A rare bargain at Augusta

Dan Wetzel

AUGUSTA, Ga. – A man named J.T. Alexander drove his dusty pickup truck from Tennessee to the corner of Washington and Sherwood Dr. here, handed $350 in cash to a ticket broker and said he "was about to experience a dream."

Up and down Washington, the main drag outside Augusta National, the ticket sellers said they used to deal with a steady parade of Mercedes and Cadillacs and you couldn't get in without paying at least a grand.

These days, the recession days, the corporate responsibility days, it's a whole new ballgame.

"The tickets are ridiculously low," said broker Sunnie Finkle as she stood outside her van looking for customers in a different section of town.

"If you had told me it would be a $400 for the day, I would've laughed in your face."

Forget $400 when it comes to Sunday. The feeling among some brokers is if you have $300 you'll not only get into the final round of the Masters, you'll have money left over for a pimento cheese sandwich. If you want a half-day pass (after 2 p.m.) for just the leaders, you might only need $250.

There aren't many positives from the nation's current economic condition. The Masters suddenly becoming a "bargain" is one. The price is still considerable and certainly out of reach for many fans, but not nearly as out of reach as years past.

Some of them are showing up, cash crumpled in their working hands, for their chance to watch Tiger Woods on the hallowed, azalea-covered grounds of Augusta.

If one more plumber or teacher or cop enjoys a religious experience in Amen Corner rather than a hedge fund manager networking in a hospitality tent then who's to say America isn't a better place?

"It's more of a working class customer than a high end corporate client," Finkle said.

Alexander said he saw the prices were low on the Internet and got a friend to get up at 3 a.m. and make a six-hour drive here. They plan on driving back Friday night.

"It's still a lot but when else [could] I go?" he said.

Finkle has sold Masters tickets for 11 years. In 1998, the year after Woods' first green jacket, she said she sold a four-day badge for $10,000. She said Friday tickets never went for less than $1,000.

Now she had a man approach her, hear that her price was $450 for the day and cringe. He asked about a half-day pass, heard it was $350 and walked away to compare prices elsewhere. He probably found better.

No, this hasn't become some blue collar domain. The G-5s are still lined up at Augusta Regional Airport and the rich, beautiful and connected still make up most of the gallery.

While some brokers said they're seeing a new clientele, other say it's the same people as always, they're just being cheap now.

It's still more bourgeoisie than proletariat. It's not Turn 3 at Daytona quite yet.

It is different though. Local hospitality clubs – homes near the course that cater to major corporations – have seen a 40 percent drop in business, according to the Augusta Chronicle. Fortune 500 companies have curbed their presence here or dropped out altogether. And individual discretionary spending is tight. Besides, with the Internet, everyone can find out the going rate.

"The buyers are as educated as the sellers," Finkle said.

Stubhub.com, which rents out a large ranch house near the course to handle clients, had Sunday tickets selling for $367 as of Friday afternoon. On Empire Tickets they were going for $325; at Ticket City it was $305.

And the prices keep dropping as fast as Kenny Perry's score. They could wind up in the $200s. That the final round falls on Easter Sunday here in the Bible Belt, limiting potential customers, has not only driven prices down further, it's given agnostics something to celebrate.

The Masters has always been affordable – if you could get one of the estimated 25,000 badges directly from the tournament. The privately owned Augusta National has always prided itself in keeping prices low; its membership is so wealthy the goal appears to be just covering costs.

A four-day ticket costs just $200 ($50 per day). Juniors, age 8-16, can get in free with an adult ticket holder. Practice rounds range from $36-$41. There is no VIP access or inside-the-ropes' passes; every ticket is equal. Parking is free. On-course concessions are from a bygone era – sandwiches for $1.50, beer for as little as $2.75.

You can't bring a cell phone on the grounds but the club offers rows of public phones that can dial anywhere in the world for free.

On the secondary ticket market, though, prices skyrocket. The Masters is a unique, international event catering to a well-heeled fan base often playing with expense account money. More than one ticket broker on Washington said they'd heard of single day passes going for more than $5,000.

The ticket guys are still making money – the economy has allowed them to buy their tickets low too. This business is pure capitalism. The margin isn't the same, though.

"If you're buying for $300 and selling for $400, it's not like you're buying for $3,000 and selling for $4,000," Finkle said.

Alexander wasn't shedding any tears. He said he became a fan of the event in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus made a dramatic back nine charge on Sunday to take the green jacket. Until a week ago, when he heard from a friend that prices were down, he had never really thought of attending the event.

Now here he was, smiling wide. Tiger Woods was set to tee off in 45 minutes. The recession had finally provided something for a guy like him.

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