The pictures hanged on the forest-green walls tell stories of years’ worth of golfing memories. There’s Payne Stewart in his famous pose after sinking the 18-foot par putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 over Phil Mickelson. On an opposite wall, a picture hangs of a younger Mickelson shortly after he debuted on Tour. Thousands of other pictures hang, featuring Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner, Tom Watson, Michelle Wie, Se Ri Pak. Shelves are filled with signed pin flags, hats, golf balls, gloves, books. Every piece is personally autographed by the golfers themselves.
This room is so much more than just a golf room … it’s a golf sanctuary—one that has been carefully crafted by D.E. Chester and wife CJ through more than 20 years of dedication and persistence.
It’s April, the Tuesday before the start of the Shell Houston Open, the first practice round of the week, and the temperature is already pushing 90. A crowd fills the Golf Club of Houston – Tournament Course, formerly known as Redstone Golf Club, braving the heat and humidity as the Texas summer approaches to get an early, more intimate look at the best golfers in the world. Among the crowd is a quiet couple, an older man and woman, standing between the second green and third tee box, scouting players as they make their way to the putting surface.
“Who’s coming?” D.E. asks CJ.
“I can’t tell. Let them get closer,” she says.
The Houston couple braves the heat, group after group, doing what they’ve done best for 24 years: adding to their vast collection of autographs. It’s a passion D.E. has been chasing for nearly a three decades. CJ, as she says, is just along for the ride. But she’s as much part of the room as D.E.’s love for every piece that hangs on its walls; every signed, framed golf ball that sits on its shelves—every picture that reads, “To the Chesters, all the best, [signed, professional golfer].” It’s nearly three decades worth of perfecting a technique that almost always ensures they get the autograph D.E. wants to add to his—their—already impressive collection.
At the second hole, the Chesters receive word that five-time Tour winner Padraig Harrington is on the tee box. D.E., standing next to a brown bag stocked full of memorabilia pulled from the room, reaches in his bottom right pocket of his brown cargo shorts for an envelope full of photos from professional golfers that he or CJ have taken, or photos he’s acquired of the golfers whom he hopes will autograph. He pulls out a picture of Harrington from 2008 kissing the Claret Jug following his British Open victory—his first of two Majors that year—and hands it to CJ, who’s in charge from there. “Honestly, it’s easier for me to get an autograph than it is for him,” she says. “Golfers seem to respond best to little kids and girls.” Not a second later, a young boy on the other side of the ropes, no older than 10, runs back to his parents with a wide-eyed smile after receiving an autograph.
The Chesters are patient, and patience is a virtue when it comes to this hobby—no, this passion—that requires hours of waiting in the hot blistering sun, time and money spent traveling to tournaments across the country—across continents!—in hopes of getting a professional golfer to spare 30 seconds of his time to sign a piece of memorabilia that will proudly hang on their walls.
This isn’t a passion for the impatient. In order to succeed it takes gusto! it takes brass! it takes … drive!
“Anyone can buy a golf room,” CJ says. “You can go on eBay and buy all sorts of memorabilia. You’re going to pay a pretty penny, that’s for sure. But it’s not the same. You don’t get the experience of going out, interacting with the golfers; you don’t get the authenticity that they actually signed the picture. When they sign the picture in front of you, you know it’s real. But when you sit on eBay, or when you send off a picture to them, you miss all the experiences that comes along with getting it, all the memories.”With thousands of autographs, the Chesters have equally as many memories to match.
There was the time at the 2013 President’s Cup at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, as they were standing next to the 16th hole, and D.E. suddenly spotted Tiger Woods—the Tiger Woods!—leaving the 11th green and cutting across the ropes to 17 tee box, no more than a pitching wedge away from their location. With all their gusto, brass, and drive, CJ and D.E. approached the tee box, the only spectators around, and asked Tiger to sign their white President’s Cup hat and a Tiger Woods book that D.E. just happened to be lugging around in his brown bag. “You make it work. You go to a tournament and work for this stuff,” CJ says. “But sometimes things just fall in your lap. How often would you have Tiger walk in front of you?”
Even coming face to face with the world’s former No. 1 golfer, the man whose lifelong goal is to break Nicklaus’ 18 major wins, who is still on pace to become the winningest all-time player in PGA Tour history, isn’t the memory that stands out most.
It’s dusk, the Wednesday before the 2010 British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews, and the Chesters are enjoying a walk down the 361-yard par 4 18th. The hole sits nestled next to a public road, and overlooks Hamilton Hall, among various other buildings on the opposite side of the street. They cross over the famous Swilken Bridge, the historic mark so many famous golfers before them have crossed, and as they approach the green, a golf cart stops, and out steps Arnold Palmer—the Arnold Palmer!—who’s returning to Hamilton Hall following the annual Champion’s Dinner. The red brick building is located across the street from the 18th green, but a temporary fence installed solely for the Open and standing no more than four feet high, blocks the course from the road and is impeding upon Palmer’s return. Why the golf cart didn’t drive him to the Hall’s front door is anyone’s guess. The only way past is a long trek around or to go up and over, and the crowd that formed to get an up-close look at the 62-time Tour winner, including D.E., took the opportunity to help hoist one of the greatest golfers of all-time over the fence to a group waiting to gently place him on the other side.
“He was so nervous, his hands were trembling, and we all felt so bad for him,” D.E. says, “but he was very thankful.”
Though no autograph was exchanged in that moment, four years later D.E. received a letter back from Palmer with a photo, so carefully signed in near-perfect handwriting, Arnold Palmer.
It’s those kinds of experiences that build that gusto, that brass, that drive needed to approach and ask professional golfers for a moment, to step away from their workplace, and do something as seemingly mundane as signing their name. [CJ admits she’s never been a shy person, however.]
As Harrington begins his approach off the second green at the Golf Club of Houston, CJ, with her ever-so-gentle touch and her lucky He Golfs, I Shop sequined shirt, approaches the ropes. Her welcoming demeanor draws Harrington over, where she hands him a silver Sharpie and the photo. Once signed, she says, “good luck this week,” as he makes his way to the third tee box. “You have to be very polite; you have to respect them,” she says. “But you can’t be above joking with them, either.” It’s an interaction that lasts no more than 30 seconds, but one that will remain etched on their walls for years to come.It’s a collection that began in 1980, shortly after the Chesters attended the Women’s World Amateur Teen Championship at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina—the same course that held both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in June, which they just so happened to attend. [“We’ve been to five U.S. Opens, but we decided to make it one more since this was the first time both the men’s and women’s were played in back-to-back weeks,” CJ says.]
D.E. started the collection after CJ’s aunt, Ed Dell Wortz—a former amateur golfer who won her first golf tournament in 1932 at age 10; who, in 2000, was the first woman inducted into the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame; and who received the Isaac B. Grainger Award by the USGA for 25 years of service—gave him a golf bag in 1968. At the Women’s World Amateur Teen Championship, in 1980, the Chesters expanded their collected from a golf bag and a set of golf clubs, to various hat pins and badges they collected from golfers playing in the tournament. Weeks later they found themselves at the Greater Greensboro Open [now known as the Wyndham Championship], where they used a film camera to snap photos of the many celebrities during the Pro-Am—including Johnny Bench, Hank Stram, Foster Brooks, and Leslie Nielsen—and the golfers—including Fuzzy Zoeller, Fred Couples, and Greg Norman. Their plan: take photos one year and return the next to have the celebrities and golfers autograph them.
“Back then we were the only ones taking pictures, because other people hadn’t thought of it or they didn’t go to tournaments each year,” CJ says. “It took some work. You have to go take the picture one year, get it developed, and then go back the next year to get them signed. The world has changed a lot since those days.”
Since then, the Chesters have traveled to more than 50 golf tournaments, from their annual visits to the local Shell Houston Open and Insperity Invitational, which, D.E. says, “local tournaments provide the best opportunities to get autographs”; to the Wal-Mart Northwest Arkansas Championship, where they recently got their photo signed with this year’s U.S. Women’s Open champion Michelle Wie [further proving D.E.’s point]; to attending all four Majors on the men’s tour, the U.S. Senior Open, and the U.S. Women’s Open.Though the Chesters have had their share of luck when it comes to collecting autographs, luck hasn’t always fallen their way. In those instances, D.E. turns to his second resort: contacting the players’ agents, finding where to a send a photo of the golfer, along with a self-addressed stamp envelope—the trick is to make it as easy for the golfer to return it as possible, he says—and then wait, sometimes up to a year for it to return.
“We’ve got a lot of junk, and what’s it going to be worth when we’re gone? No one wants photos of other people with famous golfers,” D.E. says. “All of this stuff, it’s come from—all of a sudden I’ll get an idea and think it’ll be nice to have a couple of those, whether it’s a signed flag, or matches or glassware from certain tournaments, so we’ll go out and get it, and that’s it. It’s something I enjoy doing.”
But it’s so much more than … junk. It’s a collection of moments—hours spent patiently waiting in the blistering sun—creating once-in-a-lifetime memories.
“I wonder if Arnie remembers that night at British?” CJ asks.
“If so, he won’t remember who helped him,” D.E. says.
No matter. It’s a memory, like so many others, that will forever live with them.