Collecting Golf Autographs
From Tom Morris to Tiger Woods
by Kevin Glew
In recent years, Tiger Woods' career has been hampered by injuries and personal woes; moreover, he hasn't won a major tournament since 2008. Yet even so, his impact on golf and the golf collectibles industry remains unparalleled.
"Tiger Woods really kind of jumpstarted everything for us," said Ryan Carey, who co-founded Green Jacket Auctions with Bob Zafian in 2006. "In our early golf auctions, the sales were 30 to 35 percent Tiger Woods items - [such as] autographs and flags from Tiger's victories."
Woods' domination between 1997 and 2008 transformed him into one of the best-known athletes in the world, and the national and international spotlight was thrust upon golf like never before. One of the ripple effects of this was that more people began collecting golf autographs.
"Even with everything he's been through, Tiger's autographs still sell fairly well, though the prices are down from where they were prior to the incident at Thanksgiving several years ago," shared Zafian. "But there are certain golfers that move the needle and he is one of them."
Carey adds that some of the collectors that started with Woods' autographs have begun pursuing other golf signatures.
"We've seen a lot of those [Tiger] collectors grow into more serious golf collectors," noted Carey. "Tiger is still a big part, but I think the rest of the hobby has matured, whereas Tiger used to be the driving force of the hobby."
With all of this said, there are still fewer people chasing golf autographs than baseball, football, basketball, and hockey signatures. But the number of golf collectors is growing. Zafian says his company now has customers in 52 countries, and they vary widely in age.
"We have customers that are kids and they have to get their parents' permission to bid in our auctions," said Carey. "And then we have customers that are senior citizens. We have one customer who is 99 years old."
So how does one go about starting a collection of golf autographs?
Well, you can purchase rare autographs from auction houses like Green Jacket. You can also start your own collection by going to PGA tournaments. Veteran golf enthusiast Mike Urann, who resides in Los Angeles, started obtaining his autographs at tournaments in 2001. Zafian was once an ambitious in-person autograph seeker at these events as well.
"It's tough because, generally, the only place you see golfers is at golf tournaments," explained Zafian. "You don't normally see a golfer sitting up there [signing autographs] at a baseball card show."
Fortunately, according to Urann, golfers are typically accommodating signers, but he does add that they don't sign as freely as they used to. It was around 2005 that Urann noticed golfers becoming more aware of the value of their autographs, and they've since grown more selective about what they sign.
"There's not one golfer out there who won't sign your hat," said Urann. "But when they see the yellow Masters flag come out or any of the major championship flags, they think those are generally going to be sold."
Some golfers will also respond to mail-in requests for free if you write to them and enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope, while others will sign for a fee or a donation to a specified charity.
"I used to send requests by mail to catch up on the golfers that weren't playing anymore," said Urann. "For example, I knew I was never going to see Doug Ford, who won the 1957 Masters, at a golf tournament because he had retired by the time I started collecting, so I needed to send him a golf ball in the mail. He was very kind and he signed it and sent it back."
In more recent years, thanks largely to Woods' popularity, hobbyists have also had the option of collecting certified autograph golf cards produced by Upper Deck and Leaf. British collector Brian Smithers ranks the 85-card, 2001 SP Authentic Sign of the Times golf set as one of the best.
"My favorite set is 2001 SP Authentic Sign of the Times," noted Smithers, who owns the No. 1 set on the PSA Set Registry. "It took me a few years to complete this set because a few of the cards are very scarce. With Woods, [Sergio] Garcia, [Jack] Nicklaus, [Arnold] Palmer, [Gary] Player, [Nick] Faldo, [Colin] Montgomerie, [Byron] Nelson, [Adam] Scott, [David] Duval, [Bernhard] Langer, [Fred] Couples, [John] Daly, [Ken] Venturi, and [Padraig] Harrington [in the set] - just to name a few - this tells you how great this set is!"
Trading cards (without certified autographs on them) have also become popular items to have signed, but they're not as favored as golf balls. A nicely signed golf ball will command a premium, but there are several challenges to having golf balls autographed.
"Golf balls are very difficult to sign and they were almost impossible to sign before the invention of the Sharpie marker [in 1964]," noted Carey. "There are a lot of modern players that just hate signing golf balls. They're difficult to sign. It's time consuming and they end up getting Sharpie ink all over their fingers."
Despite this, Urann has managed to obtain some beautiful signatures on balls.
"Some guys have figured it out," he said. "I have some really nice autographs on golf balls. You would never realize that they had any trouble doing them. Nicklaus' autograph on a golf ball is gorgeous."
Unfortunately, some of golf's biggest names - including Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson, and Lee Trevino - have refused to sign balls.
"Tiger probably last signed a golf ball in 1997, and that would have been before he won the Masters in 1997," said Urann. "I think I've seen a total of 10 signed Tiger golf balls, and they're all from when he played in the U.S. Amateur. You can tell because his autograph is completely different."
Mickelson will graciously sign almost everything except golf balls.
"He'll sign anything you put in front of him, but he will not sign a golf ball," noted Carey. "He won't sign them for anybody, even friends. The only signed Mickelson golf balls that exist are from very early in his career ... So, whereas an autographed program from a tournament signed by Mickelson might be worth $75 or an autographed flag might be worth $150, a Mickelson-signed golf ball could sell for $6,000 tomorrow."
Balls signed by early golf greats are also particularly rare because, as noted earlier, they didn't have adequate writing tools to sign them with.
"Before felt-tip markers, it was very, very difficult to sign a golf ball," said Carey. "So, for somebody like Bobby Jones, who I'm sure signed more autographs than any other golfer of his era, there are only a handful of known autographed golf balls. I believe the record for one we sold a few years ago was $58,000."
But while signed balls are very desirable, hobby experts say the most fashionable item for collectors to have signed these days is a tournament flag. At most PGA tournaments, you can purchase an official souvenir flag and some of these are valuable even without signatures. The 1997 Masters flag, for example, sells for about $2,000 because that was the first year that Woods won the tournament.
"If Tiger signs it, all of a sudden you have a $4,000 or $5,000 flag," noted Carey.
Most official souvenir tournament flags are dated, so a common practice is to have the flag signed by the tournament champion from that year. Masters flags are generally the most sought-after items; they offer an image in the shape of the United States in the center and collectors like to have the winner sign in the middle of this outline.
"It's much like a baseball where collectors want a ball signed on the sweet spot," explained Carey. "Someone will definitely pay a premium for an autograph signed in the center of a Masters flag."
But similar to golf balls, there are also golfers that will not sign flags. Tom Watson will not autograph a flag and current golfers Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson are reluctant to sign Masters flags in the center.
In general, it's the autographs of champions from golf's four major tournaments - the Masters, U.S. Open, The Open Championship (British Open), and PGA Championship - that are most in demand. Amassing signatures of Masters champs is the most popular. One of the reasons for this is that this tournament only dates back to 1934 and examples of each winner's autograph have been uncovered.
Urann began his mission to obtain all the Masters winners signatures on balls when he had Palmer and Nicklaus sign balls in 2001.
"It's been challenging," said Urann. "Some of these guys are dead and have been dead for a long time ... And when they were autographing golf balls in the 1940s and 1950s, they were signing them with ballpoint pens."
The autograph of Horton Smith, who won two of the first three Masters tournaments, is highly sought after. One black-and-white photo with a 1951 inscription signed by Horton garnered $1,501 in Green Jacket's 2016 Summer Auction.
Carey indicates that there are a few Masters champs whose autographs are nearly impossible to uncover.
"The autograph of Claude Harmon, who is the father of Tiger Woods' old coach, Butch Harmon, is extremely rare, and I believe the only [signed] Augusta scorecard of him sold for $16,000," said Carey.
Carey adds that items signed by 1948 Masters champ Craig Wood are also few and far between. Wood passed away in 1968. A signed 1940s photo (with an inscription) authenticated by PSA/DNA sold for $2,600 in an October 2006 auction. The same photo would likely command significantly more today.
There are also collectors attempting to track down an autograph from every British Open champion, but the fact that this tournament dates to 1860 makes this a daunting task.
"We do have collectors with want lists who are trying to collect every British Open champion," said Zafian. "There is material out there, but some of it is really rare. For example, we don't know if a verifiable Young Tom Morris autograph even exists."
Young Morris was a Scottish golf prodigy that won four British Open titles by the age of 21. He was the son of Old Tom Morris, a four-time British Open champ himself, whose autograph is also rare and desirable. Sadly, Young Morris died of a pulmonary hemorrhage in 1875 when he was just 24.
"If you're talking about pure value, no autograph of Young Morris has ever been found," said Carey. "So, if a Young Morris autograph surfaces, even on a piece of paper, it would sell for a couple hundred thousand dollars."
Hobby experts seem to agree that Bobby Jones is the most coveted, individual, vintage autograph. The Atlanta native dominated his sport from 1923 to 1930 and, in total, won 13 of the 31 majors - including all four major tournaments of his era in 1930 - that he entered.
"Jones' material is always very popular. His signature on just a 3x5 card is $900," said Zafian. "If you get him on a photo, it could be as high as $10,000."
The autographs of Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, who excelled shortly after Jones, are also in high demand.
The most valuable vintage female golfer's autograph belongs to Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She not only won 10 LPGA events, but she also starred in basketball and track and field. At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she captured gold medals in javelin and in the 80-metre hurdles.
"She was one of America's greatest athletes ever," noted Carey. "She was also a golf champion, so her autograph is probably the most desirable [among female golfers]."
And before Woods, it was the rivalry between Palmer and Nicklaus in the late-1950s and throughout the 1960s that drew TV viewers to the sport. Though Nicklaus won far more majors (18 versus seven for Palmer), both evolved into international superstars. Both were also prolific and gracious signers, so while they're autographs are not rare, they remain in very high demand.
"Palmer is definitely destined to be golf's version of Mickey Mantle, in the sense that there were better golfers statistically, but in terms of appeal, collectors are going to value Palmer more than anyone else of his generation," said Carey.
Hobby experts warn that Palmer and Nicklaus allegedly employed autopens to answer mail requests over the years.
"I've seen more [Nicklaus autopen signatures] towards the mid-to-late 1990s," added Zafian.
Zafian, sees a lot of Nicklaus, Palmer, and Woods forgeries.
"There are a lot of forgeries of Ben Hogan out there too," noted Zafian. "It became easier to forge his signature especially later in his life when his signature became a little more shaky."
Carey says collecting golf autographs is continuing to grow in popularity.
"We started our auctions with various autographs and Masters collectibles, and it's really been just in the past four years that we have seen an uptick in golf sales. We still lag behind the other [major] sports in terms of prices, but I think people are starting to notice," he said.
Zafian has also seen more people collecting golf autographs, but he believes that they are still undervalued.
"Bobby Jones and [Old] Tom Morris - they're the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of golf. Price-wise, they're undervalued compared to baseball autographs, and there are far fewer of them out there," he said.
For more information on Golf autographs, please visit https://www.psacard.com/autographfacts/#8golf-autographs.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of July 2017.