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Sign me up: One man’s quest for the ultimate autographed golf-ball collection

August 24, 2017

At 82, Joe Galiardi is working on the third edition of a golf-related memoir. The book is called Hooked on Autographs, though Galiardi’s wife, Jude, believes a better title would be, Guess Who’s Signed My Balls.

Spoiler alert: a lot of people have. Pop stars and politicians. NFL quarterbacks and country music singers. Masters winners and heavyweight boxing champs. At last count, 418 individuals of varied fame and fortune have inscribed their names on golf balls for Galiardi. Of them, more than 200 are past or present PGA and LPGA players, a tally that earned Galiardi a nod in the 2017 Guinness Book of World Records as the owner of the largest autographed collection of its kind.

Galiardi keeps the signed balls in a spare bedroom in his home in Cupertino, Calif., protecting them in small, Plexiglass cases that would also come in handy for an exhibition of rare butterflies.

“If my collection keeps growing, I may have to turn my entire house into a museum,” Galiardi says. “Though my wife may have something to say about that.”

In Hooked on Autographs, Galiardi has a lot to say about the origins and evolution of his hobby, which he adopted in middle-age with adolescent fervor. It was, in some respects, a return to his past.

Though Galiardi was not a golfer as a boy growing up in western Pennsylvania, he was a collector. What began with World War II-era model airplanes extended into marbles, stamps, comic books and baseball cards. When Galiardi went to college, his mother gave away his stockpiled possessions to a friend, who later sold the items to put himself through school.

“I was glad to hear that,” Galiardi says. “At least they went to a good use.”

Galiardi attended Penn State University, where he played tennis, before moving to California and embarking on a career in advertising and public relations. During that phase of his life, the only thing he collected was a paycheck. Galiardi didn’t take up golf until his early 50s, but he soon whittled his index into the single digits. After a few years spent tattooing golf balls, he decided to get one signed.

The first autograph he requested was Arnold Palmer’s, which made sense. Palmer was The King, and Galiardi’s hometown of Connersville, Pa., was only 37 miles from Latrobe.

Their encounter took place in 1989 at the inaugural Transamerica Senior Golf Championship at Silverado Country Club in Napa; Palmer had just wrapped up a practice round by eagleing the par-5 18th. A crowd of fans swarmed him, Gagliardi among them. Galiardi made the ask. Arnie obliged.

“From that moment, the devil got loose in side of me,” Galiardi says. “I decided I was going to get every celebrity signature that I possibly could.”

The names atop his wish-list read like a dream leaderboard. After Palmer, Galiardi set his sights successfully on Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach in 1991. From the Golden Bear he moved on to Ben Hogan, who was no longer competing but no matter: Galiardi wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated, and, whether out of pity or clerical error, the magazine supplied him with Hogan’s home address. Through the U.S. postal service, the deal was sealed. This was the early 1990s, not a Leave-it-to-Beaver age of innocence, exactly, but a less standoffish time than the one we know today, with fewer gatekeepers running interference. Galiardi’s collection swelled. Lee Trevino. Ken Venturi. Billy Casper. Johnny Miller. Galiardi got Gene Sarazen by waiting in the pro shop of a Florida club where the Squire was a member. He nabbed Sam Snead after an event in the California desert, though it took some help from Art Wall Jr., who not only autographed a ball for Galiardi; he also let him into the locker room. Over the years, Galiardi has done the bulk of his collecting in person, picking up John Hancocks at practice rounds and hit-and-giggle outings from the Monterey Peninsula to Palm Springs. When his legwork fails, he writes to agents, or reaches out to friends and colleagues who either know the stars or know someone who does. If six-degrees of separation can get Joe Nobody to Kevin Bacon, how hard can it be to send a golf ball to Chip Beck?

Most often, Galiardi says, the Chip Becks of the world respond (so do the Barbra Streisands and the George W. Bushes, judging from the golf balls on Galiardi’s wall). But Galiardi concedes that he used to be naive: it never occurred to him that someone might say no. Ray Floyd was the first golfer to reject him, and though Floyd eventually signed when a business contact reached out on Galiardi’s behalf, the lesson stuck. “I always figured that people would be flattered,” Galiardi says. “But everybody’s different.”

Galiardi is a grown man with a boyish hobby that he pursues with an adult perspective. His ground rules are persistence and politeness. He doesn’t take it personally when someone turns him down. More than anything, he recalls small kindnesses: personalized letters from Arnold Palmer; the generosity of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who let Galiardi walk inside the ropes with them during a practice round at the AT&T Championship.

That memory is priceless. So is his collection, which Galiardi has never had appraised, though someone once offered him $7,000 for his display showcasing a signed golf ball from then-amateur Tiger Woods alongside a letter from Tiger’s college coach authenticating the autograph.

“None of this stuff is for sale,” he says.

Of the many people who have not signed, there are two names Galiardi covets most: Barry Bonds and Steph Curry. His failure to land Bonds falls short of a shock, given the slugger’s surly reputation. But the fan-friendly Curry is another matter. Galiardi figures that the NBA star simply hasn’t seen the letters he has sent.

Just as all celebrities are not created equal, neither are their autographs. Palmer signed impeccably. Not so Donald Trump, who scribbled his name on a golf ball for Galiardi in early 2000 while shuffling up a fairway at Pebble Beach.

Six years later, Galiardi mailed the ball to Trump’s offices in New York, asking for a more legible sample. To Galiardi’s surprise, the future POTUS complied, though the neater autograph he sent back still looked like the output of a broken polygraph. Galiardi relayed that story in the original printing of Hooked on Autographs, which was published in 2009 and featured an entire chapter on The Donald. But for the third edition of the book, which comes out next month, Galiardi has swapped out the Trump chapter with one about his own “most memorable golf moments.”

Those include his first hole in one; the time he shot his age; and the day he carded back-to-back eagles.

All impressive, but as golf achievements go, the autograph collection is hard to beat.