The clock on my truck reads 8:55 a.m. The meeting with Tony Hoffman is five minutes away but there’s 10 minutes of traffic. My phone vibrates with a text at 9 a.m. “You able to find it okay?” Tony asks in reference to his house. Tony’s street is visible, but 50 cars away.
Pulling into the driveway, his home seems almost vacant from the outside if it weren’t for the manicured lawn and landscaping. It’s a beautiful gray, brick home with a two-car garage and a driveway that dips down and forces me to park my truck in a position where the driver’s door swings open as soon as the latch clicks. Tony meets me at the front door with a grand handshake and smile that could convince you to trade your house for a mashie niblick.
“Do you know the difference between a golf collector and a drug addict?” Hoffman asks me as we sit down. There were a couple answers running through my mind, but none seemed appropriate. “There are cures for drug addicts.” Tony chuckles. It’s a warm chuckle. He’s a man of a 78, tall and lanky, but he seems as if he were stout in his younger days.
We’re sitting in Hoffman’s office, more a museum than an office. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Arnold Palmer’s office at Latrobe Country Club then you can imagine the room. He calls it his “I-love-me room.” The wall is littered with vintage putters, niblicks with hickory shafts, and a foray of pictures — some of golf clubs, some with caricatures of golfers from a foregone era. We’re here to talk about his addiction. It’s not an intervention, however; it’s quite the opposite. It would likely more resemble the mentorship session Bubbles gives his partner in the pilot of The Wire.
“I’ve been a member of the Golf Collector’s Society for over 20 years,” Hoffman says. “I think I joined in 1991 or ‘92. I got hooked. I found this old golf club.” He smiles as he tells his origin story. The addiction got him early and being around him would give anyone a contact high.
“After I bought it, I called around to see what they were worth. I found a man who was a distributor of old golf clubs, [his] name was Chuck Furjanic up in Dallas [Texas]. So I called and he said, ‘If you can find some old golf clubs, just give me a call and give me a description and I’ll tell you what it’s worth.’” Another grin appears on his face. “So I started just as a hobby. I’d go out to the antique stores or the flea markets and I’d find one here, one there, and I’d call him and he’d ask what I paid for it. I’d say $5 or whatever, and he’d say, ‘Well, send it to me and I’ll give you $15.’ That started it. And it’s contagious. You have to be careful.”
It’s a friendly warning, but for those of us who are gearheads, the abandoned clubs in our basement or garage are a testament to the truth he’s spitting.
I first met Tony almost a year ago now. I was interested in purchasing a set of hickory clubs that I could play with. A few years before that, I’d played in a 9-hole hickory scramble at my club. It was a blast and ignited this desire to find a set of my own. To make matters worse, I stumbled on a video promoting the U.S. Hickory Open. Yes, it’s a real thing. Players from all over the world play a 72-hole stroke play event with hickory clubs. Most are original clubs from the era, but some are exact replicas approved by the Hickory Association. When my initial search began, I reached out to a man named Max Hill. I would later learn he has what is likely the largest collection of hickory clubs in the world. After an email exchange with Max and a quote for a set of clubs north of $1,000, he connected with Tony Hoffman, who just happened to live in San Antonio, my new home. The first morning we met, I bought three clubs from him. Two weeks later, he gave me another for my birthday. He also beat me by four shots on my birthday, from the same tees, at age 78. He shot two better than his age and he was annoyed with himself. A friendship began that day.
Tony sits at his desk and his chair squeaks as he leans back to look around the room, pointing at things without explanation. Then he sort of twirls his fingers and it seems to remind him to rewind and start from the beginning.
“Most of my collection focused on everything prior to 1930, and most of my good clubs were from the 1800s,” he says. He stands up and points to the circular rack standing next to my chair. It doubles as a lamp with a statue of a pre-war era golfer that could be anybody from Harry Vardon to Old Tom Morris. Behind the lamp he pulls up a spoon and tells me it’s from “1890 something.” It’s wooden head and shaft have darkened over the years, but the condition is nearly impeccable. He says he’s refinished many of his clubs, but this one is original. It looks more like a sawed off hockey stick than it does a golf club. What’s considered the hosel these days is thicker and makes a more gradual, more graceful, transition from the shaft to the head.
He hands me the club and I set it on the ground as if I’m going to address a ball. It’s a beautiful piece of equipment, resembling more a pretty vase on a shelf than a club. He grabs the spoon back and says that everything in the office he’s accumulated in the last three months.
“I’m going to give you a book when you leave to let you borrow, and you can look through and see what all is out there,” he says. “It was one of the few things I managed to keep when a collector friend of mine from Canada came and bought my whole collection. We loaded up an entire 8-foot by 12-foot U-Haul with the collection. He cleaned me out, so I basically started all over.”
It’s hard to fathom everything in this room has been accumulated in such a short time. There are 10 or 12 putters around the top of the wall encircling the office, 10 or so spoons and woods older than the U.S. Open Championship, a mint set of Wilson Staff Tour Blades, a mint set of Ping Eye 2 irons that includes the 2-iron, all the woods, and the vintage Ping staff bag. And then there’s a giant, exact replica Callaway Big Bertha Steelhead 5-iron that was a promotional product when Callaway launched its best-selling iron ever. On another rack in the corner, there are 10 or 12 Ping Anser putters. Tony is one of those Ping guys.
Tony gets up when a set of Wilson Staff Tour Blades is mentioned, and he walks me around the office. When we get to the Ping set, his eyes light up. He pulls an iron from the bag and says, “These are great, but if you ever find a set of the first ones he made, these are cast, but the first ones he made were called Dynamic, and there were forged cavity backs,” he says. “If you can find a set of those they’re worth about $9,000. The last set I saw was at a golf show, they were asking $7,500 and it was missing the 2-iron, and it sold! For $7,500!” The joy on his face is reminiscent of when my son sees a new WWE Wrestler at Wal-Mart that he doesn’t yet possess. If playing golf brings a man to his knees, collecting golf clubs turns him back into a boy again. It’s a childish glee Tony bears, and it rubs off on you. “Are you familiar with the Scottsdale, Redwood City differentiation with the Ping Anser putters?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. He pulls one of his putters from the rack. It’s an old Anser, but it’s in good shape. Not mint, but good.
“You see how this one says ‘Scottsdale.’ Well, this one says ‘Phoenix’,” he says. “But if it says Scottsdale on it, in rough condition it’s worth about $125. In good condition, it depends, but could be much higher. Scottsdales are good, but if it says Redwood City, it’s real good.” He goes on to describe the ski slope differences among all the models of Ping Ansers. Some of the early Anser models had a steep slope instead of the gradual slope on the back of the putter between the sweet spot.
“If you see a putter with a steep slope, it’s worth anywhere from $125 to $150,” he says. “If you see one that has a gradual slope, it’s worth about $15.” He laughs. “If it says ‘Scottsdale’ and has a steep slope, it jumps up to about $600.”
“You’re kidding!” I say.
“No!” he says, “It’s collectors! It’s collectors! We’re crazy!” Hoffman laughs and replaces the putter.
“Something is worth what people will pay for it, I guess,” I tell him.
“Exactly! That’s exactly right,” he says.
We sit back down and he settles into his chair again. “The wooden clubs are starting to go away now,” he says. “People are just holding on to them or they’re getting lost in estate sales or whatever.”
Hoffman points to a picture on his wall; it’s the biggest picture in the room. The picture is of 20 different persimmon drivers, all with different designs on the face. Some of them have different color dots and a couple have a single design right in the center. One even has a cartoonish silhouette of a golfer. Tony is telling me another part of his origin story as he continues to point, and then he pivots to the picture and stands.
“You see these right here, these were called fancy faces,” he says. “They were all made in the early twenties. They made a billion of them, all with different faces. They were art deco and people wanted something different.” He sits back down and grins once again.
“I ran across a retired Army sergeant, just when I first started, in a flea market,” he says. “He had a few of these [fancy faces] and I asked him how much he wanted for them. He said ‘Oh, $4 each,’ I said, OK. I asked him if he knew anybody who had more of them. He said, ‘Do I?’ Then he told me that he had a whole locker full of them. He said, ‘I was in the service for 25 years and this is what I collected. I can’t repair them or do anything with them.’ I asked him how big his foot locker was. He said, ‘No, not foot locker, storage locker.’ I bought about 500 of them from him for $2 a piece, and I sold them for $35 a piece. I had to clean them up and refinish them, but that was my hobby.” He laughs again.
“I had a Master’s fancy face that was worth about $150-$200, I sold it for $35,” he says. Hoffman buries his face in his hands with a chuckle. “I was warned one time, golf collectors are funny. You could have this five-karat diamond you’re asking $2,000 for, they’ll pick it up and say to you, ‘You realize this is worth more than $2,000?’ They won’t tell you it’s worth $50,000; they’ll just tell you it’s worth more than you’re asking. Again, you have to be careful.”
Collectors have always been the keepers of history, whether it’s golf clubs or Egyptian antiquities. As our conversation draws to a close, the question comes up, “Why do you collect and what do you think collectors contribute to the history of the game?”
“I collect for the satisfaction I get from looking at these old clubs, seeing where we were and now, where we are,” he says. “The fascination is the same as collecting old cars. You buy an old car and fix it up. I do the same thing with clubs. I find these clubs and they are beaten and battered, and I bring them back to life and put them back out there for someone else to discover. People look at them and say ‘Oh! This is really neat looking.’” He’s the most serious he’s been all morning. “Plus it’s just an addiction.” He pauses and takes a deep breath.
“The satisfaction comes from the addiction as much as anything. Just like Max [Hill], he started with five clubs and now he’s got 17,000. You start and you just have to have more.” When he pauses this time, it’s almost as if he knows he’s telling a cautionary tale. “It’s the satisfaction of walking into an antique store and not really knowing what you’re looking for, but knowing when you’ve found it. But yes, it is an addiction. I’ve thought many times through the years that I could give up golf if I had to, but I don’t think I could ever give up golf collecting.” He leans forward in his chair. “It’s like a constant mystery story. Every time you walk into a golf show or a flea market, you’re almost uncovering this hidden mystery that is begging you to solve it.”
With that final word on his problem, feeling confident he’d admitted there was one, he asks me to join him in the garage. His tall, lanky gait heads down a short hallway and through his pristine kitchen.
“We have deer that come up in the back yard nearly every day,” he says. “My wife and I will be eating breakfast and look up and there’s a fawn staring in through the french doors. When we first moved here, it was sort of creepy. Now I just feed the damned things every day.”
He chuckles again and opens the garage door. He reaches down into a bag of cracked corn deer feed, fills an old whipped cream container, and walks out the back door of the garage into his yard. “Usually as soon as they hear the corn rattle they show up,” he says. He smiles at me again. This time in the antique store, he knows what he’s looking for. Tony rattles the bowl again. We look out into his yard that becomes woods about 30 yards behind his house. “Come on. This never fails,” he says. He rattles the bowl again. We wait a few seconds, maybe a minute. No deer. Tony reaches into the bowl and grabs a handful, then throws it out into the yard. Another minute. No deer. “Oh well. Figures they’d disappear today,” he says. He doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious he relates the feeling to hunting for golf clubs as well.