Golf clubs come to the fore at auction


In one swift stroke, golfing collectibles beat out the long-running baseball cards as the highest-priced sporting memorabilia when a collection of 23 golf clubs sold for $1,031,101 at Sotheby's in England. That more than doubled the that was paid in March for a 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card.

Of course, these were no ordinary golf clubs. They were collected by Willie Auchterlonie, the Scottish winner of the British Open in 1893, and his son Laurie -- both of whom were club makers at the renowned Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Not only that, but each of the 23 woods and irons was said to have been owned by a winner of the British Open in the years between 1860 and 1930. The oldest was used in 1860 by the Scottish golfer Willie Park Sr., the newest by American champ Bobby Jones in 1930.

The setting of the auction provided the perfect audience, for it was held not in Sotheby's somewhat sedate London galleries but in Chester, just 50 miles away from Southport, where crowds of golfing aficionados had gathered for the beginning of this year's British Open. The sale as a whole brought a total of $1.9 million, further evidence of the rising popularity and prices of items related to this sport.

Although there is strong interest in everything from golf balls, tees, bags and other equipment to ceramics, paintings and other pictorial material and books, it is the clubs that have, if you'll pardon the pun, come to the fore.

The main categories of collectible early golf clubs are: long-nose woods, which were used pre-1890, during the era of the feather and gutta-percha ball (valued between $200 and $2,000); pre-1890 irons, often forged by blacksmiths and often concave in the hitting area ($100 to $2,000); scared, socket heads and similar woods made between 1890 and 1915, as well as aluminum heads of this period ($10 to $300).

The rare long-nose clubs are the earliest of the wooden heads, having been the predominant mode from the middle of the 15th century until the 1890s. It was the introduction of the gutta-percha ball that led to the phasing out of these long, slim clubs in favor of a more compact design.

When mechanized methods of drop forging were developed toward the end of the 19th century, there was a marked increase in the manufacture of iron-headed clubs. Smooth-faced machine-age irons, dating from 1890 to 1920, currently sell for $15 to $150, while those with marked faces have a lesser value.

The 1920s and '30s also saw the appearance of matched iron and wood sets. Of the post-1945 golf clubs, only a few are considered classics. These are collected not only for display, but are used on the course because of their superior quality.

For further information on golf club collecting, you might want to join the Golf Collectors Society, P.O. Box 5483, Akron, Ohio 44313, or visit the interesting museum established by the U.S. Golf Association in Far Hills, N.J. An informative reference is "The Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles," by John M. and Morton W. Olman, published by Books Americana.

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