Antiques: The King of Clubs
If, two centuries ago, a golfer believed that his equipment had to look good for him to play well, he would have wanted a set of clubs by Hugh Philp, whose talent for making wooden clubs has been likened to Antonio Stradivari’s mastery of the violin form. “The visual element is important to a golfer. How the club looks gives you confidence in many situations,” says Jeff Ellis, a collector and dealer of antique clubs in Oak Harbor, Wash. “I’m not going to say you will hit the ball farther with them, but Philp’s clubs are distinctive, graceful, and elegant. Golf is so psychological. Nobody likes an ugly club. If it is ugly, it better hit the ball a long way.”
Ellis owns four clubs fashioned by Philp, who was the official club maker for the Society of St. Andrews Golfers for the first half of the 19th century and whose handiwork collectors have pursued since the 1890s. Those Philp clubs belong to the collection of nearly 800 clubs dating from the 17th century to the early 20th century that Ellis has consigned to Sotheby’s. The auction house will offer the collection, in 600 lots, on September 27 and 28 in New York in a sale that is expected to fetch more than $4 million.
The 54-year-old Ellis, who began amassing his collection in the mid-1970s, has included an image and a description of each club in his self-published, two-volume, 784-page, 16-pound tome, The Clubmaker’s Art, which is in its second edition. “I’ll miss owning them, but my collection will remain forever in these pages,” says Ellis, who sells the book for $275. “When the clubs go, they’ll find homes all over the world. It’s going to be great to see collectors enjoy what I have enjoyed for the past 30 years.”
Ellis first became interested in antique clubs in 1975, when he was a 23-year-old Mormon missionary stationed in Milwaukee. There, while visiting a thrift store, he spotted a barrel of 75 hickory-shaft clubs, priced at $3 apiece. “I’d seen the occasional hickory shaft, but I’d never had the opportunity to buy a pile of them. That spoke to me as a collector,” says Ellis, who had collected stamps and coins as a boy and later played on Brigham Young University’s golf team. “I didn’t know anything about them. I was just fascinated.” He bought the barrel’s contents for $75, and then sent half a dozen clubs to his home in Washington state and gave the rest away. The purchase set him on the path to becoming a dealer, collector, and authority on antique clubs.
Early in his career, Ellis sold vintage clubs from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s (some golfers preferred to play with these clubs because Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and other pros then employed them on the PGA Tour) while continuing to acquire older clubs for himself. He also collected turn-of-the-century golf magazines, which helped him research his holdings.
Once he sells his collection, Ellis will have more time to spend on the golf course, maybe with a hickory club in hand. “I’ve played a few times, but not with valuable clubs,” he says. “I was amazed at how well they played. With a hickory shaft, if you miss the ball, it goes way crooked. You have to pay attention to your swing, your balance, your tempo. The thing was, I could see that if I practiced, the clubs would respond. They reward a good swing and penalize a bad one.”