Lessons in Identifying Collectible Golf

Dumpdiggers often find old golf balls, wooden golf course tees and other golf related items that were disposed of decades ago. Wood and metal clubs, hats, bags, pennants and jackets don’t survive the ravages of time, but golf balls do (to some extent) and so do metal trophies, pins, metal badges, ceramic cups and golf club heads. So I thought perhaps the blog could use an brief overview of the golf collecting niche.

Specifically golf clubs because earlier this year I found some vintage clubs and I picked them up because the club heads were all wood and the faces were all hand painted. Yes they have metal shafts and plastic buttons on the end and I know they’re junk but this prompted me to look deeper into the sport. These clubs are neat and have a great feel The colours all have some meaning I’m sure, besides pinpointing the sweet spot.

Bradlee Ryall, a real life golf pro and the closest thing I know to a celebrity golfer, fell in love with these old clubs right away, but even he couldn’t tell me the meanings of the different colours. Bradlee teaches golf lessons west of Toronto at six different Kaneff golf courses.  He offered me what I paid but I told him to keep them safe for the time being while I do some research. I let him use the lot as decorations for the walls of his man cave at his home. 

Lessons in collecting golf

If you asked golfers where the game originated, most would tell you the sport was invented by Scottish shepherds who would hit balls (stones) with sticks as they grazed flocks of sheep in the highlands. However, there is reason to believe the rudiments of the game evolved from a French sporting activity called Chole, or “mail a la chicane”. This game was mentioned for the first time in 1261 in a poem from the medieval Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant. The game he described was played with curbed wooden clubs and spherical wooden balls in the streets, in the churchyards and on the open fields in or around the towns. Regardless of where it originated, the game evolved for a few centuries in Scotland before the first Open Championship in 1860, known in the U.S. as the first ‘British Open’.  

That year, 1860 is the date many of the sport’s chroniclers pinpoint as the dawn of modern golf.
From a digger’s perspective it helps to know that date, as its also demarcation line between seriously antique and mythic golf collectibles. With few exceptions, items related the sport that were created and used before 1860 might as well be made of solid gold as they have such incredible value to collectors.

How do you know the real value of things? The answer more and more often is eBay. What did the last item like that sell for? Funny thing is if you go online and ‘check prices’ anywhere except eBay the author or website always tries to foist their price guide on you which in my experience is pretty much based entirely on wishful thinking. The real price guides are on eBay and they’re rock bottom. Sorry Mr Fureniac

 Dumpdiggers’ History of Golf 

Our favourite origin story dates back to The Hundred Years War when Scottish infantry aiding French forces against the English at the Siege of Baugé -1421 were introduced to the game of Chole (a game that is still played today in parts of France and Flanders, through small towns and on fresh cleared fields after harvest). Three men at arms in particular, Hugh Kennedy, Robert Stewart and John Smale are credited with bringing the game back to Scotland.
Three decades later in 1457, the sport of golf, (along with football) was banned by the Scots Parliament of James II to preserve the population’s interest and skills of archery. Golf is prohibited on Sundays because it has interfered with military training for the wars against the English. Twelve years later in 1470 the ban on golf is reaffirmed by the Parliament of James III.
And in 1491 the parliament’s ban on golf is again reaffirmed, this time under James IV.  So its hard to believe that the sport ever took hold in the country, but then of course whenever a government tries to ban something it often just makes it more popular!

Collecting Antique Golf Clubs 


According to golf antiques websites that the earliest clubs still in existence today are from the 17th century, and these are all museum pieces. Clubs from the 18th and early 19th centuries occasionally make their way into private collections. though, invoke the memory of golf’s first stars, men such as Allan Robertson, a St Andrews golfer who died in 1859.

The clubs made from 1860 onward are the ones most collectors trouble themselves with. This is also when some standardization of clubs began.
In those days, the heads of Douglas McEwan golf clubs (also sold as D. McEwan & Son) were made of beech while the shafts were fashioned from hickory, a wood whose elasticity allowed for the maximization of torque in a swing. Prior to that, most club heads were made of thorn wood or fruitwood and were fixed to ash shafts.
 
At a recent auction sale in the UK, the Jeffery B. Ellis Antique Golf Club Collection was sold (by Sotheby’s) for $2,166,210, the highest total for a golf memorabilia collection yet recorded.  In that massive hoard of golf clubs, collected from all over the world, there were many one-of-a-kind drivers, duffers and cleeks.

The word cleek is purely Scottish – it means to suddenly grasp or clutch something (like a golf club), and has lent its name to pot hangers in Scottish kitchens and to a particular type of iron golf club with a thin face and little or no slope. 

To the right is a Square Toe Club, or it could be called a ‘square toe light iron’. It was fashioned circa 1600s by an unknown maker. The sale price for this club alone was $151,000.  Mr. Ellis had written in the catalogue that this was, The oldest club in the sale and one of the dozen surviving iron heads from the 17th century. It turned out to be the second-most-expensive item in the auction, behind the 18th-century Andrew Dickson long-nosed putter which fetched $181,000.

When it comes to buying antique golf clubs, don’t be fooled into thinking that wooden shafts are sure to be worth the price. Golf collectors will tell you that fewer than ten percent of all wooden antique golf clubs for sale in the shops have collectible value beyond being simply decorative items for a man cave or sports bar. The majority of the vintage or antique clubs that you will find at yard sales or on eBay are common golf clubs with very little value.

The clubs I bought at the sale are as common as they come and nearly worthless. During the early to mid 1900s, as golf became more popular, inexpensive golf clubs were mass produced by companies such as Wilson, Spalding, Burke, MacGregor, Kroydon and many more.

Common golf clubs can be identified by traits such as,
• Aluminum caps on the end of the handles
• Nickel, chromed or stainless steel heads
• Dots, lines, hyphens or other face scorings
• Stamps on the back for yard ranges
and they often had encouraging phrases printed on the back such as accurate, superior, aim-rite and other common sounding names

Common vintage golf clubs in today’s market usually sell for between $10 and $20 bucks. The same club fifteen years ago could have been worth $40 or $50. The demand was higher back then, especially with foreign buyers. But the internet brought a flood of antique golf clubs to the market, where the demand has steadily decreased over the last decade. Serious collectors and antique dealers have no interest in common vintage golf clubs. They are only interested in the rare and hard-to-find golf clubs. 

How to recognize rare golf clubs?

Knowing how to spot rare golf clubs takes a lot of training and to get good you need a lifetime of golf lore. But some basic item traits to consider and seek out would be,
• Unusual head shapes and wood heads
• No face markings or unusual face markings
• Unusual patented features for player’s improvements
• Wood clubs with thick, curved oval necks covered with 4 to 5 inches of string whipping
• Smooth face irons made by golf club makers such as Army & Navy, Dunn, Forgan, Gray, White, Carrick and Anderson
• Deep groove wood shaft clubs called rakes or waterfalls.
Rare vintage golf clubs have uncommon patents or features and were made in limited quantities that set them apart from the mass produced common clubs.

To the right is a rare Auchterlonie Jigger from St Andrews Scotland.Hickory shafted with its original grip.  The baskstory is all about the maker Tom Auchterlonie, using the Thomas Stewart of St. Andrews pipe as a cleekmark. Tom was born in 1879 and was famous for making wooden putters – he made wooden putters well into the 1920s. Another notable putter from his workshop is the prism-shaped “Holing Out” model. The reason this club is so precious is because Auchterlonie was known for his putters, not his jiggers and so the club is very rare, but of course it would take an expert to know such things.

Here is a 1910 patent application for what to me looks like a modern golf club.

 To the most obsessed golf nuts, even patent applications are collectible.