In a previous Busch League Sports posting, I contrasted the backgrounds, personalities, life-and playing-styles of today’s generation of PGA Tour golfers with their 1950s to 1980s predecessors, lamenting the current near extinction of unique and colorful players. This post presents another contrast: the clarity and experience for fans of getting a player’s autograph.
This contrast came to mind after I watched a commercial shown during last week’s Crowne Plaza Invitational that featured Rickie Fowler rushing through a Crowne Plaza hotel on his way to his room to get a good night’s sleep. Fowler signs several autographs as he hot-foots it through the hotel, scribbling on whatever he grabs: an IPAD screen, a baby’s forehead, a maid’s towel.
Fowler doesn’t look at the people for whom he’s signing. His “autograph,” if you can call it that, looks more like a hieroglyphic than anything resembling “Rickie Fowler.” Welcome to the world of the squiggle. Most PGA Tour players today are “squigglers.”
When current star PGA tour players sign autographs, they rarely sign their
names clearly so that you can make out the letters; rather, they squiggle a seemingly random hodgepodge of curves and swirls. Sometimes you can make out a letter or two, but unless you memorize the characteristics of a player’s squiggle, there’s no way you can later decipher whose signature it is. Strangers wouldn’t have a clue which player it was. (I might add that this practice doesn’t just characterize tour golfers, but
professional athletes in most sports.) It’s not that players didn’t learn proper penmanship; it’s that they simply don’t care to take the time to sign their name legibly for fans. In fact, many of them have two signatures: a legible one for business and family matters, and a squiggle for fans.
So, who are the notable PGA Tour squigglers? Among the best known players,
they include: V.J. Singh, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and Hunter Mahan, to name only a few. Players who mostly squiggle, meaning you can make out a few letters, include, Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson (He offers only “D.J.”), and Matt Kuchar (“Matt” is usually good, the “K” discernible, but the “uchar” a jumble of scribbles.) Among the few top players who offer a legible signature, are: Jim Furyk, Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker, Zach Johnson, and Phil Mickelson.
The European Tour also has its squigglers, including Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els,
Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Darren Clark, and Jose Maria Olazabel. Other players mostly squiggle, though if you try hard you can usually discern the name. This category includes Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell, and Justin Rose. Australian Adam Scott gives a very nice autograph, but country-mate Jason Day is a squiggler. Miguel Angel Jimenez, “the most interesting golfer in the world,” I’m sorry to say, is a squiggler.
This contemporary practice of squiggling a signature contrasts sharply with famous golfers of the past. Take a look at the stately autographs of such World Golf Hall-of-Famers as Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazan, Bobby Jones (pre-disease), Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Lloyd Mangrum, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Gene Littler, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, and Hale Irwin and you will find the autographs to be easily readable, and, for many, elegantly written.
From my experience as a caddy in 1950s PGA events and later a “go-for” for the Golf Channel in west coast Senior Tour events, I observed many players signing autographs and even collected some myself. My impression was that most players from this earlier era genuinely enjoyed signing autographs, even to the point of being flattered that someone would ask. Most took their time signing and often engaged in conversation with fans. Palmer made a personal connection with fans he signed for. Snead, Player, Chi Chi and Trevino often regaled fans with stories as they signed; Snead sometimes told off-color jokes. Gary Player would lecture fans on proper appreciation, etiquette, and diet. Fans invariably left these sessions with good feelings and lasting positive memories.
Jack Nicklaus was the best. He remembered and could relate intimate details about past tournaments, even to the point of recalling key shots. He always answered fan questions and I even heard him more than once ask fans about themselves. Then he would write his beautiful signature on whatever item was put before him, even on golf balls, which had to be hard on the hand. I never heard of him refusing to sign or saying he had to go.
I asked a number of Senior Tour players about signing autographs and a common response was that they felt they owed it to the fans. Without fans attending tournaments, I was told, there would not be a tour. These players wanted fans to go away with a meaningful experience and a nice autograph to cherish and proudly show others.
Today a completely different attitude prevails. Most top players sign only when they can’t avoid it. The prevailing M.O for many players is to move quickly along an autograph line, signing autographs with a quick flick of the wrist, which takes about a second and produces the indecipherable squiggle. Many avoid eye contact as they rush along, usually signing for every third or fourth person. Tiger Woods has perfected this technique. He never stops walking as he makes his joyless getaway. Such a practice would have been unthinkable for earlier era tour players.
Why do they do it? The usual explanation is that they are besieged with so many autograph requests that if they stopped to sign their full name and talk to fans, they’d never get off the course. I don’t recall autograph crowds in the past being much smaller than today, but even if they were, it misses the point. The issue isn’t the size of the crowd; it’s the lack of commitment today’s pros have to golf fans. The old timers relished the fan experience. Many times, I watched them hang around until every fan got an autograph. Not so for today’s big names. Phil Mickelson is one of the few leading players willing to engage with fans and accommodate all autograph requests. If you want evidence of the striking difference in the autographing practices of past and present tour pros, simply attend a Senior Tour event and watch how they treat fans. Take notice of the legibility of their signatures.
I’ve also heard some current players complain that they don’t like to sign autographs for adults because these people will turn around and sell the autograph. This, many players claim, amounts to a form of extortion. I’m sorry, but even if this were true, it’s hard for me to sympathize with a multimillionaire golfer if a working class bloke makes a little money from his autograph. Besides, the market for golf autographs is restricted to a very few superstars. I find it laughable when a run of the mill golf pro complains about someone selling his autograph (as J.C. Snead once complained to me). There is virtually no market for probably 95% of pro golfer autographs. No offense to Jerry Kelly and John Senden, but good luck selling their autographs.
Poor autographing practices—avoiding fans, moving quickly past autograph seekers, joyless expressions, little eye contact, squiggling a hieroglyphic—reflect, I believe, a deeper truth. Professional athletes don’t seem to respect fans like athletes of the past. Many even seem to be contemptuous. The big money being made in professional sports has financed lifestyles far different from those of the average sports fan. When you circulate with celebrities and corporate CEOs, it’s hard to relate to working class America. This situation is far different from decades ago when leading athletes made only slightly more than working Americans.
The big bucks and adoration enjoyed by celebrity athletes has given some a heavy dose of elevated self-importance. Their fast-paced celebrity lives leave little time to dabble with the un-rich and un-famous. They have better things to do. Being obligated to sign autographs, let alone talk to fans, is a burden on their time, an uncompensated drudgery. They’d rather pass.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh and the sweep of my indictment is too broad. To be sure, there are some modern golfers who are not like those I describe. I don’t think, however, that I’m wrong in claiming that PGA Tour players today are less respectful of the fans than players in earlier eras. And, truth be told, why should they be? Today’s professionals are logically beholden to corporate sponsors, the real source of their financial largesse. They may profess appreciation to the ticket-paying fans (I almost gag every time I hear a golf tourney winner express appreciation for the wonderful, supportive fans in a post-win interview, which virtually all of them do), but such praise rings hollow when you consider the support they really appreciate: the corporations that sponsor their tournaments and equipment, stash greenbacks into their pockets to display corporate logos on their hats, shirts, shoes, and golf bags, and contract them to make commercials extolling the virtues of the latest corporate product or gimmick. Therein, I believe, lays the root of the squiggle. Fans are simply no longer relevant.