For the only surviving club-making company from St. Andrews’ 19th-Century glory days, making history is just another day at the office.
Ewan Glen needs just a few minutes by phone to transport me back in time to the narrow cobblestone streets of 19th-century St. Andrews. Today this co-owner of the St. Andrews Golf Co. (STAG)—the oldest continuously operating club making organization from the Home of Golf—has me envisioning the workshop on Argyle Street where renowned craftsman Hugh Philp meticulously worked and reworked designs that would shape the future of club making for 80 years.
The “Philp’s Long Nose putters were widely considered the Stradivarius violins of golf,” says Glen. “He was not only the first to transform crude clubs into works of art with visually pleasing lines and smooth contours; he also improved function by evenly distributing weight for the right balance.”
I’m standing in my California studio half a world away, taking practice strokes with an exact replica of another Philp club Glen sent me last week to examine —a wooden Baffing Spoon. Handmade by STAG from the original, authentic template, it’s an exceptional example of craftsmanship with a weight and feel I find both pleasing and surprising, considering how long ago it was designed and how dissimilar it is to modern clubs. I share this opinion with Glen and he says “Just wait ‘til you hit it.”
Hit it? But won’t I break it?
“Not likely,” says Glen. He reminds me that this “technology” was used routinely and without problem in the 19th century, surviving round after round of championship-level golf. “The materials in these clubs aren’t as strong as those used in modern clubs, of course,” Glen admits. “But they’re stronger than they appear and we feel playing the clubs is an invaluable part of the experience of ownership.”
Nearly all the historic clubs STAG creates (or rather, “recreates”) are playable. In fact, the company encourages its customers to put them into service. That is, after all the only way to truly experience aspects of the game of golf as it was played by the legendary forefathers whose names are forever cemented into the annals of golf history.
Replica vs. Authentic
The templates STAG uses for long-nosed clubs such as this aren’t simply estimated redesigns but the precise forms employed to create the 19th-century originals. Take a moment to digest that: A customer who orders a Philp Baffing Spoon is getting a club made from the template or mold a golfer such as Tom Morris would have in his bag upon walking out of the shop in the 1800s.
Holding it in your hands, the idea that these are called “replicas” feels derogatory. Sure, they’re not original 19th century mint prototypes or “as played by” antiques up for auction for a quarter million pounds Sterling. But they’re also not cut from the same cloth as your run-of-the-mill $30 replica club. I’ll repeat for emphasis: These aren’t merely clubs “like” the ones produced centuries prior—they are those clubs.
The Baffing Spoon is a member of the wood- and metal-head set hand crafted as part of STAG Co.’s “Heritage Collection.” Each Heritage club has a unique story and provides the most legitimate demonstration of the club-construction techniques employed during various periods of golf history. In some cases, the workshop even employs the original, centuries-old club-making accessories, right down to the abused, dented kettle pot used to transfer molten lead from the open fire to a club head in need of some extra weight.
The Bold and the Beautiful
Included in Glen’s review samples were a variety of other clubs from the category. I fell in love with the Spur Toe from the moment I unwrapped its protective packaging. Designed for hitting off hardpan and out of rocky areas that would otherwise damage wood-headed clubs, the iron head of the Spur Toe is such an unusual shape it reminds one of the blacksmith version of a “spork” (half spoon/half fork). The circa 1750 club, which some historians believe was also used as a tool in the equestrian trade, is h-e-a-v-y. While modern clubs are lightweight and easily handled, the Toe has a heft to it that brings to mind what it might have been like to swing a broad sword.
Equally heavy, the Rut Iron provides a compelling example of a “single-use” club. (The 14-club limit didn’t make its way into the rulebook until 1939.) Golfers shared the grounds of St. Andrews with European footballers, archers, and even horse-and-buggy rigs that transported items such as seaweed and sand. Over time, cart wheels left ruts in the course that were considered run-of-the-mill hazards. Shaped roughly to wheel width and with a significant loft, the Rut Iron performed as promised, getting the pellet up and out of trouble.
Also in the box were two “Sunday Sticks” (tapered clubs masquerading as walking sticks, for those who preferred to sneak out the back and putt rather than pray during church on Sundays), a Giant Niblick with a head that feels the size of a frying pan, and a famous putter popularized by Bobby Jones. The Bobby Jones Signature Putter (aka “Calamity Jane”) provides a glimpse into exactly what Bobby Jones was seeing when putting during 12 of his 13 major championships. Jones’ Jane has a loft that looks foreign from the top, but then again those were the days of long putts and stymies. The featured slider shows just a few of the gems to which STAG is granting a second life.
All Together Now
Having recently celebrated its 132nd anniversary, the St. Andrews Golf Company is the oldest continuously operating club-making business from the Home of Golf. It has outlasted companies run by many talented and famous craftsmen—old Tom Morris, Willie Park, Hugh Philp, Robert Forgan, and even the family-owned shops operated by the McEwans and the Andersons, which had previously carried on for many generations, but for one reason or another eventually fell into the footnotes of history.
Experts and collectors generally agree that the death knell sounded for most of St. Andrews’ club makers once the industrial revolution and advanced manufacturing processes made sophisticated clubs available to gamers more quickly and at less cost than their handmade equivalents. Karsten Solheim, the Norwegian engineer and father of the Anser putter and modern Ping brand played a significant, albeit unintentional, role in the St. Andrews club makers’ fade to black.
For golfers, Solheim’s innovations provided the allure of performance in a shiny steel package. For store owners, production cycles moved quickly enough to keep inventory in stock just as interest in this “new” game rapidly spread across the world stage.
The reason STAG Co. is still in play? “Well, for one, previous owners and managers of the company have been willing to adapt with the times,” says Glen. “An agile business is a lot like a well-fit club shaft—flexibility is an important factor in determining success.”
He adds that some more reputable shops in St. Andrews resisted change altogether, trying to force the world markets to do their bidding, rather than the other way around. The club makers that insisted on selling only clubs with hickory shafts, for example, rather than newer and more easily worked steel, were quickly phased out.
Pivoting, Old School Style
Having the right management and supporters who have creative ideas helped, too. Relevant here is the recently retired former secretary of Prestwick Golf Club, Ian Bunch. If the St. Andrews club-making industry was close to drowning, Mr. Bunch–a highly respected and awarding-winning golf facility executive—can be credited with tossing the line that would keep it above water.
In the 1980s, he organized the current STAG Co. by merging three separate historic companies that, while famous in many circles, were otherwise struggling to compete with the always-on gears of mass production. The oldest of the three organizations was originally established by blacksmith George Nicoll, who first made hand-forged clubheads in 1881 in a workshop located just 12 miles southwest of St. Andrews.
Nicoll became well-known for his quality work and eventually attracted some of the most famous championship-winning players of the day, including Henry Cotton, James Braid, Arnaud Massy, and Tommy Armour. Nicoll’s inventiveness would eventually change the market for clubs in a way that still stands today.
“An agile business is a lot like a well-fit club shaft—flexibility is an important factor in determining success.”
In 1926, Nicoll unveiled the first matching set of irons—the Indicator Series—which became the inspiration for today’s club numbering and lettering system. Each club in an Indicator set featured a stamp on the back that provided players an approximate “indication” of how far they could hit the ball. Bolstering the science behind the indicators, Nicoll constrained each shaft to a uniform weight and flex—breakthrough thinking at the time.
Tom Stewart opened a small alley shop in 1893 on 14 Argyle Street, the current location of West Port Print & Design. Had the concept of endorsements existed during his time, Stewart would have made a killing. Stewart’s clubs found the bags of some of the game’s greatest names—including Tom Morris, Francis Ouimet (2013 marks the 100th anniversary of Ouimet’s historic win), and even Bobby Jones—golfers whose performance helped move Stewart’s handiwork on to museum and Hall of Fame displays.
The third company—the St. Andrews Golf Co.– started making clubs in 1906. Its most famous clients were Gene Sarazen—known as the father of the modern sand wedge–and Densmore Shute (winner of two PGA Championships and the 1933 Open Championship). Today, STAG Co. makes clubs under each of the three different brands from which it descends. George Nicoll-branded clubs come in several flavors in both modern and hickory sets. The Tom Stewart line gives its nod to hickory. The St. Andrews Golf Co. brand is exclusively sold as a modern set.
Modern, you say?
“Aye” to the Future
For St. Andrew’s Golf Company’s small staff of artisans, re-creating authentic tools of the past by hand–one wrap of whipping twine at a time–is a labor of love and a way to stay connected to the core values that defined a game and, at times, even a country. Honesty, perseverance, respect, sportsmanship. Play it where it lies.
The quality of the clubs is top notch, stemming from the company’s overriding ethic—to prioritize quality over speed in every case. That buyers receive clubs shaped with a manual lathe using the actual templates used to shave down wooden heads for some of the most famous historic golfers ever to walk the earth is unquestionably remarkable and deserves more attention, if not an outright award.
The past, however, is only the part of STAG Co.’s story. According to Glen, there’s another side to the company that’s entirely focused on advanced engineering and innovation—on re-establishing St. Andrews’ position as a modern club-making force to be reckoned with.
“We’re working with the University of Dundee’s Mechanical Engineering Faculty on concepts that employ very high-precision tools and advanced materials to make clubs of the highest quality and consistency,” he says. “We hope to be as much about the future as the past and it won’t be long before you see the beginning of the next stage in the evolution of St. Andrews club making.”
That’s a tall order in a competitive industry, to be sure. But the company has more than 130 years of research, experience, brand value, and survival on its side. If the modern entries rival the quality and aesthetic values of STAG’s historic clubs, I’d say the chances of new-found success for this historically important company are almost a gimme.
Take your own tour of this club-making marvel and its entire historic roster, which range from the sublime to the outright bizarre, by visiting www.standrewsgolfco.com. Even better, check one off the bucket list and visit the workshop in person.