By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) – There was a time when getting your hands on Masters merchandise was nearly as difficult and rewarding as winning a Green Jacket.
There is still only one place in the world to purchase official Masters souvenirs and that is inside Augusta National at their Harrods-like merchandise store which is only open during Masters week, the 64 cash registers manned by a smiling, uniformed staff from dawn to dusk.
There’s just one catch. To get in the store means having to first secure a Masters badge, one of the most coveted and hardest tickets to land in all of sport. For Thursday’s opening round, asking prices were as high as $7500 on resale sites.
Yet there is no longer a need to stand in that long line with hundreds of other souvenir hunters as the queue snakes its way through a maze of lanes that would rival any major airport security screening area.
Now with a cell phone (forbidden to spectators at Augusta National) and a no-price-is-too-high attitude, you too can be the owner of a Masters green polo shirt with its iconic yellow silhouette logo — and you won’t even have to leave your couch.
A Masters coffee mug, dog bowl or crystal glasses are all just a click or two away as enterprising websites skirt Augusta National’s monopoly by offering everything you can get inside the merchandise store at hugely inflated prices.
Sites like www.mmogolf.com and www.golfshopplus.com will take your order and have people on site at Augusta National fill it, guaranteeing your purchase is official merchandise complete with tags.
Aaron Behar, an owner of http://www.mmogolf.com, describes the operation as a “professional shopping service”.
The intensely protective membership at Augusta National may call it something different but for more than 10 years, the two have peacefully co-exsisted, unlike the club’s ongoing issues with ticket scalpers and resale sites.
“We are a shopping service and I want to make clear we are in no way affliated with Augusta Natioinal,” Behar told Reuters. “We only provide a service and obtain merchandise for personal and corporate clients.
“We do this for a number of tournaments but the Masters is a very exclusive product, one you can only get if you are there.
“We are simply a shopping service.”
Not surprisingly, there is a considerable mark up attached to muling merchandise out of Augusta National.
Bahr, like most patrons, gets his tickets off resale sites and as his costs go up, as they have this year, so do his prices.
A golf shirt that cost $95 in the store goes for $230 on the resale shopping sites while $35 T-shirts go for $60 and a green coffee mug that sells for $15 inside Augusta will fetch $60 outside the walls.
While Bahr has turned Masters merchandise resales into a business, there are no shortage of freelancers out there looking to cash in on the iconic brand.
On Kijiji and eBay, you can find everything from Masters golf balls to frosted plastic beer cups retrieved from garbage bins going for $3.99.
If you are having a Masters party, Goldbelly.com will ship the famous Augusta Pimento Cheese sandwich to your door with a two-pound pack costing $59.
Like everything at Augusta National, the club does not discuss money. That would be unseemly for one of the world’s most exclusive organisations but some golf industry experts estimate the merchandise store generates between $35-45 million in sales.
Everyone who passes through the Augusta gates must saunter past the store on way to the first tee and few can make the journey without pulling out a credit card.
While there is a growing secondary market for Masters merchandise, the vast majority of purchases are still made by golf fans who simply want a memento of their bucket list achievement.
Bill Henberson waited 30 years in the Masters lottery for a chance to attend golf’s first major, and marked the occasion by schlepping home three shirts, hats for grandchildren, a flag and a puzzle.
A group of four men said between them they had dropped roughly $2,100 on gifts for kids, friends — and themselves. Of course, with the 20 hats they had tucked into their shopping bags, there was more than enough gear to go around.
Another visitor walked away with T-shirts, hats, flags, magnets and cups, not bothering to look at the final cost.
“It’s the only time my husband doesn’t complain about spending,” Henberson’s daughter Jaima noted wryly.
(Additional reporting Amy Tennery. Editing by Ian Chadband)