At the outset, let me make it clear I am not a golfer, nor do I have any desire to become one.
That said, I could become an armchair golfer, or rather a collector of the implements associated with the sport. My interest stems from watching an auction of golfing memorabilia some years ago in which a single golf club sold for a record £49,000.
Dating from the earliest days of golf, the club had been made by a blacksmith, so it was pretty crude, to say the least. It was discovered in a garden shed in Edinburgh and the story made international headlines.
It was not unlike the “Very Early and Important Square Toe Light Iron, circa 1600” pictured in the slideshow here. Indeed, it may be the very same club. Either way, prices have spiralled in the meantime.
Designed primarily for use when the ball lay on sandy ground or among small stones, the club, considered by many to be one of the two oldest surviving irons in existence, is now valued at £75,000-125,000.
In fact, the market in golfiana has been something akin to a golfer’s spirits when negotiating a difficult course – not exactly boom and bust, but certainly boom and decline to saner levels.
An important test of the market comes next month, when Sotheby’s New York offers the “Very Early and Important Square Toe Light Iron” and a further 800 or so others that comprise the Jeffery B Ellis Antique Golf Club Collection.
More than 600 lots with estimates ranging from £100 to £150,000, the collection is widely regarded as most wide-ranging and historically important in the world. It is expected to sell for more than £2 million.
Comprising mostly British clubs (or perhaps that should be Scottish, since that’s where the game was invented) the sale will appeal to UK collectors able to take advantage of the current strength of the pound.
Jeffery Ellis purchased his first antique golf clubs at a charity shop in 1974 and since then has been fascinated by their evolution. Assembled one at a time, his collection covers every aspect of the golf club between 1600 and the early 1930s.
By 1979, his passion grew to be a full-time business and he became a leading authority on the subject and the author of three books: “The Clubmaker’s Art: Antique Golf Clubs and Their History”, regarded as the industry’s bible for antique golf clubs; “The Golf Club: 400 Years of The Good, The Beautiful & The Creative” and this year, a revised and expanded second edition of The Clubmaker’s Art, which is now the industry standard.
From its 15th century roots in Scotland to the end of the 19th century, golf was the province of royalty, played by wealthy enthusiasts who could afford expensive hand-crafted clubs.
Clubmaking was an art practiced by a select group of skilled craftsmen who were often champion golfers themselves, and were also frequently groundsmen on the courses where they played.
Without the modern-day restrictive golf club regulations, these early makers devised an ingenious array of equipment such as cleeks, spoons, mashies, and niblicks, all of which are now collected eagerly.
Second oldest club in the collection is the rare “Square Toe Heavy Iron”, circa 1700 (estimate £75,000-100,000) now found only in Scottish club or private collections.
In the late 1700s, makers began to mark their clubs, which prior to 1890, had elongated, wooden heads, naturally called “long nose” clubs.
Pick of the collection here is Long Nose Putter, circa 1750, made by Andrew Dickson, as a boy he caddied for the Duke of York and was the first clubmaker to mark his clubs (estimate £100,000-150,000).
The collection includes a Long Nose Putter (£3,000-5,000) and a Long Nose Brassie Spoon (pictured), (£4.000-7.500) made by Willie Park, Snr., a professional who won four British Open tournaments including the first ever held in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club
“Old” Tom Morris was one of the most revered and beloved clubmakers and players of his era.
The collection includes seven of his long nose clubs including a rare example for left-handed players (£3,750-7,500).
Morris lost the first British Open to Willie Park by two strokes (in a one day, three round tourney) but won an astonishing four championships in the next six years, in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867.
As the official club maker at the prestigious Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews from 1817 until his death in 1856, Hugh Philp was recognised as the Stradivarius of clubmakers for his meticulous craftsmanship.
The sale includes four such treasures including one made as a presentation putter carved with a Celtic cross (pictured), which is estimated at £17,500-22,500.
Five generations of the McEwan family made clubs at Edinburgh and Musselburgh from 1770 to 1800 and their clubs are sought after for their long, slender heads and necks and shallow faces, attributes similar to Philp’s clubs.
The family is represented by five clubs, notably two spoons, one with McEwan stamped in block letters, the other in script (the difference is estimates of £7,500-12,500 and £10,000-17,500 respectively) and the only known Long Nose Play Club circa 1865 with a 45-inch “fishing rod” shaft (£8,750/12,500).
Other makers and golfing bon vivants represented are Willie Dunn Snr, greenkeeper at Blackheath and a high stakes money match player who once played a match of 20 rounds over 10 days; David Strath, who tied for the 1876 British Open Championship but refused to play off in order to preserve his honor and Robert Ferguson, who won three British Opens in a row and then worked for the last 20 years of his life as a caddy.
Sotheby’s sale will run over two days on Thursday and Friday September 27-28. Sadly, no UK View is planned but the collection will be on show in New York from September 20.
And if you cannot get over for the sale, Sotheby’s will be only too happy to accept commission bids or, by arrangement, bids by telephone as the sale proceeds. Telephone 001 212 606 7910 for further information.