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James McCormick

He doesn't wait in line for autographs. People line up to see his memorabilia collection, considered to be one of the world's finest.

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With apologies to the autographed pin flag in your office, we’re entering a different league. Jim McCormick won’t say the exact number—only that his collection of golf balls, clubs, trophies, art and memorabilia is worth millions of dollars. After decades of secret auctions, intense negotiations and avoiding the seedy underbelly of the antiquities market, the financial and commodities trader has turned his Chicago home into what many consider to be among the greatest private collections of golf artifacts in the world.

Illustration: Tim Laing
Illustration: Tim Laing

What was the first piece you acquired?

It began in 1980, in London. I was living there at the time and wandered into a Christie’s sporting sale on a lunch hour. These old Victorian billiard tables were the feature of the auction. Really elaborate mahogany. They also had a little tennis, a little soccer, cricket, and over in one corner was a little section of golf. There were no more than 20 or 30 items, but amongst them was a club made by Tom Morris Sr. That was a name I had heard of. I thought, “That’s pretty cool.” I left a small bid and it was successful. I wrote a check and said, “Boy, I hope my wife doesn’t see this.” I was afraid she would kill me in those days. But she never said a word.

Did it jump-start from there?

No, it was about a year later, the ’81 Open at Royal St. George’s, and I went with a friend from Chicago early in the week. We saw Christie’s had a golfing sale. I hadn’t done anything since the first piece, but I went out to the auction, sat in the audience and bought. When I look back it was pretty pathetic; the stuff I should have bought, I didn’t, and the stuff I did was garbage.

Do you remember what they were?

A couple balls and maybe a club or two. I logged everything in. We still do; my fifth son is my cataloger. We’ve got it on a spreadsheet: when, where, background information, pros and cons, and cost. After that it became a snowball rolling down the hill at different speeds, but constantly gathering. And as it gets bigger, it gets a little more momentum, and then it gets pretty much out of control. It’s how this stuff happens.

What’s your background in golf?

Nothing.

James McCormick’s historic golf collection
No surprise that Chicago’s hometown legend, Chick Evans, is well-represented, with his putter alongside flatsticks from Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Willie Park Jr., Horton Smith and President John F. Kennedy.

Really?

As a kid I played sports, but tennis was my thing, and I played through college. I went to school [at Miami University in Ohio] on a tennis [scholarship]. I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be a pro player and basically gave it up, although occasionally I am still vulnerable to picking up a tennis artifact.

I took up golf after school because I knew I could play and didn’t have to be that good. And I never have been that good, actually. I think the best handicap I ever had was something around a 7 or 8. That was it for about 15 or 20 years. Now it’s crumbling the other way. 

You can collect anything. Why collect golf memorabilia?

The game has become one of my passions. I like the history and I am a collector by nature. When it comes to collecting, you’ve got to be a little bit of a historian or you can’t really do it. The two go hand in hand. And I’ve always felt that you are your art. It’s hard to explain. When I was young I had a marble collection, then I had a butterfly collection. As I got older I got into some other things, like presidential autographs. This is the type of thing where you either do it or don’t. My wife absolutely is the opposite. She has zero interest in collecting anything. 

What’s the scope of your collection as it stands now?

Many collectors are focused; they collect golf balls or tees or art. I’m very broad. I have a lot of everything. I have clubs and balls and artwork and trophies and medals and documents and books and ceramics. When you go down the list, you can see that I have a soft spot for historically connected items as opposed to collecting generic.

For example, I’m not the kind of collector who has 2,000 PING putters. I have the 1A, the original out of the garage in California, before they took it commercial, before they moved to Arizona. On the other hand, some things are very fashionable to collect, like the feather-ball era, which ended around 1850. I have very strong early feather-ball-era aspects to my collection; I have feather balls from most of the makers who individually labeled them. The only place you’ll see anything close is the R&A and the British Golf Museum.

How do you get the items you want?

I don’t go to auctions; I send representatives. But the auctioneers know me. I rely on them to tell me about certain lots and ask them what else I should be interested in. Many times they’ll bring me in private. There are a lot of private sales away from the actual auctions—typically the higher-end stuff. For years the auctioneers knew me but the general collecting public didn’t.

McCormick's Signed Golf Balls
McCormick has an entire wall of signed golf balls that reads like the roster of the World Golf Hall of Fame, from Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods. This ball, however, signed by Bobby Jones, stands on its own.

When did that change?

In 2005, a well-known collector unexpectedly contracted an ailment and died. I was approached by one of the auctioneers about it, but was told I had to buy the whole thing. I looked and it was an interesting collection—much more diversified than mine. I was still heavily concentrated in balls and clubs, whereas he had a lot of documents, art, medals and trophies, stuff that I didn’t have. I didn’t want to buy it all, but ended up making the deal.

That’s how I lost my anonymity. Suddenly everyone knew who I was, especially since I ended up selling parts of it to other collectors and putting some pieces up for auction.

What is the first question you get about your collection?

People always ask, “What’s your favorite item?” I can’t answer it. But I can answer by monetary value. My wife asked me what happens if there is a fire and I said, “Listen, it’s all about money. Just grab that, that, that, that, that and that and throw them out the window. We can pick them up later.”

I’ve got a golf ball display on the wall upstairs. After going through items worth hundreds of thousands, people—mostly non-golfers that are interested in general—will look around and say, “Look at these! Here’s one signed by Phil Mickelson. Here’s one signed by Henrik Stenson. Oh, here’s Justin Rose.” They’re $50 items on the wall and right next to it is [a] $100,000 item. Value is always in the eye of the beholder.

What’s the process of authenticating these pieces? Is that difficult for you?

Authenticity is also about value. Things that have very little value never get duplicated. The more valuable things become, the more susceptible they are to replication.

You have to ask all the right questions. And sometimes you have to know an item from seeing it. I won’t get into specifics, but I bought an item from a fairly well-known collector. When I opened the package, I could immediately tell something was goofy. All of the specifics you normally look for and appreciate were off. I didn’t even touch the thing. He apologized, told me to send it back and refunded the money. Then I looked up a few months later and he had the same item up for auction.

Walter Hagen Poem
Perhaps even better than the artifacts you’d expect to find in McCormick’s collection—signed balls, relic clubs and more—are the items you never knew existed. Firmly in that category is this Walter Hagen poem about the bore of hearing about someone else’s round.

What’s the piece that you chased the hardest?

I don’t really chase. Some say an auction is like a fox hunt: The actual killing is anticlimactic; the chase is the thing. But that’s not me. I like finding new things, but I’ve essentially waited for what’s available and bought what’s available. I’ve never been one to try and buy cheaper than value.

Some guys go out and solicit from the families of long-gone old guys, and I’ve never done that. A lot of people get their rocks off stealing stuff from old grandmothers who don’t know better. To me, there’s a repugnancy to that.

Now people come to me and ask what I’m looking for. I have a few things left: There’s two known named makers of feather balls that I don’t have. But one came along recently, and I just didn’t like the price, so I left it. I don’t feel like I have to have anything anymore.

Rare Image of Bobby Jones first in a wheelchair.
The collection boasts an enviable photo section, complete with scarcely seen portraits of golf heavyweights like C.B. Macdonald and rare images like this, one of the first of Bobby Jones in a wheelchair.

That seems like a smart negotiating position. 

Exactly. You’ve got to be careful. A good example is when golf went back in the Olympics. Previous to that, the only years it was in the Olympics were 1900 and 1904. So a few medals started popping up for auction before the 2016 Games.

Now, it turns out, there’s another cult of collectors who collect Olympic gold medals, and as fate would have it, the Holy Grail, the one that no one can get, is a 1904. Whether it’s golf, swimming or horseback riding, they’re not around, period. 

Back in 1904, golf had a 10-man team event, and one of those gold medals came up. Everybody had interest; the USGA was on the phone. I had quite a bit of interest. But there was this Russian, and 1904 was the only gold medal he didn’t have. The Russian was known. My friend at Sotheby’s told me, “I know who’s going to buy this.”

This thing gets up to around the $100,000 range and all of a sudden there’s no more bidders. Me included. But then, 120, 140…260, 280. It goes all the way up to $300,000. They ran him up.

Who ran him up?

Dr. House. There’s an old saying in the auction business: You only need two bidders, and only one needs to be alive. You can see it happen: $20 or $30? Forty dollars? OK. Fifty dollars, $60? Seventy dollars. Wait, hang on. Who the hell is the other bidder? You’ve got to be careful. 

How did you know?

Two more medals came up at a later auction and bidding opened on another team gold at $100,000 and on Chandler Egan’s individual silver at $20,000. In the end, one person bid on the gold and was successful at $100,000. I’m certain she was an Olympic medal buyer, and from what it sounds like, she probably would have gone a little higher. I’m told the group that put the medals up were shocked at the lack of interest, not realizing what had happened on the first one. I ended up buying the silver; it’s upstairs.

What’s the ultimate goal with the collection?

The goal is enjoyment. I know a lot of people all over. It’s a calling card wherever I go now. There’s a saying in the collecting community: Whatever it happens to be, we don’t really own these things. We just happen to be the current caretakers.

Early golf balls telling a story
McCormick has built his collection into a showpiece on the level of the world’s best golf museums. His presentation is driven by a sense of history, with artifacts like these early golf balls each telling a story about the progression of the game.