big business, as in billions
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.