally he made to leave the scene, one of us called out. “Danny, will you sign?”

He would. Two hand­fuls of am­a­teur col­lec­tors had joined the group. Dur­ing an or­derly, word­less in­ter­ac­tion, the high-strung English­man hur­riedly scratched black ink on 10 yel­low ny­lon rec­tan­gles and on two tour­na­ment pro­grams. His John Han­cock con­sists of a gi­ant D above a ver­ti­cal chop that re­sem­bles a pic­to­graph of a picket fence. Though prices fluc­tu­ate, we found a Mas­ters flag signed by the 2016 cham­pion for as lit­tle as $100 on eBay. From the ac­tual sale price, deduct the cost of the cloth—about $25— eBay’s 10-per­cent com­mis­sion, ship­ping, the price of a ticket, clear plas­tic bags and cargo shorts, and no one was get­ting rich on Danny.

I in­tro­duced my­self and my mis­sion to the group. “Is that how this is done—eBay?”

Si­lence. They re­garded me bale­fully, with weapons-grade stink eye.

“Is there enough money in this for you to travel from one tour stop to an­other?”

Si­lence. The des­per­a­tion looked like eight un­tipped wait­resses. Then, from the tall one, “No com­ment.” “No com­ment? Re­ally? Is it be­cause you fear a neg­a­tive story? Well, the neg­a­tive story is al­ready out there. Maybe you can help me tell a pos­i­tive . . . ” “No com­ment.” Then they all turned their backs, a full Amish shun, im­pres­sively syn­chro­nised. A lit­tle later, they moved en masse to the other side of the green, and they didn’t ap­pear to en­joy my com­pany there, either. They seemed like a team—and they prob­a­bly were. Tampa- based dealer Charles Pou­los, a still- oc­ca­sional chaser, ex­plained the usual MO: groups of two to five or larger will travel in the same van and stay in the same in­ex­pen­sive ho­tel room. They pool ex­penses but not in­come. Their bags are filled with con­signed flags, hats, trad­ing cards and

pho­to­graphs wait­ing for the Mi­das touch of a golfer’s pen.

“I’ll get on a col­lec­tors’ web­site and ask, for ex­am­ple, ‘ Who’s go­ing to [the PGA Tour Cham­pi­ons event in] Bran­son?’” says Pou­los, whose full-time job is in IT. “Some­one will say, ‘I am. What do you need? What will you pay?’ And if I trust him, I’ll send a guy—usu­ally, two guys—20 or 30 items. I ex­pect to get half or a third of what I want. It’s an in­cred­i­bly tough life for those who do it full-time. They don’t make a lot. It’s dis­cour­ag­ing when I see some guys bring their kids out [to se­cure au­to­graphs]. It’ll be the mid­dle of the week, and I’ll think, Why aren’t these kids in school?”

Pou­los, who is essen­tially a mid­dle­man, sells to five other deal­ers, one of whom is in the United King­dom. The best stuff—for ex­am­ple, not just a run- ofthe-mill Fred Cou­ples- signed Mas­ters pin flag, but one on which Fred­die was in­duced to write “’92,” the year he won—is of­fered to the big hit­ter in the busi­ness, Green Jacket Auc­tions.

Green Jacket co-founder Bab Zafian, whose ex­per­tise is au­to­graph au­then­ti­ca­tion, wishes first of all to em­pha­sise that chasers are the salt of the earth, hard-work­ing Amer­i­cans who rise at 5 and go to work. “Would Jor­dan Spi­eth go up to a jan­i­tor and in­sult him?” Zafian says. “Don’t look down on any­one. It’s a job, like any­thing else.”

But it’s not a job like any­thing else, and Zafian ac­knowl­edges that so­ci­ety some­times breaks down by the yel­low rope. He has been out there him­self, many times. “When they’re push­ing kids out of the way, I’ll say so every­one can hear, ‘Come on, let the kid in there!’ I’m not be­ing fake. Once Jack Nick­laus saw my cour­tesy and made a point of sign­ing for me.”

Com­pared to Pou­los, Zafian of­fers a rel­a­tively rosy opin­ion re­gard­ing chaser in­come: “You’ll see a guy who looks home­less, some­one you want to hand a dol­lar to; that guy could be mak­ing $100,000 a year. Even if they get only $10 per au­to­graph, if they get 50 or 75 a day . . . ”

The group I watched for three days weren’t get­ting any­thing close to that.

Writ­ers are chasers, too, of course, of sto­ries—so here’s a de­fense of my broth­ers the Or­lando Eight weren’t will­ing to pro­vide. They fill a need. When they’re not rude, they’re po­lite. They’re de­ter­mined. They are, as ad­ver­tised, early ris­ers. And they are or­gan­ised; Vaughn Tay­lor has won three times on tour, but he’s no house­hold name, so he was sur­prised when a col­lec­tor re­cently asked for sig­na­tures on four Vaughn Tay­lor pho­to­graphs beau­ti­fully printed on heavy stock. If Vaughn wins the U.S. Open, or some­thing, they’ll be worth some­thing.

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