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.
Jason Day’s performance coach, Jason Goldsmith, joins the 19th hole
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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure
My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.
Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.
Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.
I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.
First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.
Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.
Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”
Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!
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