COVER STORY MASTERS PRIZE

Green jacket goes to court

Augusta National claims ownership, sues auction house to prevent sale.

By Steve Hummer shummer@ajc.com

The late Art Wall Jr.’s greatest claim to golfing fame was his finishing kick at the 1959 Masters, in which he birdied five of the last six holes to overtake Cary Middlecoff and Arnold Palmer for the green jacket.

The “coveted green jacket,” as those who worship at Augusta’s azalea altar every spring almost always call it.

It is one of the more distinctive symbols in sports, this wearable trophy. As golf memorabilia expert Ryan Carey bemusedly put it, “Who else gives out a relatively ugly green jacket? It’s an interesting piece.”

The spoils of Wall’s long-ago Masters victory is now the subject of a lawsuit in a Texas district court. Tugging at one sleeve of a 54-year-old sport coat is the laird of the Masters, the Augusta National Golf Club, which claims possession of every green jacket made for its members and its Masters champions. Pulling on the other is the auction house wishing to put a champion’s dream coat up for bid, hoping to fetch upward of $90,000.

This particular members-only jacket is in big demand.

In the process of ligating this dispute, a light has been trained on the astounding values that collectors put on anything Masters-related.

Ultimately, the case tests one of the enduring romantic notions of the Masters: that the green jacket is an inviolate symbol of achievement; the sole property of those who belong to a most exclusive club; a garment found only within the cloister of Augusta National.

According to court documents filed by Augusta National Inc. (ANI) in its suit to halt the sale of Wall’s Masters jacket at auction, the tournament winner is allowed to take his jacket off the grounds for a period of one year after his victory.

“Thereafter, it must be stored on ANI premises for use only on the grounds and during the annual tournament,” it claimed in the documents. “Thus, a champion’s Green Jacket is owned by ANI, with a champion having possessory rights when on the premises of ANI.”

Responded Florida anesthesiologist and serious golf collector Stephen Pyles, “I have owned six, maybe seven, green jackets. I can go on the Internet right now and buy you a member’s green jacket.”

Pyles is the current holder of Wall’s jacket. He purchased it during a 2012 auction for $62,000, and hoped to resell it through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions during a February sale.

Five days before that auction, Augusta National won a temporary restraining order, barring the sale of the jacket.

A hearing is scheduled for Monday in district court in Dallas to further decide the future of Art Wall Jr.’s jacket.

Jacket’s whereabouts

There is considerable debate as to how it has spent the past half-decade. Augusta National claimed the jacket was accounted for as recently as 2010 when the club took an in-house inventory.

The club claims it was among four champions’ jackets stolen after that by former employees, the other three since recovered.

Mark Senter, the attorney for Heritage Auctions and Pyles, said there has been no police report to back up the claim of the theft. He refers to other newspaper stories in which Wall’s son, Greg, said his father, who died in 2001, told his family that the coat had simply disappeared and offered no other details.

“I’ve talked to the Wall family about it. They were always wondering what their dad did with the original jacket,” said Carey, whose GreenJacketAuctions.com was the company through which Pyles bought Wall’s jacket.

“Art Wall’s son, Greg, told me he asked his dad what happened to the original one, and his dad was always cagey with his response,” Carey said. “What does that mean, I don’t know. Greg Wall did ask his dad what happened to the jacket before he passed, and his dad didn’t want to answer.”

The family reportedly told Carey that it has a replacement green jacket in its possession. He estimates there could be 30 or more champion’s jackets of various vintages in the control of family members rather than the club. The number of members’ jackets hanging outside the gates of Augusta National is in the hundreds, he said.

Greg Wall said he had no comment beyond, “We fully support Augusta National’s efforts to return the jacket to where it belongs.”

Battle for the brand

Arguing against the club’s contention that it is repository of all green jackets, the auction’s attorney cited numerous conflicting examples:

¦ Doug Ford’s 1957 jacket was sold at auction in 2010 for more than $60,000.

¦ Gary Player has retained his jacket from 1961. A jacket won by the late Seve Ballesteros reportedly hangs in his family home in Spain.

¦ Even a member’s jacket belonging to the sainted Bobby Jones, a founder of the Masters feast, was sold at auction in 2011 for $311,000. The green jacket was Jones’ design, initially just for Augusta National members. In a gesture meant to confer honorary membership upon the Masters winner, Sam Snead was given the first champions green jacket in 1949.

¦ Another jacket belonging to cofounder Clifford Roberts is on loan to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

An Augusta National spokesman said the club would have no comment on the case or the auction company’s claims.

The impression that every green jacket is kept behind lock and key at Augusta National, treated like so many Shrouds of Turin, is Carey said, “a myth that has been perpetuated for many years.”

“There are (relatively) plenty of green jackets that are out there, both members’ and champions’ jackets,” he said. “I’m not sure if Augusta National really realizes that, but I guess for the first time it is going to try to assert that it is the rightful owner of them.”

As the battle to protect the brand of the green jacket heats up, the free market churns on.

Trading on icons

So iconic is that article of clothing that Tam-pa attorney Carey named his golf auction company after it. And business at GreenJacketAuctions.com has been brisk, he said.

“For modern golf collectibles, Masters memorabilia by far dominates the collector community,” Carey said. “If it’s anything Masters tournament or Augusta National related, collectors want it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a trash can that says Augusta National on it. If it’s something that’s rare or of historical nature, the prices obviously go up because people are willing to spend top dollar for it.”

He said he has sold Bobby Jones-autographed golf balls (remember, he was from the pre-Sharpie era) for as much as $58,000. He has sold souvenir flags that sold for $14 during Tiger Woods’ 1997 breakthrough Masters victory for $2,000. During his next big auction, set to run from March 28 to April 13, he hopes a rare badge from the first Masters (1934) brings between $40,000 and $50,000.

For the collectors in Pyles’ class, going to the Masters every year is not enough. They must own pieces of the tournament. “I really do prize these things,” he said.

He is the proud owner of a badge from every Masters from the beginning.

The jackets he has owned, he has displayed at both his home and his office, often allowing his more golf-oriented patients a chance to touch the hem of the garment. Wall’s size 42 was a perfect fit on him, Pyles said.

That jacket of green remains the grail of the Masters collector.

“If anything, I think they’re undervalued now,” Carey said. “Tiger’s never going to sell his. Mickelson’s never going to sell his. The time to find one is now for one of the few that are out there from one of the older champions who didn’t make as much money.”

Pyles said his collecting strategy is to only sell when it is time to invest those profits in an upgrade. He said he has another purchase in mind if he ever is able to complete the sale of Wall’s green jacket.

“It’s another jacket. I’m going to leave it at that,” he said coyly.

A player’s jacket? There’s another, more desirable one out there, somewhere in the nebulous memorabilia marketplace to be had?

“That’s a reasonable assumption.”