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Not For Sale At Any Price

Dermot Gilleece's take on Golfing Memorabilia

Posted May 23, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

gene sarazen

We live in an age where chasing a quick buck has become almost a way of life. So it is hardly surprising that professional golfers have made a point of protecting themselves against exploitation, especially where unscrupulous autograph hunters are concerned.

The point was brought home to me by an item I watched on television the other night when an American wanted to auction a golf ball allegedly signed by Tiger Woods.  If genuine, it would be quite valuable given that Woods stopped autographing golf balls in 1997.  In the event, the owner expected to get something in the region of $5,000 for the Titleist ball on which Woods was supposed to have placed his moniker as an amateur in 1995.

On the basis of the simplest investigation, however, an expert concluded that the item wasn’t genuine.  It seems that the type of ball involved, didn’t come on the market until 2000.  So it couldn’t have been signed five years previously.  All of which brought a little glow to my tired old heart.  You see, I have a prized autograph which I know to be genuine, as I will outline in the following story.

The first letter arrived on my desk in March 1993. Though I had no reason to recognize the writing on the hand-addressed envelope, there was no mistaking the sender. Towards the left-hand side was a simple line-drawing of a familiar golfing figure in plus-fours. And over it was printed: Gene Sarazen, PO Box 667, Marco Island, Florida.

It was such a wonderful surprise that I couldn’t wait to read the contents, which began: “Dear Mr Dermont [sic]. Thank you for the nice article you wrote in The Irish Times. I have a good friend who keeps me posted on what goes on in golf. She used to write my script during the filming of the Shell [Wonderful World of Golf] shows. I expect to visit Ireland this year. Mr Donald Panoz, who has a home [there], invited me to visit him after the British Open. Also I have been invited to be Honoree at the Prince’s Golf Club where I won the British Open in 1932. I am looking forward to it. Mr Panoz is in the drug business, pharmaceutical business.  Most of his manufacturing is in Ireland. However, all these trips that I am about to make depend on how I feel at the time. At ninety-one, you never know until you wake up in the morning. As of this day, I feel I can make it. Thank you again. Gene. PS: Incidentally, Snead, Cathy Whitworth and myself consulted on the new Legends Course at his [Panoz’] place in Braselton, Georgia, called Chateau Elan. We each had to select four great holes. I selected the seventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fifteenth from Augusta National.”

What I had done by way of earning such a generous response was simply to note Sarazen’s birthday in my “Golfing Log” in The Irish Times on February 2nd of that year. His letter was a reminder of a gentler, more civilised age, when people did such things simply as an exercise in common courtesy. Anyway, the trip was duly made, though it had a potentially disastrous first leg. Setting out from his daughter’s home in Naples, Florida, Gene was on a commuter, turbo-prop aircraft bound for Orlando, when passengers were warned to take up crash positions: the brakes had failed. Arms were braced and heads bowed by all but one passenger: like a daredevil schoolboy, the oldest passenger mischievously lifted his elbow and peeked out the window. Fortunately, the plane landed safely, so sparing this remarkable man for a sentimental journey back to Prince’s, scene of his lone Open Championship triumph, and on that particular trip, he lent a delightful dimension to the Open climax at neighbouring Sandwich, where he was treated, quite rightly, as golfing royalty.

Before his return to the US, I had the pleasure of meeting him at a small dinner party at The K Club, where the guests included Sarazen’s close friend Panoz, chairman of the Elan Corporation in Athlone. While reflecting on that potentially disastrous Orlando incident, Sarazen gave one of his disarming smiles and said calmly, “I was ready.” Then, with a tinge of sadness he added, “At ninety-one, you go to a tournament and you don’t see anybody you know. They’re all gone; all the old friends. And you think ‘Geez, what the hell am I doing here?’”

We sat enthralled as this thoroughly charming and witty man recounted wonderful stories about his golfing career, the great players who were both friends and rivals of his, and the personalities he encountered from all walks of life.

When I wrote a piece about our meeting, he responded with another hand-written note.  Both letters are now treasured possessions.  As to how much they would fetch on e-Bay:  I haven’t the slightest interest.  They’re not for sale at any price.

- Dermot Gilleece


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