This circa 1780 putter ranks as one of the oldest in existence. The head is exceptionally large, measuring 6" in length, 2 3/16" in width, and 1 1/4" in face depth. A big, meaty clubhead is a typical characteristic of a putter made in the 1700s, and this putter has that in its entirety. But it possesses many other 18th century characteristics.
The horn on the sole is a full 1/4th-inch thick top to bottom, which is much thicker than the horn used on clubs in the 1800s. Horn thickness was something that evolved from thicker to thinner as clubs were made through the 1800s.
The 3 pegs in the horn are exceptionally large in diameter, much thicker than what is found in a typical 19th century club. Peg thickness was also something that evolved from thicker to thinner as clubs were made through the 1800s.
The knot in the wood on the top of the head is another feature that shows great age, that this head was formed before knots came to be seen as a flaw later on in the mid 1800s.
The top end of this 38" hickory shaft, or shaft butt, is cut flat with no effort made to crown the end of the shaft or bevel its edges. On long nose clubs made in the 1800s, the top of the shaft is typically beveled so as to form a bit of a crown and give the shaft a more finished look.
The final big element of this club that clearly dates it well into the 1700s is this: The top of the head is highest directly behind the face, and it angles down in a major way as it moves towards the back of the head. A person can view this best by looking straight on at the very end of the toe and noticing the direction the perimeter of the crown runs in relation to the perimeter of the sole. When viewing from this angle, a person will easily see how the edge of the upper perimeter of the head, beginning at the top corner of the face, has a strong downward slope as it approaches and then reaches the back of the head while the sole perimeter remains level.
By the early 19th century, clubs had evolved so this same perimeter line from the top of the toe to the back of the head typically slopes down but not to the degree that it does on this club. The top perimeter line on long nose woods made later in the nineteenth century continued to evolve to where it runs pretty much parallel to the sole. In some instances, the top perimeter line angles a little lower as it moves away from the face but then it angles back up before it reaches the back of the head. Again, it's only those long nose clubs made in the 1700s that will have such a pronounced slope on the back of the head as is found on this putter. It should be noted that the more narrow the head (as is found on play clubs and long spoons), the greater the slope will sometimes be. Because this is a putter, its head is much broader than that of a play club.
Mixed into all of this is the fact that the maker of this club did not mark it with his name, but somebody stamped "H. Philp" onto the crown and did so one letter at a time. This can be seen when viewing the letters with great scrutiny. The last three letters are just a little off. The name is actually difficult to see unless it is viewed close up. So why would somebody stamp Philp’s name on the club?
By the end of his life, Hugh Philp was widely heralded as the master clubmaker. Following his death in 1856, his work and reputation as a clubmaker only grew in stature. His clubs, recognized as the gold standard, remained in demand but became harder to obtain. During the 1890s a few classified ads were placed in Golf Illustrated by people offering more money for a Philp putter than the cost of a new club.
It’s clear that Hugh Philp was a legendary figure for over 150 years, and his name could have been stamped on this club at any point during this time—out of sentimental reverence or a naive hope to increase value. Truth be told, we do not know when the club was stamped nor why. Maybe Philp reshafted and stamped this club in the early 1800s, before he had a full stamp? Whatever the reason, it does not change the fact that this is a magnificent and historically valuable club made before Philp was even born, made during a time when the vast majority of clubmakers did not mark their work.
To the auctioneer, Philp's name on this head is a minor consideration. When a club is as old and as good as this one, such an anomaly is easy to look past. Furthermore, the stamp is not prominent and it's a very small part of a fabulous club with no chips, cracks, or unsightly wear.
The grip on this club and all the whipping appears original. A coat of varnish has been applied to the head to help preserve the club for the next century.
Putters were not always a part of the game. As can be read in Alastair Johnston's book The Chronicles of Golf page 146. It isn't until 1690 that the first mention of a "putting club" appears in the annals of golf history as it is understood today. Scant few putters from the 1700s remain.
There are currently four putters that are recorded to possibly be older than this one: the left-handed putter (c.1750) sold by Bonhams in 2018, the AD Andrew Dickson putter (also c.1750) sold by Sothebys in 2007, the red keel putter (c.1775) sold by Phillips auction house in 1994, and the Neilson putter (also c.1775) at Royal Sydney Golf Club in Australia.
Accompanying this lot are pictures of a typical 1880s Forgan putter, made approximately 100 years after this club was made. The difference between the shape and size of the two heads and the size of their horns and pegs demonstrate the before and after as putters from the late 1700s evolved into the putters of the late 1800s.
The auctioneer reveres this club, recognizing its great antiquity and place in history.
UPDATE 7/17/22: In response to several inquiries regarding this lot, I can confirm this is the identical club that was sold in 2019 by a prominent UK auction house and realized over $21,000.
The description in that sale also recognized the rarity and significance of the great age of this putter - and the bidding reflected just how desirable pre-1800 clubs are!
As sometimes happens in the collecting world, circumstances have allowed another opportunity to acquire this landmark item. What it sells for this time will be decided by the bidders, and it is offered now with absolutely no reserve.
This putter is in the center of the image with 5 putters.