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Know the rules when seeking sigs on the links

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Everyone loves to sit back and watch an occasional baseball, football or basketball game. It’s a great way to pass the time. As far as actual participation goes, however, the game of golf long ago passed up all of those other sports. In fact, nothing seems to cause a more animated discussion among friends these days than how their golf games are coming. Until recent years, however, collectors seemed to have overlooked the potential that golf has for adding high-quality items to their collections.

Certainly, there was a lot of interest in the legends, like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. After those two, however, there was always a huge drop off to whoever was No. 3. With the emergence of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and some of the newer stars, however, professional golf finally seems to have caught on as an object of collectors’ desires. Furthermore, the people who run the professional golf tours have now come to realize that catering to collectors is a good way to create additional buzz for the tours.

They understand that the additional buzz will inevitably lead to an increase in the sales of logo merchandise and admission tickets to tour events, thereby increasing the size of the golfers’ paychecks. It is a win-win situation for all concerned.

To get a closer look at what is currently going on in the world of golf collectibles, I recently visited the Cialis Western Open, a regular PGA Tour stop held each year at the Cog Hill golf course in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill. Nearly all of the top PGA Tour players, including Woods, Singh, Jim Furyk, Duffy Waldorf, Luke Donald, Mark Calcavecchia, Bernhard Langer and others, were there.

Each year they come to this tournament because it provides a final tuneup for the British Open. Cog Hill is also a beautiful, challenging course, and the substantial winner’s purse is another enticing reason to make the trip. There also seems to be a great sense of competitive excitement at this tournament each year. And this year was no exception, as Furyk managed to hold off a hard-charging Woods on the last day of the tournament to win by two strokes. Woods was disappointed not to win the tournament, but since he has already won it twice before, he told reporters he actually had no regrets about the way he had played. Woods said he was just happy he had been in a position to win it all on the last day.

Collectors, on the other hand, had plenty to be upset about when it came to obtaining Woods’ signature. Unlike most of the other golfers, Woods signed only sporadically, and mostly away from the golf course. Of course, given the level of his popularity, if Woods had stopped to sign more often, he would have been mobbed. In fact, Woods had to have several bodyguards follow him around the course. Their job was to make certain that he could move freely about, without being hemmed in all the time.

Furyk, however, had no such problem with the crowds, even though he was winning the tournament. It was sort of like this year’s Indy 500 auto race. The race was won by Dan Wheldon, but 4th-place finisher Danica Patrick got all the attention.

To fully understand the current process for obtaining golf autographs and memorabilia, you really have to go back several years, to a time when the professional golf tours were notoriously ambivalent toward collectors. In those days, the tours were content to have the fans purchase the logo merchandise, but they were not happy when the fans pestered the golfers to sign that merchandise. As a result, things became fairly chaotic at tournaments, because the fans were chasing the golfers all over the place for signatures, even though the recognized golf etiquette held that fans were not supposed to bother the golfers when they were playing. Many fans ignored that etiquette, however, and badgered the golfers as they walked from hole to hole. Some of the golfers did respond by signing, but most tried to ignore the fans and just kept walking. It was a very hit-and-miss kind of situation.

As a point of comparison, baseball fans know that when they attend a professional baseball game it would be improper during the course of a game to call a player over to the railing to ask for an autograph or a baseball. For some reason, though, golf fans have always thought nothing of trying to get a golfer to come over to the ropes to sign an autograph or give them a golf ball. What they didn’t seem to realize was that the golfers were working and the last thing they needed while out on the course was to have a fan hassling them for an autograph. That kind of racket can take a golfer out of his game at a time when there are literally thousands of dollars riding on his performance and concentration is vital.

At the same time, however, the golfers did want to acknowledge their fans’ enthusiasm and they also respected the fans’ desire to come away from the tournaments with something tangible as a memento of their visit. Thus, everyone knew a reasonable balance had to be struck if further chaos was to be avoided. Accordingly, certain informal rules came into being to guide the fans’ behavior when it came to collecting autographs and other keepsakes at a tournament.

For example, each of the golf tours now produces a much wider range of merchandise for the fans. There are shirts, caps and towels, as well as mugs, lithographs, photos, pin flags and numerous other proprietary items. In fact, if you ever attend one of the majors, you will likely be overwhelmed by the enormous variety of items that are hawked in the merchandise tent, almost all of it bearing either the PGA Tour logo or the specific tournament logo. Items of extreme interest (such as anything with Woods’ picture on it), have tended to sell out before a tournament ends, which often left many fans disappointed. Thus, the PGA Tour has learned to always keep a large stock of logo items on hand at the various tournaments, knowing that they can always sell the leftovers through the PGA Tour’s online store. Many of the items sold at the tournaments, like the shirts, books and lithographs, are sold as keepsakes. Many other items, like the golf caps, pin flags, programs and photos, are purchased for the specific purpose of having them signed by the golfers. To accomplish that feat, however, it is necessary to have an understanding of the informal autographing rules that have sprung up in the last couple of years.

If you attend a PGA Tour event, you will find that there are usually some Pro-Am events, as well as some practice rounds, during the first part of the week prior to the tournament before the actual tournament is played from Thursday through Sunday. If you go to one of the practice rounds or a Pro-Am, you will notice things are considerably more relaxed than on the days the tournament is actually played. Thus, the golfers are more likely on those days to satisfy a request for an autograph as they are walking from one hole to another. You should never ask for a signature while a hole is being played, of course, because you would not only risk being ejected from the premises, but you might also sour the player on signing for you or anyone else after that.

If, on the other hand, you wait until the hole is through being played, there is a chance the player may sign something for you while he is en route to the next hole.

During the four days on which the championship rounds are played, the best way to obtain a signature is to wait outside the ropes at the 18th hole. After the golfers turn in their scorecards at the scorer’s tent, they will generally come over to the ropes and sign for the people standing around waiting for them. If the crowd remains polite, and everyone waits their turn, the chance of scoring the signatures you want is generally quite high, unless you are after one of the superstars like Woods. Then, your chances are close to infinitesimal. Also, obtaining multiple signatures from any golfer can be very difficult, because there just isn’t enough time to sign more than one per person. The golfers also generally look for the kids first, because they want to positively influence the youngsters’ attitudes about golf and reinforce their interest in the sport. Many of the golfers also see themselves as role models for the kids and do not want to do anything to diminish themselves in the eyes of the children.

To facilitate the interaction among the golfers and the collectors, the PGA Tour tried something new at this year’s Western Open. Instead of just throwing up some ropes near the 18th hole to try to separate everyone, the Tour decided to institutionalize the practice of autograph gathering by creating an officially sanctioned area for people to go in order to seek those prized signatures. Furthermore, in order not to miss another opportunity to enhance its revenues, the PGA Tour found a sponsor for the autograph area, which was appropriately named the “Sharpie Autograph Zone.” At the Sharpie Autograph Zone (sponsored by the makers of Sharpie pens), metal barriers were erected to create a space in which the golfers could freely move about while signing various items for their fans. The fans lined up on the opposite side of the barriers in order to hold out their items for signature. This process worked very well, as the golfers could quickly move down the line after they finished their rounds and sign stuff for the fans. When they finished signing, the golfers would be just a couple of steps from the locker room, so they could quickly duck in for a shower and then head out for an evening on the town.

The fans seemed to like the Sharpie Autograph Zone because they knew they would not have to push each other around to get at the golfers. The golfers would just work their way down the line and sign the stuff being held out to them. In fact, when the crowds got a little bigger, and the lines along the barriers became two and three deep in places, people started helping each other out by passing stuff up to the front for signature. The only down side was that the PGA Tour left it up to the golfers as to whether they wanted to come over to the Sharpie Autograph Zone when they were done. Some, like Woods and Singh, chose not to. However, on the final day of the tournament, only those two and Billy Mayfair and Jerry Kelly declined to do any signing.

The only other places on the course where a collector had any chance at all of obtaining an autograph during the championship rounds were at the practice tee and at the putting greens. Occasionally, a golfer would stop to sign one or two autographs before or after hitting balls off the practice tee, or before or after practicing his putting. But to get those signatures you really had to be lucky by being in the right place at the right time, because you never knew when a particular golfer might be coming through the area adjacent to the practice tee or the putting greens. You also didn’t know what kind of mood the golfer was going to be in even if you were there at the right time. So, trying to get autographs at those places was really a risky business. A lot of time could have been wasted just standing around, with no results.

Some collectors will also try to find out which hotels the golfers are staying at and then try to catch them in the lobby. While this technique is often successful in connection with other sports, it is generally not a good idea with golfers. For one thing, golfers are a lot more anonymous than baseball, basketball or football players, and thus a lot harder to spot.

Furthermore, they are often with their families, and if there is one thing that athletes consistently find distasteful, it is being approached during family time. Finally, it makes little sense to go to this trouble when most of the golfers will accommodate the collectors at the course, after their day’s work is done. The golf course is really the place to be for a collector.

Duffy Waldorf, a mainstay on the PGA Tour for a number of years, in an interview a few years ago, noted that it was a great surprise to him that so many people wanted his signature. “Like most people, I collect things. I collect wine and I collect golf clubs. I used to collect coins, too. But it never occurred to me to ask anyone for an autograph because I never saw any value to that,” Waldorf said. “I mean, people are people, so what’s the point? I don’t really understand the craze. I am more than willing to be accommodating to the fans who come out to see me if that is what they want.”

He conceded there was a significant public relations purpose behind signing. “And that’s a reason to do it,” he added, “especially if it brings pleasure to the kids. That part of it I really do enjoy. It’s important to make sure they have a good time out here.”

Waldorf also understands the importance of how he conducts himself in the public eye. “Look, once I head out to the course, I am a role model, like it or not. So, how I act out there is important, from the clubhouse to warming up on the practice tee, to my entire round of golf. Hopefully, I remain a good role model all the way through that process.”

His own role model when he was a youngster came from a different professional sport. “Early on it was baseball players. Ernie Banks in particular,” he said. “I was born in Los Angeles, but for some reason I was big on the 1969 Cubs team. They broke my heart. Don Kessinger was one of my favorites. My dad had a picture in his office of me and Bill Hands. Fergie Jenkins was another one I liked.”

When Waldorf was informed that all of those guys have done autograph shows at one time or another, he said, “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to pay money for my autograph. In fact, I have never been asked to do an autograph show. I do autograph signings at the course, but that’s it. I think it would actually be rather bizarre to do an autograph show.”

Waldorf was also asked if he knew that his signature was probably being bought and sold by dealers and collectors in the secondary market. “You think so?” he responded. “Well, I guess that is fine, but I don’t think people should do that for profit. If people want to complete a collection or have it around their house, that’s okay. I’m not big on any of that, but until I’m willing to make people pay for my signature, then let others do it. I was aware that that happens with the big sports names, like Joe Montana and so on. But Duffy Waldorf? If they really want my autograph tell them to come out to the course and I’ll sign it for them there.”

Although Waldorf had no problem with the idea that there might be people selling the autographs that he gives out so freely at the 18th hole, this is a concept the PGA Tour itself has trouble with. This is evident from the language printed on the PGA Tour’s tickets and badges, which say, “You agree that you shall not seek autographs of players in order to sell such autographs, and you shall not pay another person to obtain an autograph for you.” Like Hale Irwin, who was also once interviewed by SCD on the same subject, the PGA Tour does not think the golfers should be exploited by dealers or others who take advantage of the golfers’ goodwill in order to make a profit that isn’t shared with the golfers or given to a worthy cause.

Collectors should also realize that determining when and where to seek a golfer’s signature is only one part of the puzzle. Of equal importance is deciding what to have the golfer sign. Most people seem to want the golfer to sign a hat, visor or shirt. The next most popular items are programs, score sheets and tickets, with a smattering of golf balls, seat cushions, photos and trading cards. More and more, however, pin flags, like the kind sold in the merchandise tent or the pro shop, are showing up in the hands of autograph collectors. These are easily signed with a Sharpie, and they come with a cardboard backing that acts like an easel and makes the flag easy to hold and sign. Also, the pin flags generally have the specific tournament logo on them, so collectors will always know when and where the autographs were on the flag obtained.

Of interest at the Western Open this year was that one of the golfers, Luke Donald, actually designed and painted the artwork for the tournament program and the official tournament poster. Donald, who is British by birth, attended Northwestern University, which is located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., and graduated with a degree in art theory and practice. Thus, he was eminently qualified to create the program’s cover design and the poster.

Donald chose the 2004 Western Open champion, Stephen Ames, as the subject for his artwork. In a colorful and stylistic rendition, Donald captured an image of Ames releasing on his down stroke for his approach shot to the 18th green at last year’s tournament. It was an astonishing piece of work that provided a rich palette on which to have both Donald and Ames sign their names.

“I get a kick out of (signing autographs),” Donald said at the conclusion of his round. “If you can spend five or 10 minutes doing it, it might make a difference to them, and that helps the tour. I also sign stuff for charities all the time.”

But what about the people who just want the autograph so they can sell it on eBay? Does that bother him at all? “A little bit,” he said. “But it is tough to figure out who is doing it and who isn’t. I tend to go toward the younger children most often anyway.” Does he try to get autographs or memorabilia from the other golfers himself? “Oh, no,” Donald said. “It really isn’t something I am interested in. In fact, I sometimes wonder why people do it, especially when they don’t even recognize or know most of the players. I guess its because I’m just not into collecting things."

Ben Curtis, who is one of the nicer players on the PGA Tour, is such a fan of the Chicago Bears that he often wears clothing with the Bears logo on it while out on the course. Winner of the 2003 British Open Championship, Curtis is unfailingly pleasant and polite with fans and spends quite a bit of time signing his name in the autograph area when his rounds are finished. Curtis obviously delights in the attention he receives from the fans, and he received plenty of it at this year’s Western Open, as he was tied for the lead going into the final round. Eventually, he finished third. Only Tiger Woods seemed to have more people cheering for him this year.

If collectors want to keep guys like Curtis smiling and signing, they should remember that whenever they attend a professional golf tournament, they are goodwill ambassadors for the hobby. And that means they need to play by the rules.