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Antique Clubs and Presidents

Originally Posted: September 26, 2007

Tom Clavin

On display at Sotheby's in Manhattan this week is the Jeffrey B. Ellis Antique Golf Club Collection. Forget paintings or furniture or books, the real growth stock in antiques are golf clubs.

A selection of clubs from the Jeffrey B. Ellis Antique Golf Club Collection on display
this week at Sotheby's.

Into the late 1920s, golf clubs were usually made by small manufacturing companies or even the head pro in the back shop. Many professionals were not paid well, so they supplemented their income by creating and repairing clubs. At clubs in the north, this is what the pro did during the winter when there was no playing going on. As I describe in my biography of him, as a teenager in Rochester, New York, Walter Hagen did club building and repair when snow covered the course. When he was substituting for the head pro at another upstate course, part of the arrangement was that he could bring a few dozen sets of golf clubs made the previous winter and sell them at the shop to members. Hagen returned to Rochester with his pockets bulging.

Sir Walter didn't have much luck years later when he was a famous player and decided to put some of his money toward becoming a manufacturer. In the early 1920s, with two former Major League baseball players, John Ganzil and Joe Tinker (of "Tinker to Evers to Chance" fame), Hagen formed the Walter Hagen Golf Products Corporation in Longwood, Florida. The city donated the property and constructed the manufacturing plant, anticipating a booming business that would benefit everyone in the area. But the enterprise got off to a rocky start.

"Those early clubs were beautifully designed, but the humid climate caused the hickory [shafts] to swell," Hagen ruefully observed. "While the heads fitted perfectly, once they arrived in drier temperate zones, like Arizona and states with a similar climate, the iron heads almost rattled off the shafts. When the hickory shafts dried out they gave off slivers of thin wood like porcupine quills which got into a player's hands."

As the company tried to rectify the problems, Hagen had to pour more and more money in to keep it going. Soon his partners bailed out. From tournaments and other ventures Hagen had to come up with $5000 every Friday to make payroll at the factory. He persuaded his sister Freda, a teacher in Rockport, New York, to move to Longwood and be the company's bookkeeper so at least he would have a good idea of where the money was going, arrange credit for the venture, and to employ some of that old frugality the rest of the Hagen family had practiced in Rochester.

After three years Hagen owed over $200,000 to various creditors, a big debt in any decade. To the rescue came Al Wallace, a friend from Detroit, who suggested that L.A. Young of Michigan, who owned the company that manufactured the most automobile springs in the U.S., buy Walter Hagen Golf Products. Young did so, and Hagen was not only bailed out of debt but was given a contract to keep his name on the golf equipment. Despite the company being sold to Wilson Sporting Goods Company in 1944, Hagen's contract lasted the rest of his life.

What changed later in the decade was the introduction of steel-shafted clubs. Golf clubs could thus be mass-produced and be more accessible to the general public. There would also be much fewer imperfections. Over time the hand-built golf club became increasingly rare as they broke or were discarded.

Nowadays, there is a booming business in antique golf clubs, and they are eagerly sought by collectors and museums. The Jeffrey B. Ellis Collection is just one example. To explore the world of antique golf clubs, go to "The Clubmaker's Art," be Jeffrey Ellis. It was first published in 1997 and was immediately hailed by Golf World magazine as "one of the top 10 golf books of the 20th century."

To recognize that this is now the 21st century as well as acknowledge the soaring interest in antique clubs, a revised and expanded edition of "The Clubmaker's Art" has recently been published in two volumes. The book is a wonderful guide to the clubs that were crafted decades ago - and in some cases, centuries ago - and who made them. It is another way to enjoy the history of golf - through the equipment, not the players.

An example of a museum enjoying antique golf clubs in its collection is the U.S. Golf Association Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey. When its renovations are completed next year - among other things, a wing dedicated to Arnold Palmer is being added - its collections will be back on display. Included will be a set of irons used by Francis Oiumet when he won the U.S. Open in a playoff at Brookline in 1913. It was to that point the most dramatic victory by an American in golf, with the possible exception of Walter Travis crossing the pond and winning the British Amateur Championship in 1904.

The clubs were made by Tom Stewart, widely regarded as the most accomplished clubmaker in St. Andrews, Scotland in the early decades of the 20th century. Soon after Ouimet's victory over the Brits Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, he gave the set of clubs to his caddie, Eddie Lowery, who was only 10 at the time. After a few years of owning them, Lowery worried about the set's security, especially as he looked ahead to going away to college. He sold them to a friend who years later gave the clubs to a Connecticut couple who held on to them for 25 years. It was announced earlier this year that the Ouimet clubs had been donated to the USGA. In golf terms, the set of clubs is something like having the sword George Washington wore when he defeated the British at Yorktown.

I'll keep readers posted on the progress of the USGA Museum renovations. If you haven't been there, please put it in your travel plans. It was already a remarkable museum with a room dedicated to Bobby Jones, but the place will be even more enjoyable with the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History.

Speaking of international battles, there is one taking place this weekend - the Presidents Cup, which the U.S. will be defending in Canada. This one was founded in 1994 (when, appropriately, the golf-mad Bill Clinton was President) by the PGA Tour, as opposed to the Ryder Cup, which was founded by Samuel Ryder, Hagen, and the PGA of America in 1927. If it has been a bit quiet about the Presidents Cup of late, the PGA Tour has only itself to blame because all its hype about the FedEx Cup was energy and attention not given to the Presidents Cup.

However, here is where the PGA Tour got very lucky: Tiger Woods won the FedEx Cup triumphantly. It sort of validated the somewhat confusing system that the cream rose to the top, that the best player in the world earned the biggest prize on the PGA Tour. There would have been some serious repair work to be done on the relationship with FedEx if, say Trevor Immelman or Lucas Glover had won the cup. They are fine players, but it is not for the likes of them that FedEx is cutting a $10 million check (okay, annuity).

The U.S. team is really going to be up against it for the three days at the Royal Montreal golf course. The European squad includes a revived Ernie Els, an emerging Adam Scott, 2006 U.S. Open winner Geoff Ogilvy, a hot Rory Sabbatini, an even hotter K.J. Choi, two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen, 2007 U.S. Open winner Angel Cabrera, Canadian Mike Weir, and Tiger-killer Nick O'Hearn. A bright spot is Vijay Singh is on the team, and he has been slumping for months.

The good news for the Americans is Tiger will be rested and ready, Phil Mickelson looks like he's out of his funk, Scott Verplank and Steve Stricker have played very well down the stretch, Jim Furyk thrives on this kind of competition, and Jack Nicklaus, the captain, usually finds a way to best his counterpart, Gary Player. But there is on this squad inexperience and guys who haven't been playing well: Charles Howell III, David Toms, Glover, and Hunter Mahan.

Let's hope for cool, beautiful weather. I'm very glad our neighbors to the north are hosting such a big event. Somehow, I think Tiger will lead the team to victory and cap what arguably is his best year, rivaling 2000 when he won three majors.

For more information follow these links: www.sothebys.com and www.clubmakersart.com.

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