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. "I 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."