AUGUSTA, Ga. – The guy wearing a golf shirt, khaki pants and a Masters cap was more flustered than anyone standing in front of a Krispy Kreme has a right to be.
He was one of a long line of amateur scalpers along Washington Road looking to hawk badges to Saturday's round of the Masters. And like many amateur scalpers, he had trouble keeping his cool.
"You can't leave your car there!" he spluttered, waving his arms like a ref signaling a missed kick, before I'd even had a chance to roll down my window. Hadn't this guy ever seen "The Wire"? Marlo Stanfield wouldn't let him run a trash dumpster, much less a corner.
Drive down Washington Road in Augusta, and you'll see Americana in full bloom: Hooters, McDonald's, no-tell motels, and amid it all, a little private golf club tucked behind some eight-foot-high hedges. But the week of the Masters, the road becomes Free Market Central, with dozens of RVs and pop-up canopies decorated with hand-painted signs seeking to move BADGES and TICKETS HERE!!!
But many of these guys aren't your typical ticket brokers, the stick-and-move types who can gauge the instant ebbs and flows of the market with the precision of a day trader. No, they're phone salesmen and IT consultants, average Joes who've found themselves in possession of one of sports' most prized possessions. So you can understand if they're a little wobbly in the whole streetside-negotiation department.
"I'm not talking prices," said one scalper planted at an RV in the parking lot of the Circle K. His partner, once he realized I wasn't there to buy, wandered off, turning his back on me as if in an attempt to hide his face. "Market's been good," was all the scalper would allow.
It wasn't until my third attempt, in the parking lot of a Taco Bell, that I finally got some hard numbers on the cost of a badge: $1,000 for Saturday, $800 for the Easter Sunday round. "They're going fast! Only two left!" the scalper said, in a voice that had the please-believe-me tone of someone who wasn't quite believing his own line; after all, Tiger Woods had teed off an hour ago, and with every hole Woods ticked off, the scalper's holdings lost that much value.
Still, as inexperienced as they are, the scalpers prove a point: even the most prized ticket in sports can be had for the right price. You can go with the free market, or you can take to the Internet. Within a few minutes of the Taco Bell parking lot pricing, Stubhub offered Saturday badges for about $1,100 and Sunday badges for about $840. The lowest price I saw during Masters week? A Monday practice round for the bargain price of $240.
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Stubhub runs a brisk, efficient business Masters weekend, renting out a house near the club and running a full hospitality suite for its customers. Of course, it's very much a business: you have to return the badge that evening, lest the company carry through on a credit card preauthorization you sign when you pick up your badge. Like everywhere else at Augusta National, if you play ball, everyone gets along just fine.
Once you get onto the grounds one way or another, the code of omerta often takes over: You don't talk about where you got your badge, lest you lose access to it next year. "Friends," was all two men standing along the ropes at No. 10 would allow when asked of the source of their badges. "Friends we do business with." They declined to give even their own names, not taking the chance that an in-print mention would offend their badge-holding friend.
"Got it from my uncle," said Jeremy Tatrow of Macon, Ga. Masters badges are prized possessions, passed down from generation to generation for decades. Augusta can and will yank badges from misbehaving patrons, an imperative never lost on any badge-holder who hands over the prized possession for a day. When asked if his uncle had given him some tips on behavior to ensure the badge would remain in the family, Tatrow's eyes widened, and he simply nodded silently. (To Jeremy's uncle: During the two minutes I spoke with him, your nephew was a model of decorum.)
Of course, some patrons take immense pride in their badges, wearing their decades of attendance like a family crest. "We've been coming here for 40 years," said Rene, who won't give her last name ("I don't think my husband would want that") but will allow that she's from South Carolina. Along with her sister, Pat, she appears to have stepped fully-formed from the pages of a Pat Conroy novel. "It's a privilege to be here, to take part in this blessed tournament. We would never, ever sell our badges, not even for a day."
[ Photos: The women behind the men at Augusta National ]
Joe Guillebeau, a golf instructor at the Wilmington Country Club in Delaware, sees the ladies' 40 years and raises it another 20. While Joe now gets a badge of his own as a member of the PGA, he attended the Masters for many years on the badge of his grandmother, who grew up in Augusta.
"She used to just walk up and buy tickets," Guillebeau said. "Then one day, she sent a letter to a friend who worked for the club, and asked if she could be mailed the tickets. That got her on The List."
"The List" – and, yes, you capitalize it in Augusta – is the fabled roll of patrons who receive badges every year. Like membership to the club itself, if you have to ask how to get on The List, you're not getting on.
So is it worth it, after all? Is a trip to Augusta in the spring really worth four figures per person? That depends. It's a bucket-list item for most sports fans, sure, but spending a month's rent for one afternoon is understandably a queasy proposition for many among the 99 percent. Ask the people inside the gates, however, and it's a different story.
"This isn't like any other course in the world; this isn't like any other tournament in the world," Rene of South Carolina said. "We treasure every time we come here."
And if you do get in, at least you can stop the financial bleeding with the throwback pricing at the Masters concession stands. A $3 beer does wonders for a critically-wounded wallet.
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