Whatever their value, hickories bring you closer to a time when golfers were more likely to know the person who made their clubs, or at least who put them together. Cleek makers, who in early times were blacksmiths, made shallow-face irons that were stamped with some kind of distinctive mark in back to identify them. A cleekmark was a form of trademark, and a club didn't have to be a cleek (a low-lofted iron) to get one. Most irons had them, and so did putters and woods, though those are called maker's marks.
The oldest and most mysterious of all marks are those on the Royal Troon Golf Clubs. This set of six woods and two irons also ranks as the greatest attic find in the history of golf. The clubs were discovered in a boarded-up closet in Hull, England, in the late 1890s, wrapped in a Yorkshire newspaper dated 1741. No one knows who made them or the exact significance of a lozenge with a crown over a thistle, a star in between, flanked with the letters ic marked repeatedly on one of the irons and all six woods. Many experts, Ellis included, think they date from the 1600s, or possibly even the 1500s. What is certain is that in 1998 the Troon Golf Club in Scotland, which has owned the sticks almost since their discovery, turned down an offer of more than $4 million from the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, and voted instead to continue to display the clubs at the British Golf Museum in St. Andrews.
Around the time the Troon clubs were unearthed, multiple cleekmarks were becoming common. The maker would hammer in his logo—his name or initials or something fanciful like an animal, a knight, a rose or a crown—and ship the clubhead to a retailer or a club pro, who would then shaft it, wrap on a grip and pound in a second cleekmark. Sometimes, the shop foreman would have added his own mark to show that the head had passed inspection.
And those marks changed, too. George Nicoll, a well-known Scottish club maker, had at least seven cleekmarks over the course of his career. Each was an open hand; some had more lines or fatter fingers and one had a cuff. Toward the end of the hickory era, cleekmark clutter became an issue. Phrases like MADE IN SCOTLAND, HAND FORGED and PATENT APPLIED FOR proliferated. "As a rule of thumb, the more stuff stamped on it, the newer it tended to be," says Ellis. "After awhile, it was just advertising."