Care and Maintenance of Vintage Golf Clubs

By: Tim McMichael

The allure of fine vintage golf clubs is irresistible to those who have come to love them. Each club is like a unique work of art and no two are exactly alike. The rich grain of the wood and the simple elegance of designs that have proven themselves over centuries are only part of their attraction. Because each club has its own unique personality, a personal relationship between golfer and club develops that is simply not possible with today’s soulless, mass manufactured equipment. The most famous clubs of the hickory era even had their own names. Bobby Jones’ putter, “Calamity Jane” is perhaps the most famous example. It was named after the notorious markswoman of the wild west shows that were popular in Jones’ childhood. Like its namesake, it was deadly accurate and dangerous in a fight. The multiple taped repairs along it’s hickory shaft, however, bore witness to the fact that this was not always a smooth relationship, at least on Jones’ side. We can take some comfort from the fact that Jones, the quintessential southern gentleman, with his effortless, lyrical swing once said, “There are some emotions on the golf course that simply cannot be endured while the club is still in one’s hands.” He was known to throw Calamity Jane when he was in a slump and was once stopped in the act of actually trying to break her over his knee by a spectator who sagely advised,” You know, you might need that again tomorrow.” The moral of this story is twofold. First, vintage clubs are special in their unique character and beauty. Second, even the greatest player of that era occasionally took less than adequate care of clubs that were (and still are) quite literally priceless. Just as the art of playing golf with these classic clubs is being revived, so too must be the art of caring for them. This is part of the fun and challenge of classic equipment. These clubs require attention and respect both on and off the course.

The first principle to understand is that vintage clubs are perishable. Any relationship that is founded on mutual respect will endure, but neglect will cause it to warp, decay, and eventually break, and your classic clubs are no exception. That said, there is no reason that this should happen. There are hickory shafted clubs more than a century old that are still in playable condition.

I want to take a moment here to counter the popular misconception that wood clubs will not stand up to today’s modern balls. This is quite simply untrue. Sam Snead had a clubhead speed of 150 miles per hour in his prime. They called him “The Slammer” for a reason. Johnny Carson once joked that Snead went through a thousand clubs during his career, but only one hat.  The truth is that he played with the same George Izett driver for almost two decades on the PGA tour, and that is the best example that I can think of to illustrate the fact that classic clubs are durable enough to hit anything softer than a rock. You will likely, however, get better results from using lower compression, higher spinning balls, mostly because solid wood heads impart so much less backspin. A combination of low spin and high launch is the holy grail of distance, and your classic woods have a degree of low spin that most modern equipment manufacturers would kill for as a basic function of the materials they are made from. This may be why the world record drive on the PGA tour is still held by a wooden club.

The second principle to grasp is that the number one enemy of classic clubs is the environment. Moisture and dirt are the greatest threats to their longevity. Chemists call water the universal solvent for a reason; it quite literally dissolves everything, even golf clubs. Given enough time, water will reduce your clubs to their component molecules. In the short term, however, it will cause unprotected wood components to warp and swell and unprotected metal components to rust. Show me a crooked wood with a loose soleplate and a cracked face, or an iron red and pitted with rust, and I will show you a club that has been left out in the rain. Never let your clubs stay wet, even between shots.  And never, ever allow wooden clubs to soak in water. If water is the super villain of club damage, dirt is its trusty sidekick. Each time a ball is hit where the ground is gritty or sandy, it is the equivalent of high pressure sandpaper swiping across the face and sole of your club. This is unavoidable in some instances since we must play the ball as it lies, but hitting a ball with a dirty clubface is never necessary and accounts for most of the damage to the actual groves. Cleaning your clubs after each shot will keep this abrasion to an absolute minimum.

In practical terms, this means that a simple dry towel is an essential piece of equipment. It is ironic that the least expensive accessory on any bag is the most important when it comes to the maintaining the value of the clubs that are in it. I can’t count the number of times I have seen a forest of novelty head covers sprouting from a golfer’s bag and no towel. Prior to Callaway shipping the original Great Big Bertha driver with its own head cover, head covers were a rare sight, even on tour. Most golfers viewed them with the same disdain that now registers with telescopic ball retrievers and little plastic clickers to keep score. They were seen as an unnecessary waste of time and a vanity accessory for inveterate duffers. The reason for this is that a good dry towel and a little basic care with how clubs are removed and replaced in the bag make headcovers redundant. More importantly, using headcovers while neglecting the use of a towel is an actual hazard to the health of your clubs. Putting a wet and gritty club back into its head cover will render the interior of that head cover permanently wet and gritty. This is worse than not having any protection at all. The moisture will warp the wood, and the dirt and sand will abrade the finish with every step you take, all while your club appears (from the outside) to be cared for. Headcovers have their place in protecting valuable clubs, mostly while they are being transported; banging around in the trunk of a car or on the back of a golf cart is what causes most nicks and dings. On the course, however, threading a towel between the shafts of your woods to keep them separated will do the trick, especially if you walk or use a pull cart.

This brings us to the more involved aspects of club care. Because some interaction with moisture and grit is unavoidable, and because your club’s wood components are the most vulnerable to this kind of damage, they have a coating that protects them. For many older clubs, this coating is varnish or lacquer, but for recently refurbished clubs and clubs manufactured towards the end of the persimmon era, this coating will likely be polyurethane. Regardless of the type, this finish will wear away over time with normal use and must be maintained if your clubs are to be kept in playable condition. A full refurbishing job is beyond the scope of this article and likely best left to the experts, but for basic maintenance, knowing how to refresh the finish on your clubs is all you really need. No matter what kind of finish your club originally had, a thorough cleaning and the application of a couple of coats of shellac is the recipe for maintaining that finish and keeping your clubs protected from the elements. The process is fairly simple and will greatly restore the luster and enhance the longevity of your clubs.

First, using a toothbrush or other soft scrubbing tool, remove all dirt and tee marks. Use a damp cloth for moisture and use as little as is necessary to get the job done. Remember, water is your enemy, especially if your club has worn or damaged finish. After the club has been cleaned and thoroughly dried, go over every surface, including the soleplate and insert, with 0000 superfine steel wool. This will remove any remaining grime and smooth the surface for the application of the shellac. There are a couple of points of caution here: Do not use anything coarser than 0000 steel wool and use long, smooth strokes that go with the natural grain of the wood, not against it. This will avoid any risk of eventually altering the bulge and roll and loft of the club. Also avoid abrading the whipping as this will damage it. After this light sanding, clean off any resulting residue and your club is ready for the first coat of shellac. Brush or spray on a thin coat and then let the club dry for the recommended time. This will vary based on room temperature and humidity. Under normal conditions, about 45 minutes is recommended before applying a second coat. If you will be working in very cold conditions, such as an unheated garage in winter, the necessary drying time may be much longer. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions if there is any doubt. After the second coat is dry (and I highly recommend a second coat) your club is protected and ready to use again. If your clubs have hickory shafts, this same procedure should be followed for those wood components as well. This routine maintenance should be done at least once every ten rounds and more often if you play in wet conditions.

When it comes to your irons the process is much less involved. The main issue is rust. This can be removed with an abrasive sponge or fine grain sandpaper. Only use sandpaper if the sponge doesn’t get the job done and use the finest grain that will work. As a rule of thumb, don’t use anything coarser than 320 grit. Sand from heel to toe along the length of the blade and not vertically across the grooves. The thing to avoid is sanding your clubs down until the swingweight and playing characteristics change. Harry Vardon actually managed to do this with his favorite cleek and had to have a hunk of metal welded to the back to return it to playable condition. Keeping your clubs dry in the first place will go a long way toward avoiding this kind of disaster. Also understand the difference between actual deteriorating rust and the normal and much less ruinous oxidation of metal. Rust will be reddish brown in color; normal oxidation is grey and should be considered part of the rugged beauty of a vintage club.

I don’t want to neglect mentioning the care and maintenance of grips. Like so many things in life, that which appears to be superfluous is actually essential. Grips are the most neglected part of any club, modern or classic. It is almost impossible to play good golf with hard, dry, slippery grips. If your grips are modern rubber compound, they are relatively easy and cheap to replace. Regripping clubs with modern grips is one of the easiest maintenance jobs and, in my opinion, one every serious golfer should learn. If, however, your classic clubs have classic leather grips, the job is much more difficult and probably best left to those with experience. That said, there are a number of leather care and preservative products that can go a long way towards restoring life to old leather grips. It is important to know the type of leather your grips are made from. Suede leather is softer and has a natural nap that helps promote a secure grip, but it is much less durable and will be ruined by water. Regular leather grips are harder and smoother on the surface, but last longer and can be restored with leather conditioner. Waterproofing spray can be used on both types and will greatly enhance the durability of suede grips, but you cannot use leather conditioner on suede.

Like most things related to this most fascinating of sports, there is much more to know, but these basic tips should help maintain your classic clubs in fine, playable condition and keep them in your bag for years to come. Remember to keep them clean, keep them dry, touch up their finish from time to time, and treat them like the good friends you hope they will be on the course. And when you have made a particularly disgusting shot (as we all do from time to time) recall the advice that anonymous spectator gave to the great Bobby Jones before you slam that classic club uncleaned and uncared for back in your bag. “You might need that again tomorrow.”

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