What's the most you can pay for a golf club? Five hundred dollars? Double that if you order custom shafts from Japan. That price makes you a piker in the rarified world of antique club collecting, where a low-tech iron with a wooden shaft could run you $200,000. Then again, it's 400 years old, may relate to the Stewart kings and illustrates the early evolution of the game.
Avid golfers may even be tempted to forsake the fairways on September 27 and 28 when Sotheby's in New York auctions the Jeffery B. Ellis antique golf club collection: nearly 750 clubs dating from golf's earliest days through the 1930s. Among them is the aforementioned iron, known formally as the Square Toe Light Iron (circa 1600, estimated price $150,000—$250,000), which is stamped with star and diamond marks that suggest royal heritage. Whoever's bag it came from, it would have been a lonely iron in a time when such clubs were used only when a wood might be damaged, says Ellis. "Hitting an iron on the fairway was not good etiquette."
While the author of The Clubmaker's Art: Antique Golf Clubs and Their History may own one of the most impressive collections, the number of collectible shows sales that go on throughout the year suggests others share his feeling that "the golf club is the most creative implement in the world of sport." Ellis keys on clubs, but golf collectibles extend to other implements as well as scorecards and trophies. Some enthusiasts even risk their relics in hickory club tournaments.
Ellis, who built his collection over 30 years, set out with the goal to acquire one example of every great club. He esteems the clubs turned out in the early nineteenth century by Scottish clubmakers such as "Old Tom" Morris and Hugh Philp as "handmade sculptures." Well represented are the "long nose" style clubs that predominated until the late 1800s and were used for fairway and approach shots, even putting. Included are a Long Nose Putter ($6,000—$10,000) and Long Nose Brassie Spoon ($8,000—$15,000), crafted by Willie Park Sr., and a Left-Handed Long Nosed Spoon ($7,500—$15,000) and a Long Nosed Play Club ($10,000—$15,000) by Morris. A former St Andrews clubmaker, Philp is represented by several clubs, including a Presentation Putter with a Carved Celtic Cross ($35,000—$45,000). Reverence for his work is not new. The aluminum Mills KL Putter was made as a tribute to Philp in 1904 ($400—$600).
The collection also covers manufactured clubs of the 1890s, an era to which Ellis ascribes "ingenuity, craftsmanship and artistry well beyond that of the traditional, wood shaft club." Some "patent clubs" offered loft and shaft adjustments. Many looked just plain weird. Included in this segment of the sale is the only known extant Currie Metalwood ($25,000—$40,000).
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Photo Courtesy Sotheby's