Matthew O'Connor turned around and flashed a 1,000-watt smile to the group of autograph hounds behind him at the 18th green at Congressional Country Club, proudly holding up his newest souvenir: a signed glove from Michael Thompson.
The 9-year-old from Potomac had been holding out his yellow AT&T National flag in hopes for another of what would wind up being more than a dozen signatures he would get throughout the day, returning instead with the autograph as well as Thompson's signed FootJoy glove.
“It's just fun,” said Thompson, who missed the cut at last weekend's Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Connecticut. “It's a great way to give back. If I gave the cold shoulder that wouldn't look too good on me or the Tour.”
Thompson hung around with the group of 10 or so beaming kids, chatting and signing and tossing out a few brand new balls before hopping on a cart back to the putting green during Tuesday's practice round for the AT&T National, which begins Thursday.
“I just thought I'd get signatures,” said a shy Kayla Christman, an 8-year-old from Leesburg, Va., who was one of the fortunate few to get an autographed ball.
One of the pearly white Pro V1s landed in the hands of Drew Hartman, 7. Little did Thompson know, he just tossed the pint-sized Alexandria, Va., resident his best birthday present yet.
“Justin Leonard just told me to read,” he said with a giggle.
Practice rounds give the fans a chance to see the human side of the PGA Tour's finest. Nearly every pro will stop between a few holes — sometimes all of them — to sign hats, balls, flags, gloves, and even a forehead or two. Playful grins and talk of nothing important replace the stoic looks of concentration and businesslike exchanges with caddies that punctuate tournament play.
“I remember when I was that kid, when I was on that side of the ropes looking for autographs,” said Charles Howell III, whose second-place finish at the Sony Open earlier this year was the best of his 13-year career. “Obviously the one everyone wants is Tiger, but the people come out here to watch you play … you just want to give them what they want.”
Many fans prefer to come to a practice round instead of one during the four-day competition just to get the chance to meet some of their favorites and maybe come home with a little keepsake.
“I'd rather get autographs,” said O'Connor, adding that the signed glove and ball from Thompson will be added to the desk in his bedroom alongside of a few of his other favorite souvenirs, which include signed baseball memorabilia and a few hockey pucks.
Armand Keshishian, 15, who attends Gonzaga High School (D.C.), made his third or fourth trip to a PGA tournament — he couldn't remember exactly how many — and recalled the thrill of getting Graeme McDowell's autograph after hounding him for nearly eight holes at last year's U.S. Open at Congressional.
“I'm too old for this,” he joked. “It's nice just coming out and seeing them play. I can't just go out in my backyard and see these guys.”