When we say "vintage golf clubs," we aren't talking about the Titleist blades used by Tiger Woods for the Tiger Slam in 2000 and 2001, which were allegedly posted for sale on eBay in 2010. We're talking about real, old, vintage clubs.
Golf was likely invented by 15th-century Scottish shepherds, who entertained themselves by hitting anything they could find into holes and at targets. Their “game” evolved over the next few centuries, and in 1860 the first Open Championship—known in the U.S. as the British Open—was played at the Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland, marking the beginning of modern golf.
The earliest clubs that can be found today are from the 17th century. Those, however, are museum pieces. Clubs from the 18th and early 19th centuries occasionally make their way into private collections, but you may well need to take out a second mortgage to afford them. Such clubs, 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.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, golf’s first superstar, Young Tom Morris, as he was known, dominated the British links while Scottish club makers monopolized the club-making industry—back then, some golfers still made their own clubs. Almost all of the 19th-century clubs in a player’s bag were “long nose” or “long-headed” woods, which received that name because of their long heads (five or six inches), rounded backs, and slightly curved faces—they resembled the heads of walking sticks. Long-nose woods gave players a lot of control, and since this was the era of feather balls, controlling shots was paramount.
Golfers would carry about five of these long-nose woods, one being the putter, during a typical round of golf. The equivalent of today’s driver was the play club, which was used from the tee box. Fairway woods were called “spoons” and were designed to produce different lofts so a ball would travel varying distances. Most players packed three spoons in their bags.
McEwan was only one of numerous Scottish clubs manufacturers. Clubs were normally affixed with an engraving bearing the maker’s name. Today, these engravings help collectors iden...
In addition to the woods, players also carried one iron, which helped golfers chip the ball out of tall grass or other trouble—courses weren’t nearly as groomed as they are today. Irons were often made of bronze—or, you guessed it, iron—and were produced by experienced blacksmiths. Bronze remained the more common material, however, for players using feather balls, as the iron clubs were strong enough to burst them at the seams.
It wasn’t until the 1880s or ’90s that irons became more common than woods in a set. Examples of early irons include the “cleek,” a long iron used for play in the fairway, and “lofters” or “niblicks,” which were used for approach shots.
Around the time that irons began appearing more commonly in bags, American companies such as Spalding, MacGregor, and B.G.I. started rivaling the Scottish club producers. Soon, long nose woods were replaced by scared- and socket-head woods. These had shorter head lengths and thicker necks than their forerunners. It was right around this time—1895 to be exact—that Englishman Horace Rawlins won the inaugural U.S. Open at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island.
Woods of the late 19th century were some of the first golf clubs to be partially made by machine. They were often shaped on lathes, with the finishing done by hand. Convex bulges were inserted into the clubs.
Manufacturers also experimented with the ways in which the club’s shaft was attached to its head. Spliced and forked connections were toyed with, but soon the socket joint, which is still used today, was introduced by makers such as George Forrester. To make this connection, the socket was drilled into the club’s head, which, in turn, was glued to the club’s shaft. By the early 1910s, socket-headed woods were being used by most golfers, although one of the game’s brightest stars, Walter Hagen, resisted and continued to use scared-head woods.
Thanks to the introduction of the Haskell ball, which had a rubber core, persimmon wood began being used at the turn of the 20th century for club heads, while companies such as Standard Golf Company experimented with aluminum headed clubs such as the Mills model.
It was also around this time that the first one-piece clubs were introduced. These rare clubs are probably the most collectible of the turn-of-the-century-era woods. They were the brainchild of Willie Dunn Jr. and his nephew John Duncan Dunn, although nobody is quite sure exactly how they were produced. The Dunns made these clubs for B.G.I., Spalding, and MacGregor from 1894 to 1902.
As irons became more popular, machines took over manufacturing. In fact, the ability to mass produce irons helped shaped the game. Before long, irons completely took over as the most prevalent club used by golfers.
Most irons bore the stamp of their manufacturer, and a rare few were chrome-plated. The faces of these early-20th-century irons were usually marked in a plethora of different patterns. The earliest, and most collectible of the machine-made irons, though, had unmarked faces.
In the 1910s and ’20s, steel shafts were used in clubs, which gave all clubs in a set a consistent feel. In 1926, steel-shafted clubs were cleared for tournament play by the United States Golf Association. Early steel-shafted clubs are not considered particularly collectible unless they have some sort of unusual shape or marking.
The 1930s brought about more changes to club design. Gene Sarazen, one of the day’s biggest stars, wanted a club specifically designed to dig balls out of sand traps, so in 1932 he invented the sand wedge by soldering a flange onto the base of a niblick or lofter.
Steel-shafted clubs from post-1945 through the 1970s are actually quite collectible, as many are still in good enough condition to use. Collectors often try to accumulate them in complete sets rather than as individual clubs.
In the 1960s engineer Karsten Solheim, founder of Ping, invented perimeter weighting, which distributed the weight of the golf club throughout its perimeter and increased the size of the sweet spot. But the greatest golf innovation of the postwar decades was probably the metal wood, which was introduced in the 1970s by Gary Adams, founder of TaylorMade. Metal woods are the only woods you see today, and makers have experimented with different metals such as titanium to make clubs lighter and more forgiving.
As with many antiques, older is better when it comes to vintage golf clubs. Although a set of long nose woods may not help you in the local charity scramble, they are quite a catch for any golf collector.