Spend 25 years working to become among the most successful
dealers in the golf collectibles business, as Mort and John Olman
have, and you'll pick up some stories too. "Which one do we tell
first?" wonders Mort, 85. It's a steamy summer evening, and Mort
is sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of Glasgow Green, his
72-acre weekend retreat outside Cincinnati. Next to him is his
47-year-old son, John, with whom he collaborated on The
Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles, the bible of their business.
"Got to start with Gene," John says.
"Oh, shoot," says Mort, grinning. "Back in the 1980s Johnny did a
biography with Gene [Sarazen] titled The Squire. Gene was always
asking about his cut from the book. Well, after returning from a
trip to Asia, he wrote us a note that said, 'They liked the book
in Japan, but where's the beef?'"
"Can you believe that?" says John. "Here was this 85-year-old man
quoting the lady in the Wendy's commercial."
"Tell 'em about the three-wood," says Mort.
John's hazel eyes light up. "About 10 years ago we got a call
from an irate older woman," he says. "Her husband had died and
left all these boxes in the attic. The woman thought they were
all junk and asked if we could take them off her hands. We sold
most of the items for her, and she made $90,000."
John runs back into the house and returns with a steel-shafted
persimmon wood. "This is from that collection," he says. "Ken
Venturi used it to win the 1964 U.S. Open. Originally the club
had been Ben Hogan's. It's one of my favorite pieces, and I'll
never sell it."
Most of the clubs, gutta-perchas, medals, paintings, prints and
other items in the Olmans' collection at Glasgow Green are for
sale. (If they don't have what a customer wants, they'll try to
find it.) Their clients range from CEOs to construction workers,
and the Olmans have advised some of the best-known names in the
game, such as Hale Irwin, Robert Trent Jones, Byron Nelson,
Barbara Nicklaus, Jaime Ortiz-Patino and Tom Watson. Most of the
Olmans' clients, though, have one thing in common. "They pay in
cash because their spouses think they're crazy spending money for
what the spouses see as junk," says Mort, a retired commercial
real-estate broker. "A few years ago a client paid $3,800 for
historic papers from a 19th-century Scottish golf club. He sent
an $1,800 check and the rest in cash installments. 'No way my
wife can trace that,' he told me."
Mort and John say they used to be scratch players, but these days
neither tees it up more than once a year. "Most good collectors
are terrible golfers," says Mort. "Anyway, we don't have time."
That's why the Olmans' favorite place in St. Andrews--Mort is a
member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club--is the St. Andrews
University Library. (The Olmans spent three months there
researching their book St. Andrews & Golf.) "Want to know the
most interesting thing not in the book?" asks John. "FDR spent
his honeymoon playing golf at St. Andrews."
The Olmans are full of such trivia. Who was the last person to
win a major using clubs with hickory shafts? "John Fischer, 1936
U.S. Amateur," says Mort. How many players competed in the first
British Open at St. Andrews, in 1873? "Twenty-one," says John,
"which is about the number of people who saw Bobby Jones pick up
and walk off the course in the 1921 Open at the Old Course."
Neither of the Olmans met Jones, but they did, in the early
1990s, advise Robert Tyre Jones IV on how to dispose of the golf
memorabilia that was part of his grandfather's estate. "He came
to us after the Atlanta Athletic Club offered him $75,000 for
everything, which included trophies, medals, books, a watch and
all sorts of other stuff," says Mort. "I told him the lot was
worth $1 million. He eventually sold it to the Atlanta History
Center for $800,000."
The Olmans have also worked closely with Ben Crenshaw, a
golf-history buff. "The pieces they've helped me acquire are too
numerous to mention," says Crenshaw, "but what epitomizes the
Olmans is their generosity. Recently, after my dad died, one of
the first letters to arrive was from them. They're world-class
collectors but even better friends."