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The Toughest Ticket in Sports

March 2007 Masters Golf Badges

The Toughest Ticket in Sports
By Josh Peter, Yahoo! Sports

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Dan Hedrick, better known among veteran ticket scalpers as Fat Danny, parked his ample self on an impossibly sturdy lawn chair. Cars whizzed past his roadside spot, about two miles from the sacred ground of Augusta National and home of the Masters, as he held a cardboard sign that read "WE NEED TICKETS" and waited for the equivalent of a hole-in-one.

Over the years, Hedrick said, he has scored countless tickets for the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four and any other major sporting event in America. But tickets for the Masters are a different story. A very, very sad story by the look on Hedrick's goateed face.

"I've been coming here for 15 years, and I've only bought one pair off the street," he said.

Even if Hedrick is lucky enough to find a chance to buy a prized pair of tickets this week, he will insist on seeing the seller's driver's license, get his phone number and take down his license plate number before he makes the purchase. If the seller is smart, he'll ask the same thing from Hedrick.

Scalping is legal here as long as it's done by a licensed broker and conducted at least 2,700 feet from Augusta National. But the transactions can be as nerve-rattling as a 4-foot putt to win the green jacket.

What's widely considered the toughest ticket in sports is actually a badge, a 3½-by-2½-inch piece of laminated plastic that grants holders access to all four rounds of the tournament. The face value is $176, but this year a badge will fetch up to $4,000 apiece online or from brokers. The resale also comes with a heightened gamble.

An effort to crack down on the reselling of tickets has moved the big-dollar ticket exchanges off of Washington Road, the four-lane thoroughfare that fronts Augusta National and is home to scalpers like Hedrick. The high rollers are operating on the side streets, where well-heeled brokers have bought houses and offer customers a discreet place to buy or sell.

Yet even on the premises of homes owned by brokers, the business has become riskier. Just like it lengthened its course in an effort to slow down Tiger Woods, Augusta National has used technology to clamp down on scalpers with technology that includes holograms, bar codes and scanners.

Badges that are reported stolen and find their way onto the black market are more than worthless. They're expensive.

Handheld scanners used at the entrance gates identify badges that have been reported stolen, and Augusta National employees promptly confiscate them and give the badge holder a pink slip. The pink slip entitles the customer to a refund - provided he can find the person who sold him the stolen badge.

Undercover officers who confiscate badges from unlicensed scalpers or scalpers doing business within 2,700 feet of the golf course take the proceeds. They then take the scalpers to jail. Even with the scalper facing a $600 fine, the arrest proves to be more expensive for the original badge holder.

The sheriff's department returns the badges to Augusta National, where officials match the bar code with the name of the original holder and permanently remove that person from the exclusive list - the one that entitles lucky fans to annual badges. For average golf fans, about the only way to get on that list is to find a time-travel machine.

Legends of the Badge

Procuring badges is as simple as walking to the front gates and forking over less than 20 bucks as long as it's 1967. That was before the waiting list started and before the madness began. The rising demand and limited supply for an estimated 30,000 badges - Augusta National steadfastly refuses to reveal the number - led to the lore and the scene one finds on the eve of the 71st annual tournament.

First, the lore:

In 1995, a man from Georgia determined to keep his annual badges took his ex-wife to court - all the way to the state Supreme Court.

At first, the two had joint custody of the badges. The husband got them one year and the wife got them the next as part of the alimony agreement, but after the woman remarried, well, the ex-husband was damned if he was going to continue sharing the tickets. Eventually, the case wound up in front of the state Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the ex-husband.

In 1997, a man from Augusta promised to come up with about 100 badges for brokers. But the price on the black market skyrocketed, and the man suddenly found himself short dozens of badges and potentially $400,000 in the hole. He stopped looking for tickets, found a 12-gauge shotgun and killed himself.

Now, the scene:

On Washington Road, the cardboard signs that read "BADGES WANTED" and "BUY AND SELL" outnumber the traffic lights by about four to one. Those signs are aimed at fans desperate to walk down Magnolia Lane, see Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the azaleas up close and stroll across a golf course that boasts tradition even richer than its members, who include Bill Gates.

Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els aren't the only fixtures who will be back. So are Boston Shorty, Gator, Smiley, all friends of Fat Danny and the guys who prefer to be called "ticket brokers" the way trash men prefer to be called "sanitation engineers." Though the badges remain elusive, the scalpers now traffic in practice-round tickets.

Every year, Augusta National holds a public lottery for practice-round tickets with a face value of $31 for Monday and Tuesday and $36 for Wednesday. But fans know they're worth far more, and many sell them to Hedrick, who said he's from Denton, N.C.

On Sunday night, a couple of Canadians pulled their car up to the stretch of curbside grass where Hedrick sat. He raised himself as if helped by an imaginary crane and lumbered over to the car. Negotiations commenced.

The Canadians wanted two tickets for the Tuesday practice round. Hedrick wanted $250 apiece. Then he dropped his price to $225. The man said they were headed for the nearest ATM and sped off.

Less than 10 minutes later, the Canadians were back. Hedrick and the tickets were gone. He'd sold them to a woman who pulled up and offered him $250 apiece.

"That's business," said Hedrick, who occasionally counted his wad of cash and estimated he could make $4,000 this week.

Hedrick has chutzpah. But what the big players have are connections.

Home-field advantage

Up the road, a scalper from North Carolina said he'd already made close to $20,000 before he set up his tent this past week. "I'm on Easy Street," he said.

He refused to give his name, but he did reveal his secret. A few years ago, the scalper said, he moved to Augusta and spent 18 months in the town. That gave him the opportunity to meet locals on the list of badge holders and develop the trust needed to ensure them he could pay them top dollar for their badges and ensure he returned them without Augusta National or the cops knowing about the transaction.

"I've already touched 30," he said, meaning he'd bought 30 badges and resold them. "But I'm a small fish compared to that."

The man pointed to across the street to a billboard advertising "Golden Tickets." It's a big-ticket agency out of Texas and one of the biggest players in ticket re-sales at the Masters. You won't find Golden Tickets set up on Washington Road, though. A few years ago, they purchased a house on Azalea Drive for more than $200,000, spent thousands more on renovation and turned the place into a hospitality site.

The small fish operate on Washington Road. Of the brokers on Azalea Street, one homeowner says, "You're in the deep channel now."

The big fish.

The PGA courts corporate America with hospitality tents at all of its events. But the idea of hospitality areas at Augusta National would go over with club members about as well as the idea of changing the green jackets to pink.

Branding the house at 1018 Azalea Street as The 1018 Club, Golden Tickets provides drinks, food and a shaded area to watch the action on a flat-screen TV. But the house also doubles as the ticket office, with co-owners Ram Silverman and Steve Parry procuring hundreds of badges and practice-round tickets for their customers and other brokers.

When asked about the operation, Parry looked as if Martha Burk had planned to stage a protest outside the house.

"They want everybody to respect their event, and we strictly adhere to that," said Parry, well aware of the power Augusta National wields. "… They're not going to condone the selling of tickets" for the profit of brokers and scalpers.

Down the street, there was no such trepidation, nor any effort to mask the business. An SUV sitting in front of the house is painted with the colors, logo and phone number for TicketCity, a ticket brokering company in Texas. The place, which TicketCity owner Randy Cohen said he bought about two years ago, this week will house a seven-person staff.

Earlier this week, two employees were set up in the screened-off garage port, working cell phones, negotiating deals and swapping cash for tickets when the buyers and sellers arrived.

"You'd never guess this is a $30 million business, would you?" Cohen said.

This year, TicketCity expects to take in more than $1 million at the Masters. Their business here has doubled in the past six years, and Cohen attributes that to the trust and dependability he's developed with people who entrust him with their badges - and privileges to secure them at face value before selling them to brokers year after year.

The safe inside the house stores both cash and the goods - about 500 badges and 1,000 practice-round tickets. In many cases, the customers park their cars in a lot adjacent to the house and must return the badge to get their keys. Each customer must sign a contract stating they're responsible for bringing back the badge. But contracts are no guarantee against thievery.

Take the case of Isaac Green.

Last year, Green paid a ticket broker $9,375 for the use of 11 Masters badges during the first round of the tournament, under the condition he would return them that same night. Instead, Green kept the badges, having promised to supply another man with 20 for $50,000. Though the broker couldn't find the 53-year-old resident of Augusta who'd absconded with the badges, the local sheriff's department did.

He was arrested on charges of theft by deception and theft by conversion and released on $11,200 bond. Though it was bad news for Green, it was even worse news for the original badge holder who had sold the badges to the ticket broker.

Generally speaking, the sheriff office's undercover operation focuses on scalpers trying to buy and sell tickets near the entrance gates. But those on Azalea Street, even those in homes within the 2,700-foot restricted area, do business without interruption. And Hedrick, who may or may not have a license, openly buys and sells practice tickets from his roadside spot. Despite the risk involved, he longs for a chance to buy and sell another pair of badges.

But if his income depended on securing "the toughest ticket in sports," Fat Danny would probably be rail-thin.

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