The Troon Clubs I The History
6 May 2020
The Troon Clubs at the British Golf Museum are the oldest surviving set of golf clubs, but how old are the individual clubs? New research and discoveries casts new light on their age and provenance.
The Royal Troon Collection
The eight Troon Clubs should really be called the Hull Clubs or the Maister Clubs, as they were discovered hidden in Maister House in the City of Hull in 1898. The clubs were sent to Mr Adam Wood, who was a golfing friend of the then owner of Maister House and a former Captain of Royal Troon Golf Club. He subsequently gifted the clubs to the Royal Troon in 1915. That is why they are sometimes called the Adam Wood clubs and now commonly called the Troon clubs.
Maister House had been rebuilt following a disastrous fire in 1743 and the clubs were found in a sealed cupboard with a newspaper dated 1741. This provides the earliest date at which the clubs could have been hidden, though not necessarily when they were made.
The clubs are currently on display at the British Golf Museum in St Andrews and replicas can be seen Royal Troon's Clubhouse.
The Clubs and their Markings
The clubs comprise six woods and two irons. They are not a set of clubs in the modern meaning of the word, as there are three sets of woods which would be duplicates, to provide for breakages during use. However, the markings on the clubs show that the woods and the shafts of the irons were made at the same time. Some of the clubs still have faded original grips, which is very unusual in clubs of this age. They do not show signs of significant use and are believed therefore to have been put aside early in their history.
The clubs are marked with a striking design showing a diamond lozenge shape with five symbols inside. These include a crown at the top, a thistle at the bottom and what appears to be the letters I (probably J) and C separated by a star in the middle.
In total, these markings are stamped 44 times times on the head of the woods and on the shaft of the two irons.
The six woods are three play clubs and three spoons. They have hawthorn heads and ash shafts. These would have been used off the tee and on the fairway and the sole is designed to provide loft.
The two irons are a light driving iron and a heavy spur toed iron. These would have been used to get the ball out of trouble.
The club-heads of the woods are similar to mid-18th silver trophy clubs as can be seen in the comparison picture below. By contrast the heads of the irons have a sweeping join to the shaft which indicates a middle to late 17th century date. So it is possible that these heads were older and re-shafted when the woods were made.
The King Charles Theory
When the clubs were re-discovered, the general opinion, including that of the then Prime Minister, Mr Arthur Balfour, was that the clubs dated to the era of the Stuart kings. This was largely based on the markings described above, which were taken to mean personal ownership by the Stuarts. Over time, these theories developed into the belief that they were the personal property of King Charles I and even that they were made by William Mayne in the time of King James VI/I.
One thing in favour of the Stuart theory is that the heads of the irons show characteristics associated with 17th century clubs, such as the spur toe and the curved joint at the hosel, shown in the picture below. (Later irons were joined with a sharp edge.) It is possible the iron heads were older than the woods, but whether they date from early 17th century is more doubtful and they were probably re-shafted later.
The theory that they were owned by the Stuart Kings suffers from a number of issues, such as how and where the clubs survived for over 150 years before being hidden in Maister House and how on earth they got to Hull. Additionally, William Mayne could not have made the clubs in the manner suggested by some commentators that J * C represents Charles I as successor to James I. William Mayne died in 1612 the same year as Prince Henry, Charles’ elder brother, who was therefore the successor up to that point.
The Star is called a mullet in English heraldry, where it signifies the THIRD son in succession and there was a still born child between Prince Henry and Prince Charles, which has been incorporated into the theory to show ownership by King James VI/I. Most experts believe this still birth would not have counted for heraldic purposes and there is no other example known of the use of the star in this manner. In any case, it is now known that the star, without any heraldic connotations, was widely used as a separator between letters on similar symbols.
These ideas of ownership by Stuart kings were initially formulated before we had the extensive knowledge of early golf clubs that we now have. More importantly, in recently years it has been shown that these 'Stuart' symbols were widely used and cannot be interpreted as meaning the clubs were definitely the property of any of the Stuart Kings.
This new information and evidence and what it signifies is considered in Part II of the Troon Clubs.