News & Opinion

Sign of the times: Fans skew golf’s script

ORLANDO, Fla. – The stakeout started before the first group teed off on Saturday morning and looked oddly similar to the sunrise scene at Augusta National.

In strategic positions along a cordoned-off area, lawn chairs were placed by ticket holders attempting to claim spots before the big-name players began rolling past later in the day.

But this wasn’t April at Amen Corner during the Masters. It was the designated autograph area at the PNC Father-Son Challenge, where the field over the weekend at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club included nine World Golf Hall of Famers and several others who someday could be enshrined.

For professional autograph hounds stalking a Golden Bear or a Great White Shark, it represented the most fertile hunting ground in golf. Because some players in the field, notably Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, barely play publicly anymore, it was like sitting at a drive-through window as players cruised past, handing out sacks of money.

Indeed, until three years ago, when the late Arnold Palmer finally stopped playing in the event, it was the only place on the planet outside of the Augusta National players’ parking lot where memorabilia ink-seekers could corral the King and the Bear on the same day.

“This event is the major championship for autograph seekers,” said IMG’s Alastair Johnston, who founded the popular offseason tournament more than two decades ago.  

By the time Nicklaus finished his round Saturday, playing alongside fellow legend Lee Trevino, the merchandise-toting entrepreneurs were lined up three deep in the autograph area, a throng of perhaps 100 in all, as they awaited the Bear and his Sharpie. Sensing easy pickings, the majority were professionals who likely had their newly signed items posted on eBay before nightfall.

Even a separate area set aside for kids younger than 13 was populated by several children who had been hired by professional autograph dealers, including one who was overheard early in the day saying to his preteen minions: “I didn’t hire you to fool around. I hired you to get autographs.”

The stakes are higher than you might believe.

One girl had a new Ohio State football helmet at her feet, still in its cardboard Riddell box, awaiting a cursive swipe from the school’s most famous golf alumnus. Farther down the rail, three adult males held Ohio State football jerseys festooned with Nicklaus’ surname and the number 18, homage to his major championships. On Sunday morning, one website was auctioning a similar Buckeyes jersey signed by Nicklaus for more than $1,800.

With members of their family literally standing inside the ropes with them during the team event, legendary players such as Nick Faldo, Norman, Nicklaus and Trevino are unlikely to turn down most requests. So, shark jokes aside, they were fish in a barrel for the autograph hounds. 

“They’re on their best behavior; they’re accommodating; they’re polite; they don’t want to come off as jerks,” Johnston said.

It was four days of Valhalla for memorabilia hawks. During his pro-am round Thursday, Trevino was stopped in his electric cart by fans who blocked his path as he drove away from the 18th green. Of course, he already had signed several autographs in the middle of the round, which he was quick to point out in inimitable fashion. 

“I know I signed some stuff for you already,” Trevino told one familiar autograph seeker, “because I remember that ugly-ass mustache.”

Said the man in response, laughing: “I’m shaving it off tomorrow.”

All the better, because Trevino then wouldn’t recognize him if he came back armed with even more “merch” to sign. Incredible as it sounds, Nicklaus somehow has established a detente with the professionals, who stalk him at his grandchildren’s sports contests in south Florida. He knows they’re taking advantage of his generosity, yet he cooperates, within reason. He’s not just growing the game but also fattening wallets.

“I don’t mind helping them, but when they come along with a basket or a briefcase full of stuff?” he said. “Every kid event I go to, there will be 30 of them, and I sign two for each of them. They’ve gotten used to being happy with two, and that doesn’t become a big deal. They used to come and want 10 apiece. 

“I said, ‘Guys, I’m not going to do that. I don’t mind helping you out, but I think two [is fine].’ I’m not going to sit there and sign a basketful.”

Nicklaus has a notion what his autograph is worth and that he’s helping many professionals earn a living. A full-sized Ohio State football helmet with his signature is worth about $500 on eBay. We checked.

“If I sign, I don’t care what they do with them,” he said. “If they want to sell them, and it helps them out financially [it’s O.K.].”

One of Nicklaus’ 22 grandchildren, Nick O’Leary, played football at Florida State and is in his third season with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. As it turns out, some enterprising students along the way have attended school on a Nicklaus scholarship of a sort.

“A lot of the kids, it helps them get through school that way, and I’ve had several from Florida State and Ohio State who have done that, and it’s helped pay their tuition,” Nicklaus said. “I have no problem with them doing that, and I usually help those kids out a little bit more.”

Nicklaus, 77, owned only a handful of autographs as a kid, including those of golfers Lloyd Mangrum and Sam Snead, signatures he secured when he was 10. He cherished a baseball autographed by future major-league pitcher Harvey Haddix that sat on his desk for 30 years before one of his boys took it out in the yard and used it for a game of catch, rubbing away the autograph ink. Nicklaus got the ball signed as a schoolkid, when Haddix was playing for the minor-league team in Columbus, Ohio.

Mindful of yet another generation gap that had formed, Nicklaus sounded downright wistful reminiscing about it. These days, the autograph exchange often has become a financial transaction. He knew most of the items that he was about to sign would be up for auction before he finished his post-round meal.

“The biggest problem,” Nicklaus said, “is that autographs used to be for kids, for something fun, something personal, to take home from a golf tournament.”

Now, for the professionals, it’s what attracts them to tournaments like the Father-Son in the first place.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling