If you win the Masters, do you actually own the green jacket you get for your victory?
The men who run Augusta National Golf Club say no. They've gone to court to try to block the sale of one of those jackets, and the case will be heard in a district court in Dallas on Monday.
The short version of the story is this: In February, golf memorabilia collector Stephen Pyles of Tampa, Fla., tried to sell the champion's jacket won by the late Art Wall Jr. in 1959 for as much as $90,000. The sale, handled by Heritage Auctions of Dallas, was stopped when Augusta National asserted that it owns all the jackets, and the one Pyles has is considered stolen.
Ultimately, Steve Hummer wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 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.
The Masters winner is allowed to take his jacket off the grounds for a period of one year after his victory, according to documents Augusta National Inc. (ANI) filed in court. ''Thereafter, it must be stored on ANI premises for use only on the grounds and during the annual tournament. Thus, a champion's Green Jacket is owned by ANI, with a champion having possessory rights when on the premises of ANI.''
But possession is 9/10ths of the law, Pyles contends.
''I have owned six, maybe seven, green jackets,'' he said. ''I can go on the Internet right now and buy you a member's green jacket.'' And, he added, he bought Wall's jacket just last year for $62,000 in an online auction.
Augusta National claims that Wall's jacket was accounted for as recently as 2010 when the club took an in-house inventory, but that it was among four champions' jackets stolen after that by former employees. The other three have since been recovered.
However, Pyles argues, there was no police report to back up the claim of the theft, and that many jackets won by players from Doug Ford to Gary Player to Seve Ballesteros can be found far outside the gates at the Augusta National. Even a member's jacket belonging to Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones was sold at auction in 2011 for $311,000.
''There are plenty of green jackets that are out there, both members' and champions' jackets,'' said golf memorabilia expert Ryan Carey, a co-owner of GreenJacketAuctions.com, which sells a variety of Masters items. ''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.”
Golf course openings in the United States remain at historically low levels, according to a new report by the National Golf Foundation. Measured in 18-hole equivalents, the NGF said that only 13.5 courses opened in 2012, while 154.5 courses closed. A total of 68 percent of those closures came among lower-priced public facilities, which continues a trend that has run throughout the economic downturn.
Since 2006, when what the NGF calls the ''market correction in golf course supply'' began, 499.5 golf courses (again, measured by 18-hole equivalents) have shut their doors, the report said, and 2012 marked the seventh straight year in which more American courses closed than opened. Even so, the NGF points out, that represents only about 500 of the approximately 16,000 total golf facilities nationwide.
''For perspective, we opened 400 courses in a single year during the heart of the building boom,'' said the report. ''And, over the 20-year period from 1986 to 2005 the U.S. saw more than 4,500 18H-EQ golf courses open.''
No more than 20 new courses will open per year in the near future, the NGF predicts, while annual closings should total approximately 150 to 180 courses per year for a few more years before dropping to a range of 130-160 closures per year a few years down the road.
This continued contraction is also impacting the sale of golf courses nationwide. As the number of courses shrinks, the number of potential buyers is starting to increase as the overall economy rebounds.
The average golf course sold in 2010 was on the market for 328 days, while that average rose to 348 days in 2011 – but shrunk to 309 days in 2012, according to Steven Ekovich, the vice president for investments and director of Marcus & Millichap's National Golf & Resort Properties Group.
''This decrease could be an indicator that there is more demand for golf assets, or it could mean that sellers have become more practical," he wrote in the winter issue of Golf Inc., before stating that he believes there is a bit more demand for golf courses.
The number of golf course sales under $1 million was up in 2012 to roughly 1/3rd of all sales, whereas the number of sales under $1 million in 2011 accounted for only 14 percent of total sales, Ekovich said. The median price dropped from $2.875 million in 2011 to $1.575 million in 2012. And the average price, excluding outliers like Donald Trump's purchase of Doral Golf Resort & Spa, dropped from $3.947 million to $2.156 million.
So, Ekovich notes, the number of sales is up, but the size of those sales is down. "With fewer deals over $3 million and more sales under $1 million,” he wrote, “the data suggest that banks have sold most of their good product and much of what is left is low-priced, functionally obsolete, poorly located product."
In conclusion, he said, "if both the number of higher-end golf courses and larger transactions are slowing down at the same time as more buyers are entering the market and revenue is going up, the scales that have been weighted down by the buyers who had 100 percent of the power over the last five years may be tipping back into equilibrium.
''I am not ready to say that 2013 will be a seller's market,'' he added. ''We have a number of years to wait. But with less product on the market as buyer demand increases, it is a good mixture for a brew of equilibrium stew."
Many of these new buyers, by the way, are foreign. Some are seeking to get a toehold in the American golf market, but several are seeking EB-5 immigrant visas. These visas allow foreign investors and their families to relocate to the United States if they invest a $1 million in a new project or $500,000 in existing projects in certain areas that create 10 new jobs for Americans.