2006: Four factors of historical significance

There is something innately handsome about a century-old golf club with its hickory shaft, leather grip and the mellow patina on its head. Those aesthetics and a respect for the history of the game are what led many golfers to collect antique clubs.

Thirty years ago, most antique clubs cost less than a buck at the Salvation Army or the junk store. Today, flea markets still yield a few pieces, but savvy collectors spend more time scouring eBay and attending collector meetings, where inventories typically are huge. Those meetings also are a good place to handle hundreds of clubs and learn from knowledgeable collectors.

Most collectors pursue a broad range of items so they have a representative selection of pieces that trace the history of the sport. Many also have a specialty – clubs from a particular maker, pro or firm; clubs from historic golf courses; or clubs from their home city or state.

More advanced collectors seek out rare clubs. For every 100 wood-shafted clubs in existence today, perhaps five spark serious collectors’ interest. The other 95 generally are called “commons.”

When assessing old clubs, collectors consider four factors: age, historical significance or affiliation, condition and fashionability.

Age is relative. Scottish clubs that predate 1860 are extremely rare and costly. But golf only came to America around 1890 and American clubs from the 1890-1900 period are highly collectible. In the first two decades of American golf, many of the clubs sold were imported from Scotland. Spalding, in the mid-1890s, was the first American company to make clubs on a large scale.

Historically significant clubs may be collectible for several reasons. Patent clubs – those designs registered by the patent office – were devised to make the game easier to play. Some are outrageous in form; others have subtle refinements. But the fact the inventor went to the patent office means there are records of who designed them, where and when.

The USGA and the Royal & Ancient, golf’s rulemaking bodies, outlawed some patented clubs, and the notoriety of those clubs makes them favorites among collectors. For example, concave-faced irons, such as Walter Hagen’s sand wedge, were banned in 1930, and those clubs now are highly collectible.

Some clubs’ value reflects their association with historically important people. Prior to World War I, most champion golfers also were club professionals who operated small clubmaking facilities, and they stamped their names on their clubs. Look hard and you’ll find a few clubs stamped with the names of Open champions like Vardon, Taylor, Hagen and Auchterlonie. Other clubs’ values derive from the fact that they were used by great golfers. Bobby Jones carried a driver made by former British Open champion Jack White. This club is no different than the thousands of other drivers of that era, but because of the Jones affiliation collectors eagerly snatch up Jack White drivers.

As with any collectible, condition is important. It’s OK if old golf clubs look used, but their value declines if they look abused.

A century ago, brand new clubs often were sold with a paper wrapper covering the leather grip. These wrapped clubs, though rare, are a real “find” for collectors.

The most unpredictable variable is fashion. What will be hot items tomorrow or 10 years from now? Some recent examples include a spike in price on Robert T. Jones Jr. clubs last year during the hoopla surrounding the 75th anniversary of his Grand Slam. This year, with Hollywood’s retelling of “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Francis Ouimet merchandise is all the rage.

Most of those 95 common clubs in which collectors have little interest are worth anywhere from $15 to $50 in today’s market. At a collectors’ meeting the better stuff starts around $50 and can run into the thousands.

Backspin irons with deep-face grooves, banned in 1921, run about $100 each. The patented Spalding Cran cleek iron, with its unique wooden-face insert, goes for $500 to $900 depending on condition.

Virtually every collection has an example of the famous 1903 aluminum Schenectady putter, perhaps the American club with title to the greatest amount of history. They cost $150 to $300; the best, the early models marked “Patent Applied For,” run $500 to $600. Feeling sporty? An entry-level long-headed wood or putter made by Robert Forgan, Tom Morris or Willie Park in the 1870s might start around $1,500.

One rookie mistake some collectors make: splurging on early steel-shafted clubs. Collectors haven’t embraced them and few clubs, if any, are traded on an ongoing basis.

The comforting news is that old clubs still are affordable collectibles, and a collector can start on a budget, build an interesting collection and learn about the long history of the game of golf.

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