Every April, tens of thousands of people flock to Augusta to take in one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world, the Masters Tournament.
In May, a few of those visitors say they will return to fight charges that landed them in jail for trying to obtain one of the toughest tickets in sports.
In the first three days of Masters Week, Richmond County sheriff’s deputies arrested 41 people in connection with buying and selling Masters practice-round tickets. The arrests more than doubled the number of those apprehended last year.
Officers say the arrests were part of a crackdown on the crowds of ticket seekers outside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club accosting golf patrons and impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic. Many of those arrested, however, say they were just golf fans who were unnecessarily hauled to jail in a police operation that targeted tourists.
The Augusta Chronicle spoke with more than half of those arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Many, such as Bryan Epps, said they were fans who ran afoul of an obscure law, not scalpers looking to profit from Masters tickets.
In fact, only two of those arrested were charged with scalping. The vast majority of those arrested, 36, were charged with disorderly conduct.
“I’m going to go to a jury trial, whatever it takes,” said Epps, of Florence, S.C., one of several who said they were arrested even though they didn’t buy or sell a ticket.
The 43-year-old said he had come to Augusta on April 4 hoping to find a ticket to a practice round.
After buying lunch at Zaxby’s, he grabbed his chair and camera and staked out a place outside Gate 9 of Augusta National to await patrons leaving for the day.
“I had $100 in my pocket, enough to buy food and some souvenirs,” said Epps. “I was asking for a free ticket.”
He said a married couple stopped and offered him theirs. He accepted the man’s ticket but declined one offered by his wife, Epps said.
Epps said no money changed hands, but seconds later he was under arrest. Sheriff’s deputies hauled Epps to jail, where he was booked for disorderly conduct and had to post $500 bond to be released.
“I didn’t know that it was illegal to ask for a free ticket,” he said. “I was just blown away.”
State law doesn’t prohibit giving away tickets, but it is illegal to sell tickets within 2,700 feet of the entrance to a large sporting event.
This year, deputies charged two men with violating the state law. Sheriff’s Sgt. Allan Rollins said that was because they had been repeatedly warned and were clearly dealers, purchasing tickets to sell for a profit.
The majority of those arrested for buying and selling too close to the gate were charged with disorderly conduct, but still subject to a $500 fine and a trip to jail.
Rollins said that unlike in past years, merely asking for a ticket could get you in just as much trouble as selling one.
“Last year, we waited until we saw a physical exchange,” he said. Officers broadened their scope this year to discourage the open solicitation of tickets, he said.
Merely indicating you were in the market for a ticket could get you taken to jail. That’s what happened to Mark Scarborough, of Warner Robins, Ga. He and friend Stephen Sherman had just asked a question outside Gate 6 when they were grabbed by undercover deputies.
“I walked up to someone and said, ‘Are you going back in today?’ ” Scarborough said.
Seconds later, he said, he was being yanked out of the crowd by deputies dressed in plain clothes. He said the deputies didn’t immediately identify themselves.
“The whole thing could not have been more ludicrous,” he said.
Rollins said sheriff’s officers issued verbal warnings and confiscated tickets all day April 2, the first day of practice rounds, advising people not to buy, sell or even ask for tickets near the gates. He said warnings continued the next day, then arrests began to back up the threats.
“There was a huge uniformed officer in the road telling people not to do that there, but they wouldn’t listen,” Rollins he said.
He said the main problem is the crowds that congregate directly across from Gates 6 and 9 on Berckmans Road, the only two entrances for the general public. He said patrons leaving the course on practice-round days have to pass through a gauntlet of ticket seekers to get to the parking lot beyond.
Rollins sought guidance from Magistrate Court Judge William Jennings III before deputies began making arrests. He said he was advised that those asking for tickets could be charged under the city’s disorderly conduct ordinance.
Harry B. James, the solicitor whose job it will be to represent the state in Magistrate Court, said that although the state law only directly prohibits selling tickets, the purchaser can be charged as well.
He said people can be charged with disorderly conduct in these situations if they engage in otherwise illegal activity.
James said negotiating a sale without exchanging money, however, is not necessarily prohibited. For example, it should be OK to discuss buying someone’s ticket outside Augusta National so long as the two parties moved clear of the 2,700-foot boundary to conduct their business.
Ashley Withers, of Columbia, said she only asked a woman whether she was returning to the tournament and was arrested soon afterward.
“I said nothing to her about money,” Withers said. “I’ve already talked to an attorney. I’m going to try to fight it.”
Different in Augusta
Some of those arrested said they expected to be able to buy tickets from scalpers, just like most other sports events. They said they didn’t know about the 2,700-foot boundary.
Karol Simms, of Temecula, Calif., said she was writing a letter to Augusta National to complain about her arrest outside Gate 6.
“This has put a very bad taste in my mouth for Augusta and for Georgia,” she said.
Simms was going to wait for friends outside the gates until she was offered a free ticket by a patron who was on the way out. She accepted but felt she should at least pay face value for the ticket, so she gave him $50.
That’s when a deputy swooped in and grabbed her.
“I was appalled by the whole situation,” Simms said. “I’ve been to golf courses all over the world and never have I seen anything like this.”
Authorities that follow the same state law in other cities say scalping isn’t a big concern for them.
University of Georgia police Chief Jimmy Williamson said his department deals with large crowds on seven Saturdays of every year for Georgia football games, but his officers almost never make arrests for scalping.
Williamson said it is common to see people buying and selling football tickets on the streets outside Sanford Stadium, but so long as
people aren’t involved in a dispute or creating a commotion, police don’t get involved.
“We don’t want to make any arrests that we don’t have to make,” he said.
Williamson said the intent of the scalping law is to keep ticket resellers from competing with ticket sales at the gate. Since all Georgia home games are sold out before game time, there is no competition to be concerned about, he said.
Augusta National’s policy – printed on the back of the tickets – states that Masters tickets may not be sold to others. Mark Solon, of Seneca, S.C., said he knows that now.
“Anybody that tells me that you can just go down to the Masters and get tickets, I’ll set them straight,” said Solon, who was arrested while trying to acquire tickets for his son’s college golf teammates near Gate 6.
Solon said he saw signs outside Augusta National advising people of all the things that were prohibited
on its grounds, but none about ticket laws.
“As I walked up there, I must have passed 50 signs about all kinds of things,” Solon said. “Not anywhere did I see a sign that said no buying or selling tickets.”
Rollins said a few signs on Berckmans Road might make his job a little easier. Some city officials think it is worth exploring.
Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said no one has ever suggested to him that there should be signs informing visitors of the ticket scalping law, but it isn’t necessarily a bad idea.
“If we can do anything to reduce the possibility of a visitor having a negative experience, that would make sense to me,” he said.
When visitors get arrested because they aren’t aware of the local laws, it can reflect badly on the community.
White said there is a common saying that applies: “When you have a good experience you tell two people, and when you have a bad experience, you tell 22.”
Marvin Lowry, of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., said he thinks something needs to change.
Lowry said that when he was pulled away from his 12-year-old daughter by an undercover deputy April 4, he was expecting maybe a reprimand
or a citation for trying to buy a ticket near Gate 6. He wasn’t expecting to be taken to jail.
“I never had a transaction,” he said. “I never gave somebody my money.”
Lowry said he has attended numerous PGA Tour events and lived near the TPC Sawgrass course in Florida for a while and was stunned by how police handled visitors to Augusta.
He said the worst part of it was his daughter having to watch her father being taken away in handcuffs.
“It’s a shame what happened,” he said. “That was her first Masters and probably her last.”