The frozen fairways feel like granite. The wind can cut through three layers of clothing. What's a golfer to do?
Some local golfers have been playing on all winter by traveling to Florida and points south; others clean and wax their clubs and store them 'til spring. But a growing number of golf buffs spend winter weekends maintaining their collections -- golf clubs, balls, books, scorecards, tools -- anything related to the game.
Victor Vaughn, president of the local chapter of the Golf Collectors Society, owns one of the more interesting collections. His first loves are prints and small statuary, but in 35 years of collecting he has acquired a large assortment of trophies, jewelry, models, books, photographs, even ladies' hat pins. He doesn't consider himself a collector of golf clubs -- although he owns more than 800.
"No," Vaughn explains, "I don't specialize in clubs, although I did start out as a club collector. I built up a very good collection, before I became engrossed in golf art work, especially prints and figurines, several years ago."
Obviously, collectors of clubs face a storage problem, as John Whittemore, an avid Falls Church golfer, discovered a few years ago. "It started as an accident," he says. "I had no desire to collect anything other than low scores when I ran across an old No. 3 wood with the name 'Thistle' on it. I'd never seen one before, so I bought it as a souvenir. It cost me 50 cents."
That intitial souvenir led to a full-blown collection of clubs that has spread from a display case in the study to the halls to the basement to the attic. It's still growing, and he has no plans to part with a single club. "I never know when I might need one," he says with a smile.
Examining the equipment used by old-time golfers makes you wonder how they played the game as well as they did -- and why they played it at all. Some clubs are no more than a long stick of wood ending in a crook. Others have a wooden head spliced to a hickory shaft anf held in place by wood pins, glue and waxed string whipping. All are in various weights, sizes, shapes and lengths, with grips wound to suit the player.
Of all the improvements in equipment through the years, none was more important than in the ball itself. It's been a long journey from the feathery to the gutta percha to the sparkling white, precision-built pellet of today. Now, with a variety of scientifically designed balls, it's easy to forget that old-timers used a metal mold to squeeze a ball back into shape after it had been walloped.
How do you determine the value of your grandpa's old clubs that have been gathering dust in the attic? That depends on a number of factors, Whittemore says, "such as the type of design of the clubs, its age, its condition and, of course, the club maker. You need at least that much information before a collector could estimate its value."
And a very old ball may have some value, too, he adds: "Single gutta perchas now range in price rom about $25 to $75, depending on the condition."
Once a year the local collectors' chapter hold its "Hickory Hackers Tournament," in which participants must use clubs with hickory shafts. As a guest in the latest event I learned a great deal about playing ith antique golf equipment, including a lot I didn't reall need to know.
Whittemore kindly invited me to select as many clubs as I wanted from his collection of more than a thousand hickory shaft sticks. My selection could've been worse, but I don't know how. It isn't easy to pick one putter from 75, or one mashie from dozens. And choosing a driver from a stack of implements with solid wood, thinly grooved heads (no face plate, no sole plate, no identification) can be confusing. I confess I don't know the difference between a baffy and a rut iron -- and the same goes for cleek, spoon, niblick and other instruments of yesteryear. But the one club that seemed perfect was a fine old blade putter, made in St. Andrews, Scotland.
With less than a small bucket of balls for a quick practice session, I teed off in the tournament with eight clubs and high hopes. I was delighted with some of the tools in the odd assortment of sticks, and had more than enough good shots to make me eager to try again next year.
But that perfect putter betrayed me. The shaft turned from hickory to rubber to concrete; the head changed its size, weight, shape and balance on every green. When Whittemore discovers the deceitful characteristics of this instrument, he will send it back to Scotland -- or drop it over Memorial Bridge.