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Discover Mid-America— July 2010

The appeal of golf strengthens its collecting future

One spring day the operators of Oliver’s Auction Gallery in Maine offered up a lovely turn of the century Lennox pitcher.

The auction was not directed at collectors of fine ceramics, although the porcelain piece would certainly have qualified. The auction was one of several staged by Oliver’s exclusively for golf memorabilia.

In the case of the green Lennox pitcher bearing the scene of a golfer about to hit with a wooden club from the short rough, it brought $7,500.

It was a record price at the time in 1989, and later in that same year a mere golf ball brought a world record $11,500 at still another auction. This time it was the International Golf Memorabilia Auction in Cincinnati, OH. The item was a feather ball made by noted Scottish ball maker Allan Robertson around 1845.

This kind of auction activity plus the teeming thousands of golfers who have joined the game and now seek out artifacts of the game’s past, bode well for the future of golfing collectibles.

Liberty book cover
 

And since a golfer’s lifetime is quite often filled with assorted equipment and memorabilia, it is not surprising that many of them graduate to advanced collecting.

In their absorbing book, The Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles, John and Morton Olman explain, “The collecting of golf memorabilia is as old as the game itself. Golf collecting started over 500 years ago when one of the early golfers acquired a new club and set aside the one he had been using.”

As early as the 1890s advertisements were seen in various publications offering items to golf book collectors, along with engravings, clubs and other related goods of the sport.

In one published account, golfing great and former Masters Champion, Ben Crenshaw points out that golfing collectibles themselves “are so wonderful because, in my mind, they reflect a deep appreciation of golf itself — a game with such a simple proposition, but such a difficult task.”

Thus there is a fondness and a market for the scorecard signed by Bobby Jones, the hand-hammered Guttie ball that grandfather once used, the whiskey decanter from the 1980 Greater Greensboro Open and the 1924 Annual Golf Guide in near-mint condition.

Evolution of the ball

One of the favorite golf stories of noted antique experts and writers Ralph and Terry Kovel is about an old golf ball picked up by chance in England. It was stamped Wm. Robertson, and a knowing collector realized it was actually a scarce feather golf ball. Eventually, it sold at a London auction for the princely sum of $1,790.

The feather or feathery ball was used in Scotland from the early 1400s to around 1850 while the sport was mainly a game for nobility. Craftsmen are said to have taken a top hat filled with goose feathers, boiled them down, and stuffed the whole yucky mess into a small leather pouch. The mess dried very hard, but the covers were apparently easily cut.

Ben Hogan book cover
 

Shortly before 1850 more thoughtful designers came up with a white ball (featheries had to be hand-painted) of rubber-like gutta percha. Gutties turned out to be very solid and much harder than feathers. The “improved” ball was in fact so hard that it often took a toll on the light and slim wooden clubs of that same era.

Thus club makers began to make the wood heads thicker from the clubface to the back of the head, and shorter from heel to toe. It produced a “bulldog” effect, which has endured since that time.

Around the turn of the century, the rubber ball, which is popular today, was introduced and marketed both in England and the United States. Soon there were metal heads as well as wooden ones, and in the 1920s steel shafts began to rapidly replace those made merely of wood.

Clubs

A few years ago a brass Gutta golf ball mold for the brand name Trophy ball hit an interesting $650 at a leading auction house in England. Most any Gutta ball found today, patented by Britisher Dr. Edmund Patterson more than a century ago, would be worth upwards from $100. Meanwhile, most any true feather ball in reasonable condition with the maker’s name imprinted on it, commands ten times the price of the Gutta.

Any pre-1850 clubs outside of a museum are clearly very special. The best of them would be a classic Hugh Philip club with a long “flat nose” running about five inches along the flat striking face.

Many collectors consider the next best clubs to be those made in England in the 1870s by the likes of John Gray, William Park and John Wisden. They were 20 years ahead of the real golfing boom that hit both that country and America in the 1890s, and they regularly bring in excess of $1,000 when sold on the open market.

Probably the finest golf clubs in history were manufactured from the 1930s through the 1950s. The best of them was the classic Tommy Armour Silver Scot set, (they were named for the famed player’s graying hair), which bore the MacGregor trademark. They were produced by the Crawford, McGregor & Canby Company in the 1950s and sold new for around $70 per set.

Experts warn that these sets of eight were numbered from two through nine, and collectors should look for the registered number on the head or hosel of each one.

Keeping score

In the late 1970s, there was a published report of a tireless collector who had already gathered 10,000 different score cards from around the United States.

Robert Pelton, who wrote the book Collecting Autographs For Fun and Profit, says scorecards are even better if they are signed by the rich and famous of golfing.

“It is surprisingly easy to obtain autographed pictures or score cards from veteran professional golfers the caliber of Bobby Jones, Doug Ford, Jim Demaret, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer,” he explained.

<em>Sports Illustrated</em> cover
 

Generally, Pelton feels “Golfing autographic material always seems to have excellent resale or trade value. Apparently the public never really forgets the great personalities in this field, and such autographs always make an exciting additional to any golfing collection.”

Collecting experts also suggest that such autographs be collected on golf-related items like scorecards, Country Club menus or photographs taken on the course rather than the back of a laundry bill or your grocery shopping list.

Celebrities and their treasures

The sports world in general has long had a fondness for so-called “game worn” gear from Jack Dempsey’s boxing gloves to Babe Ruth’s baseball bat. However, such specifically used equipment has been somewhat less common with golfing collectibles.

In recent years a major auction house, Leland’s in New York City, has offered a “tournament used” putter that belong to golfing legend Bobby Jones. Reportedly, Jones had presented the gorgeous wood-handled masterpiece to admiring golf amateur Peter Raap at the Medinah Country Club in Illinois. The hand-forged piece, made in Scotland, bore the initials R. T. J. for Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. Various newspaper accounts and photographs helped document the putter along with a letter from the surviving daughter of the original owner. Bidding on the Jones putter began at $10,000.

Perhaps even more remarkable was Leland’s sale of the original Master’s jacket once owned and worn by Jones. At the time it was described as “perhaps the single finest golfing collectible ever offered at auction.” The green wool jacket, 100 percent original and authentic, bore a Robert T. Jones nametag and a 1937 date. The size 38 had two brass buttons, plus the initials R. T. J. stitched in yellow thread on the right breast pocket.

At the Augusta National “most members must leave their jackets in the clubhouse when they leave the premises,” according to the auction house. “It was probably only due to Jones’ legendary status that he was able to skirt this strictly enforced rule.”

Rule or not the grand green jacket with its remarkable past began with a reserve of $35,000.

In recent years a replica of a green Master’s jacket with the signature of Arnold Palmer has been auctioned in the marketplace along with a pair of pants reportedly worn by Palmer in the early 1980s. The slacks, five-pocket khakis, bore a tag from the clothier Hamilton of Cincinnati stating they were “custom tailored for Arnold Palmer.”

The world of sports memorabilia has also seen a Jack Nicklaus tournament worn cap. Leland’s noted that the widow of the man who had been given the cap directly from the sweaty brow of Nicklaus in 1974 offered it for auction. The famed player also signed the cap with a golden bear patch on the mesh front.

There have been golf shoes too. A pair of Nicklaus signed golf shoes sold for several hundred dollars in recent years. The brown suede Rockport shoes with tan topstitching and plastic spikes were size nine and a half. Nicklaus himself signed them. A single shoe, this time signed by Nicklaus, Fred Couples, Craig Stadler and a dozen other professional players also sold at auction for several hundred dollars. A fan originally acquired it during a tournament at the Westchester Country Club.

Another prized “player used” item once offered by Leland’s was a leather Wilson golf bag that served Sam Snead some years ago on the Senior Tour links. The player’s name was printed in black letters on the red and white front. The bag also included a typed luggage tag with Snead’s name and Jekyll Island, GA address.

Also auctioned was a glove used by the late Payne Stewart. The glove was worn during the U.S. Open in 1999. Stewart died in a plane crash just a few months after winning his second U.S. Open championship. The white leather glove was given to a fellow alumnus of Southern Methodist University and was signed, “Payne Stewart, Go Mustangs.”

Celebrity golfing collectibles don’t have to be just once owned or used by professional golfers. They can also have been the property of other famous persons.

golf shoes
 

In 2000, an auction house sold a set of four driver golf clubs once owned by movie star Peter Lawford. The clubs had been a gift from John Kennedy in the early 1950s, long before Kennedy became president of the United States. Lawford was, for a time, married to Kennedy’s sister and is also credited with introducing Kennedy to movie actress Marilyn Monroe. The MacGregor Tourney brand clubs in wonderful condition were acquired from Lawford’s widow of a later marriage and came with a letter of certification from her.

During the late 1990s, the full golf bag and gear of baseball great Mickey Mantle was the subject of a major auction. The full set of Calloway Big Bertha clubs and Harbor club was described as “one of the great pieces of sports memorabilia” at the time. The bag’s contents included five pieces of Mantle’s favorite butterscotch hard candy, 27 coins, and even a bottle of extra strength Tylenol. The outfit also came with a photograph of Mantle in golfing attire standing next to it.

Additionally, there are books written by famous golfers along with their autographs.

Autographed editions of the Bobby Jones book, Golf Is My Game are especially prized. Jones won 13 major championships and was the only player to win all four majors, a “grand slam” in the same year. The book was published in 1960, long after Jones had retired from the sport at age 28. Female golfing champion Mildred “Babe” Didrickson Zaharias also signed copies of her autobiography, Championship Golf, which are quite collectible today.

Additional titles by golf greats, which potentially may have been signed by the authors themselves, include Power Golf by Ben Hogan, My Game and Yours by Arnold Palmer, and My 55 Ways To Lower Your Golf Score by Jack Nicklaus.

Other treasured golf-related autographs include those of Ben Hogan, Nancy Lopez, Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gene Sarazen, Jan Stephenson, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. Collectors generally prefer signed photographs first, followed by personal documents, and finally just the simple signature.

Golf balls themselves can also be celebrity related.

In 1931 a 12-year-old boy acquired a golf ball on a North Carolina golf course, which had been signed by Bobby Jones. According to the story Jones warned the youngster that the ink would not stay, so the boy carefully packed it away in a cotton-filled matchbox. Nearly 68 years later it became “one of the rarest items ever handled” at Leland’s. The item included a letter of documentation from the 80-year-old man who had carefully kept it for generations.

Additional golf celebrity-related items have included boxed games, fishing reels, magazine covers, celluloid pin-back buttons, trophies and vintage artwork.

Today, the ambitious collector need not exactly walk with the famous on the fairways to indirectly enjoy their company.

Robert Reed can be contacted at acns@aol.com.


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