Teaching pro turns hobby into fascinating collection
by Doug Ferguson
Tiger Woods used a replica of the gutta percha golf ball during his practice round at St. Andrews for the 2000 British Open.
Gary Wiren has the real thing.
He also has an 88-year-old club with a steel shaft that goes "Whoosh!" because it was drilled with holes to make it lighter. Another of his clubs once belonged to Horace Rollins, who won the first U.S. Open in 1895.
Wiren has a driver that presumably would fail U.S. Golf Association standards for springlike effect, even though it was built at a time when "coefficient of restitution" could only be found in a physics book.
"It has two rubber balls behind the face," said Wiren, a south Florida teaching pro, author, historian and marketer. "In this day, when you think springlike effect, you think of something entirely different."
They are all part of his eclectic set of golf collectibles, so fascinating that Wiren figured it was worth sharing.
Lending it to a golf museum would have been too much trouble to catalog. His collection contains more than 2,500 clubs, 1,200 balls, 1,900 books and an assortment of golf-related postcards, stamps and other memorabilia.
Instead, Wiren has produced a 75-minute video called "The Fascinating World of Golf Collectibles," which is available on VHS and DVD.
The video won an Aurora Award this year for sports documentary.
"I'm going to be able to share this with people who can't come to the house," said Wiren, whose visitors have included Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Jack Welch.
Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., was so impressed that he wrote a letter encouraging his friends to take a look.
"I have personally seen the items featured in this work and have been highly entertained by the interesting stories that accompany his amazing collection," Buffett said.
The video has another purpose: The collection, valued at about $3.5 million, is for sale.
"I've had a tremendous amount of enjoyment from it by having famous people in my home, but it's time to move on," he said. "I would hope this goes to a private individual who wants to be one of the top 10 collectors in the world immediately."
Wiren is a master teaching consultant at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla. He spent 13 years as the national education director for the PGA of America, and also owns "Golf Around The World," a company that sells golf training devices.
The collectibles business was an accident.
Wiren was working on his Master's degree at the University of Michigan when the head librarian gave him a book, "The Walter Hagen Story," in 1959.
That made him interested in old books, then old clubs, then just about any golf item that was out of the ordinary, and soon the hobby became a passion.
Wiren really got serious in the early '60s while working on his doctorate at the University of Oregon. He bought a collection of 400 clubs from a man Wiren described as an "old vaudevillian, turn-of-the-century guy."
One of the clubs featured the "Laird" shaft from 1914, one of the first shafts that tried to replace hickory. The problem was there was no steel tubing at the time, just solid steel, making it too heavy to swing a club.
"This guy punched holes in it," Wiren said. "The nickname is 'The Whistler' because it whooshes when you swing it."
Wiren's collection is not the largest, nor the most valuable.
He knows of one man with more than 74,000 balls with different logos. Alastair Johnston, head of the golf division at IMG, has the largest golf book collection in the world. Jaime Patino, who owns Valderrama Golf Club in Spain, collects only the most expense or most rare items.
"I don't go for the $20,000 club," Wiren said. "I like variety. Everything up on my wall is entirely different."
Most of the items have a story behind them.
One book was written by a World War II veteran who survived a jump from his plane when his parachute failed to open. The man became a Christian and wrote a book called, "Golf God's Way."
When Barbara Nicklaus came by Wiren's office for a visit, he placed "Golf God's Way" next to a book written by Jack Nicklaus called, "Golf My Way."
"As we were leaving ... I pulled out the book and said, 'Barbara, I go to a higher authority,"' Wiren said with a laugh.
The gutta percha is one of his most valuable possessions, worth an estimated $30,000. The "gutty" was a brown, molded rubber ball used by Old Tom Morris in the British Open, only Wiren's ball predates even that.
"It's a Patterson composite, which is smooth and has no lines," he said. "They didn't figure out that you needed markings on it to make lift. It would go, but like a knuckle ball."
One thing Wiren has learned from more than 40 years of being involved in golf and collecting is that most of the new equipment is really old.
Long shafts on drivers? He can show you a 47-inch shaft made of a fishing rod. He has a perimeter-weighted iron that was made before World War I, and a metal driver from 1930, making it about 50 years ahead of its time.
"You give me new ideas in clubs, I'll show you where it was done 50, 70, 100 years ago," he said.
Along with sharing his collection through a video, Wiren said he wants to generate more interest in collecting golf items.
His only advice?
"You'll never get it all," he said.
That never stopped him from trying.