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FOCUS ON GOLF: THE 62ND MASTERS

Cautionary Tale for Those Who Make a Killing

Badges: Lack of supply creates great demand at Augusta, but it drove one broker to suicide.

April 09, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a Thursday afternoon last April and Tiger Woods was finishing a round of 70 on his way to just doing it at the Masters. Along Washington Road, which runs in front of Augusta National Golf Club, a sleepy Georgia town was responding by doing a remarkable imitation of the New York Stock Exchange.

The price of a $100 badge that would allow a spectator to rub elbows with 35,000 or so of the rich and famous spiked after starting the day at something over $4,000.

"I know that one person paid $10,500 for one," said Jeff Weber, marketing director for SGH Golf, a Cincinnati firm specializing in tour packages, including some to the Masters.

Before Woods shot his second-round 69, Allen Caldwell III had sized up his financial situation, figured a bottom line of personal disaster and humiliation and shot himself in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun in nearby Martinez, Ga.

Before Woods finished his final-round 69 that completed a 12-shot victory, Caldwell was buried, but his legacy lives.

"They are about $4,000 per badge," said Weber, who is booking 300 people into Augusta this week on tours that start at $5,200 and go to $6,800, including accommodations and tickets--some shared, with a holder playing golf in the morning and going to Augusta National in the afternoon, having exchanged badges with another holder who is heading for a tee time after being inspired by a morning Masters round.

Golf World has reported the going street price for this year's tournament has dropped to $2,000 in recent days.

"It's much easier this year," Weber said. "For one thing, it's Easter weekend and I think that has some effect. And I think the big thing is that people got scared last year. I knew Allen. I think that he has had some effect on it."

Caldwell owned a few small Augusta businesses and became a mogul once a year, at Masters time, when he was able to get tickets and help arrange transportation, housing and food for tour purveyors. He also was a partner in the Clubhouse, a restaurant across Washington Road from Augusta National.

Its location made it a convenient watering hole for the executives who flock to Augusta in April, particularly those who bought tours from World Golf Hospitality of Atlanta.

World was Caldwell's partner in the Clubhouse, with Caldwell providing the one essential to complete the package: 120 badges at $2,000 each, according to Golf Digest.

Caldwell also had agreed to provide 40 for a Columbus, Ohio, broker and his sources, many of whom had been doing business with him for years, were drying up. Some were reneging. He was 20 short by one account, and anger abounded. Some executives went home, without tickets. Lawsuits were threatened.

"I heard he was actually about 400 short," Weber said.

Whatever, it was enough for Caldwell to take his life and for people to take a harder look at the toughest ticket in sports.

"I'm scared to do an interview," said one patron, who has two tickets and has been going to the tournament for 33 years. "They're liable to jerk my tickets.

"They can make all kinds of problems. [The officials at Augusta National] are funny folks. They're nice people, but you never know, and I wouldn't do anything in the world that would jeopardize my tickets."

He has heard that Augusta National--which has an official line of "We are not the ticket Gestapo," according to a tournament spokesman--has employed undercover agents to try to buy tickets, and he has gotten the letter, which says, in part:

"I acknowledge that Augusta National Inc. is the only entity authorized to sell such tickets, and I agree not to sell or rent such tickets to or through ticket brokers, travel agents, scalpers or others. Additionally, I acknowledge that selling or renting tickets for an amount in excess of face value is prohibited by this agreement, is a violation of law and is subject to prosecution. The name of any patron violating this agreement may be permanently removed from the patron list."

"I wouldn't sell mine," said the patron, who regards the Masters as a holy rite.

But plenty of others would and do. It has reached a point where tickets might be too valuable to hold.

The process begins just after Thanksgiving, when brokers flock to Augusta, money in hand.

"There are about 15 guys, and they've got tickets for every sporting event, the Super Bowl, everything," Weber said.

Many Augustans, some of whom came by their tickets in the early Masters days, when they were so plentiful they were sold in grocery stores, do their Christmas shopping with the $1,500-$2,000 they receive for the $100 badges, Augusta National's admonition and Georgia's anti-scalping law notwithstanding.

And brokers sell to tour agencies, and agencies to well-heeled businessmen who provide them to favored clients. By that time, the sale and profits have gone through three levels, and a year ago an extra level was added on Thursday, the tournament's first day.

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