A Piece Of The Action

Collecting artifacts from the game's long history

Some people collect paintings. andy Kowalczyk collects jackets. Not just any jackets. The sport coats Kowalczyk covets are electric green, have the same number of buttons (two each sleeve, three center), and a distinctive patch over the left breast. They share one other feature: They're the signature jackets of Augusta National Golf Club.

Kowalczyk owns two of these items, which belonged to former club members, along with a 68-year-old plaque awarded to 1938 Masters champion Henry Picard and dozens of other sought-after relics of the golf world. His total investment easily runs into six figures, but money isn't the point. "I view my collection as an investment, but not purely buy low, sell high.' There's a lot of emotion tied up in golf and its history," he says.

Few collectors of golf memorabilia have gotten rich off the hobby lately. The market for once-highly prized items such as 18th-century "long-nose" woods and 19th-century "feather balls" has fallen considerably after spiking in the 1990s. A long-nose wood that sold for about $500 in the 1970s and $10,000 in the '90s might fetch $7,500, says Rand Jerris, the U.S. Golf Assn.'s director of museum and archives. "In some cases, prices are down 50% from three or four years ago," says Jerris, who cites the withdrawal of Japanese investors and the onset of a new generation of collectors that hasn't shown the same level of interest in high-end golf collectibles as aging predecessors.

Artifacts tied to the game's greatest players such as Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon, and Jack Nicklaus have held their value. So have many rare golf books, according to Jerris. A first edition of The Goff, an 18th-century Scottish golf pamphlet thought to be among the first published writing about the sport, sells for $50,000 or more.

In any case, golf has a longer history than football, basketball, and NASCAR combined, and that alone makes it fertile ground for collectors. It also generates lots of stuff, from centuries-old clubs and balls to more affordable scorecards. Just make sure you know what you're buying. To avoid counterfeited or misrepresented items, do business with reputable dealers and established collectors.

A ROUND WITH TIGER

A good way to start a collection is to latch onto a relatively narrow category. "If it's clubs, focus on clubs made before 1900, or a collection of just putters," says Karen Bednarski, executive director of the Golf Collectors Society (golfcollectors.com), whose 1,400 members snap up everything from Western Open memorabilia to photographs of Old Tom Morris, the Tiger Woods of the 1860s.

Oak Harbor (Wash.) dealer Jeffrey Ellis, 54, began his collecting obsession in 1974 after he bought 75 antique wooden-shaft clubs out of a barrel at a Goodwill store in Milwaukee. He now keeps a personal museum of more than 700 antique clubs, including two "square-toe" irons from the 1700s, each valued at more than $100,000.

Kowalczyk was in his early 40s when he started bidding on items listed by major sports auction houses, including Leland's and Mastro Auctions Inc. The Picard plaque is the first major piece he acquired and remains one of his favorites. Later, he added another gem: Payne Stewart's handwritten entry to the 1999 U.S. Open, the final major championship victory of Stewart's career. Stewart died in a plane crash later that year. That one-of-a-kind item--valued at $1,500 to $3,000 by Brian Marren, vice-president for acquisitions at MastroNet--is displayed with one of the Augusta National jackets at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y., where Kowalczyk is a member.

Kowalczyk enjoys taking his collection on the road, and when he does, he says, good fortune seems to follow. Kowalczyk put one of his Masters jackets on display at the Doral resort in Miami, where he is also a member. In 2002 he entered the pro-am to the PGA Tour stop at Doral, and was paired with Tiger Woods. "They said it was a blind drawing, but the fact that I had the jacket there may have helped," he says.

You don't have to invest tens of thousands of dollars to be a collector, or even to become a minor legend in golfiana circles. Russ Glasson is one of just three collectors estimated to have amassed more than 100,000 pocket-size golf scorecards. Glasson, 70, a retired purchasing administration manager, acquires most of his cards through trades and by requesting new ones from golf courses around the world--always enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

The most valuable cards in Glasson's collection are the 40 or so from Augusta National, each signed by a Masters champion. Glasson sends the cards to each new Masters winner and then waits for an envelope. "It took two years to get one back from Jack Nicklaus," he says, proving that ingenuity and patience pay off in the golf collecting game.

By Mark Hyman

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