Robert Forgan, Golf Club Maker

golferOne day last summer we overheard two seaside urchins discussing, coram populo, the merits of a couple of golfers whom they called “Johnnie” and “Freddy.” Any uninitiated listener would have been surprised to find that these players were not at all juvenile, but strapping Scotchmen, in the zenith of their power and fame. Their caddie critics spoke in the familiarity of adulation, and used the customary parlance of the place and species; and it is not a little remarkable that Robert Forgan, living in such an atmosphere of unconstraint, should have escaped the usual abbreviation of name, and have been able to retain his in its original form.

It may be that his somewhat large proportions have impressed even the densest of his familiar neighbours with the inappropriateness of a diminutive title as applied to him. No doubt an ignorant Southron has blundered, and, mixing up two names long associated in the club-making trade, has called him “Morgan, the club maker;” but we are referring to an exception made by an educated people, whose very caddies require to satisfy governmental inspection in the matter of brains.

Robert Forgan is the head of the firm, whose clubs, impressed with the “Prince of Wales’s Feathers,” are to be found in every continent. He is a typical, we might almost say, physically, an ideal Scotsman, buirdly, intelligent, courteous, and shrewd, with a face and form that would do no discredit to a Principal of the ancient seat of learning. He is a man of many parts, who received full benefit in his youth from that invaluable institution the Madras College, under an admirable staff of teachers, whose memories he still seems to cherish. A talk with him is to get a bird’s eye view of the history of the game for the last fifty years.

He was trained to the business by his relative, Hugh Philp, whose clubs now are treasured nearly as dearly as a Cremona violin or Andrea Ferrara sword. One could, in Philp’s time, have counted the club makers of the country, indeed, of the world, on one of his hands. Outside of St. Andrews there were McEwen, Musselburgh and Edinburgh; Jackson, Perth; Patrick, Leven; and Davidson, Montrose, Simon Cossar, Leith, belonging to an earlier date than any of these.

In Forgan’s youth there was no Golf Parlour, and the links’ side of the town was laid out in gardens. Philp’s shop stood alone, on the site of old Tom’s present premises, and, a few yards further up, was the little workshop where Allan Robertson carried on the now antiquated trade of featherball maker…

…If not “the King of Clubs,” Forgan may be acknowledged as the prince of club makers. Until last summer, when the outside keenness of competition began for the first time to be felt, the firm had not been able for ten years to work off their orders. They attribute the remarkable expansion of business to their having placed a stand showing their goods in the Edinburgh Exhibition of ’86. Since then the popularity of the game has known no limit, and trade has developed accordingly.

When Forgan started business in ’56, he employed a single assistant, the ex-Champion, Jamie Anderson, while in the past few years the firm has employed close on fifty hands, who turn out among them between six hundred and eight hundred clubs per week. During these ten years club making has been practically revolutionised, and by the introduction of gas engines, a variety of ingenious appliances, chiefly lathes and saws, have reduced it to a very mechanical process.

The shafts are thinned down and tapered at the rate of two in five minutes. The hickory square is first firmly fixed on the lathe and made to revolve with great velocity, while a ring plane is forced along the whole length, and is so compressed by the graduated pressure of the hand as to give it the necessary tapered form towards one end.

In one of the drying sheds there are twenty or thirty rectangular stacks of square cut shafts being seasoned for the turning lathe. Each of these stacks contains eight thousand rods, laid in tranverse rows like planks in a wood yard, with air spaces between the pieces.

Other woods than hickory are occasionally used for shafts, such as lancewood, greenheart, and ash, and these can all be made to do excellent work, but nothing quite comes up, for toughness and endurance, to a well-seasoned, straight-veined piece of dark hickory, with the spring about two parts down. The rough hewn squares are all subjected to a severe test, and on showing any sign of flaw are thrown aside for firewood, about one out of every half dozen pieces meeting this ignomimous fate.

The heads are put through an even more searching inspection, so as to secure thorough immunity from fault, and it often happens that two block heads are rejected for one that successfully passes the examination. The heads are mostly made of beech, which possesses, in a high degree, the necessary elasticity and toughness of fibre, though other woods are frequently used. Apple tree was formerly much in request, but is not now easily obtained.

Though the beech woods of Forfarshire supply an important quota, much of the golf timber comes from the West, the United States and Canada both contributing a share. The foreign consignments consist for the most part of hickory, dogwood—which is said to be unbreakable—and a red mahogany-like timber called, in ignorance of its generic name, and on account of hardness, “rockwood,” and this also is recommended to duffers as capable of surviving the worst possible treatment.

Nothing injures a good club more than using it in wet weather, but these western hard woods seem as impervious to water as a duck’s back. An old educationist and economist, as well as veteran golfer, used to cover the head of his driver with a thin coating of gutta-percha, and declare that with a cleek, an Eclipse ball, and a pot of white paint, he enjoyed his game in all weathers, at little or no further cost; and we have seen the gutta-percha scale tried since, apparently with gratifying success.

Every player knows that the hardest head does not make the best driving-club. It may do well enough for knocking the ball about, but when it comes to trying issues with a well-matched opponent, the beech head, with a little yield in it, will get the ball ten or a dozen yards further away.

The turning lathe plays an important part in shaping the head as well as the shaft, and the blocks, which are cut out of the timber somewhat in the shape of an elongated lady’s slipper with an unnaturally high instep, are turned into club heads at the rate of two every four minutes. An iron pattern head, formed like a boot last, is all that is required to enable the machine to throw off a thousand or more heads of identical form.

Another bench contains a revolving star-shaped wheel, which cuts out the groove for the lead, and a similarly shaped knife prepares a semi-circular niche in the sole for the horn; so that little manual labour is required till the head is ready to be filled in behind and below, dressed, stamped, and attached to the shaft.

In the centre of the machine-room a perpendicular band-saw is at work, which has replaced the old breaking-out saw, shaping heads and cutting down rams’ horns into narrow strips, and these latter, after being softened by boiling and squeezed flat by hydraulic pressure, are laid away for a year till they be thoroughly dried. Vulcanite and bone have been tried as substitutes for horn, but neither of them catch the glue quite so well.

The best class of the beech blocks is always set aside for driver heads, the softer material being used for putters, which are still in demand, mostly for ladies, for the heresy of the putting cleek has spread over the whole earth. Twenty years ago the player who discarded a wooden putter risked his reputation, and the cognoscenti once blamed “young Tommy” for having flung away an important match by the too frequent use of his cleek on the greens.

Besides the club manufactory, Forgan has a ball-making department. This has also advanced with the times, and the old hand-hammered ball is fast vanishing away, and will soon become as rare as the Great Auk’s egg. The mould has superseded the tardier method; but there is one remnant of old times to be seen in the moulding-room, for “Jamie” occupies a perch in the corner near the window, and, day in, day out, has knicked away for over a quarter of a century.

Grown a little grimier than of old, his hand has lost none of its knack of knicking. His hammering has become closer, possibly attributable to the spectacles, and reminds one more of “Kirk” than of “Forgan,” but the process, with the ball in the wooden cup, turned slowly round between the broad forefinger and thumb, which seem to have taken the hue of the gutta, remains still the same.

With this single exception the mould is in universal use, and the pattern most in favour, at present, on the premises is the “Agrippa,” the invention of a Coventry bicycle firm, in which, by the simple expedient of driving home a small steel wedge in an aperture above the upper cup, a pressure equal to three tons is brought to bear upon the inclosed gutta-percha.

robert_forgan_and_son

Forgan has been more occupied with the business of club maker than with the science and art of the game, and in latter days, at least, he has held a higher reputation as a rifle marksman than a golf player. He may, perhaps, have to blame his proportions for preventing him taking a front rank place, as the advantage on the links seems distinctly to lie with short, square built men, who can get down near the ball; but his record of 87, made thirty years ago, meant high class play, for the green is at least five strokes easier now than then.

Latterly he has played but little, a few holes in the morning serving as what is called, with classic grace, “an antejentacular round.” He has distinguished himself more at the butts than on the links, gaining a number of local honours, and, on several occasions, has ventured forth to the National Wapinschaw, at Wimbledon, where, as he tells us with a contented humour, his rifle did everything it could reasonably be expected to do, but not enough to win a prize. He can boast, however, of having instructed the young idea in the use of the rifle, and counts among such pupils two sons of noble Scotch families, who have, in more recent years, filled the office of Governor-General of Canada.

As an elder in the Free Church, Forgan has, for many years, given valued service, and played his part well in several of her philanthropic societies. He has also taken advantage of the educational opportunities of the ancient university city for the up-bringing of his family. Like many another Scotch parent, he has gratified a wish “to hear the craws cracking on his son’s kirk,” by giving two sons to the ministry; and has seen two others rise to important ofiices as Vice-Presidents of the First National and National Union Banks in Chicago, whilst he has retained a fifth to manage the business built up by his own tact and probity; and the concern is likely to flourish and endure, for he has lived to see his children’s children, some of whom have taken to golf as naturally as ducks to the water.

Relieved in the evening of life from all active part in business, he has ample leisure to contemplate his picturesque surroundings, and from the threshold of his “Pavilion on the Links” can either look eastward, past the crumbling memorials of bye-gone days, and across the bay, to the morning sun, or westward, far beyond the Elysian fields, to the Everlasting Hills. His old patrons, when they re-visit the links, find the genial old club-maker ever ready to extend a cordial welcome and warm interest, delighting to revive old memories, and to lend an attentive ear when they fight their battles o’er again, and “thrice do slay the slain.”

Rev. T. D. Miller, MA.

The Golfing Annual – 1897

—Jeff Burks

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One Response to Robert Forgan, Golf Club Maker

  1. momist says:

    Fascinating history! My father was a professional golfer, trained at Turnberry in Scotland, and became the kind of ‘Pro’ who is resident at the the Golf Club. He gained an enviable reputation for his teaching and perfecting of already capable players, but he did make golf clubs himself from rough machined heads and shafts bought in from manufacturers, which I believe came from the USA. He always maintained that although beech was the common wood, the best clubs were made with persimmon. The shafts he used were always hickory, and I remember him having a few unfinished shafts lying around the back of the workshop ready for repair work.
    As a boy in the 50’s, I never saw him actually make a club, as by then the metal shafted and ‘famous maker’ manufactured clubs were already too cheap and had killed the hand-made trade. However, he did teach me the method of replacing the ‘grip’ on such clubs, with either the wound on leather, or slide on rubber kind. I also saw him replacing broken faces to the wood club heads, and he had the old horn ones available.
    Clubs he made were stamped with his signature “J. Stewart”. I wish I had that stamp now!

    No, I never became a golfer myself, the expectations were too high.

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