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Antique Clubs: In Hickory Veritas

You just found a set of hickory-shafted clubs in your parents' attic. The grips are unraveling, the heads are rusty and the shafts are warped. Yet there's no denying a certain charm in the patina, a grace in the natural materials and a simplicity in the construction—the tips of the metal hosels crimped into the shafts of the irons, the hard black whipping reinforcing the necks of the woods. Besides, they feel good when you swing them: solid, purposeful. You never imagined yourself in plus fours, but, suddenly, who knows?Maybe the clubs are worth restoring. Maybe you have taken the first step into a brave old world of golf.

If you're exceedingly lucky you'll see the name H. PHILP stamped into the top of the wooden clubheads. Hugh Philp, who died in 1856 at St. Andrews, made putters and longnose spoons of such beauty that as early as 1897 the "few specimens that still exist," Harper's Weekly reported, were worth "much fine gold." Philp now lies in the auld town's cathedral cemetery near Old Tom Morris, who, like many of the old-timers, saw club making as just another way to make ends meet. Philp, though, was primarily a club maker. He was also a fine and cagey player. Legend has it that he never closed out opponents until the seventeenth, the Road Hole, so that he could always tell his pigeons, "Maybe you'll get me tomorrow."

Today Philp is thought of as the Antonio Stradivari of golf. Only about 190 examples of his work are known to exist, some with a value of nearly $20,000. But any club made before 1890, when golf's popularity took flight on the wings of the gutta-percha ball, is scarce and precious.

With more luck, the irons you've found might be stamped rtj—for Robert Tyre Jones Jr.—on the back and feature a small, deeply indented dot as well as the impressed silhouette of a long-stem clay pipe. That would make them precious indeed—the handiwork of another St. Andrews master, Tom Stewart, who had a hand in forging the irons Bobby Jones used to win the 1930 Grand Slam. After Jones made history, Stewart made more RTJ irons—just like the originals, but without Jones's permission. "He sold them to his better customers," says Jeff Ellis, author of The Clubmaker's Art: Antique Golf Clubs and Their History. "Jones asked him to stop, probably in 1931." Jones, of course, was also a lawyer. Ellis has seen three sets of Stewart's unauthorized RTJs, of at least eight clubs each, and knows of two other sets. They are worth $3,000 to $10,000 per set, depending on their condition. "If there are five sets out there, there are probably a few more," Ellis says. "But not a lot."

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