W.G. Roy
"President" Water Iron

    The 'President' is a niblick with a hole in it, which might be a very good niblick if it were not a president. It is called a president because the hole makes it clear-headed (Simpson 1887, 23).

    The "President" iron, pictured on the left hand column and to the right, was the first club ever designed to help a golfer deal with the quandary of a ball in water, floating or otherwise. Playing from water is hardly ever considered by golfers today, but it was once a very real part of the game.

    In 1875, just prior to the introduction of the President iron, twenty rules governed "The Game of Golf As It Is Played By The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews" (Clark 1875, 274-279). According to these rules, only four exceptions allowed the golfer to move his or her ball without being penalized: mud, stymies, split balls, and laundry!

    [1] A ball stuck fast in wet ground or sand may be taken out and replaced loosely in the hole it has made (275).
    [2] [When two] balls lie within six inches of each other, the ball nearest the hole must be lifted till the other is played, and then placed as nearly as possible in its original position (276).

    [3] If a ball shall split into two or more pieces, a fresh ball shall be put down where the largest portion of the ball lies. And if a ball is cracked the player may change it on intimating his intention of doing so to his opponent (279).

    [4] When a ball lies within a club length of a washing-tub, the tub may be removed, and when on clothes the ball may be lifted and dropped behind them (275).
    These rules do not contain any "free drop" provisions for casual water. To the early golfer trying to avoid penalty strokes, playing from water, casual or otherwise, was part of life. Consequently, ballmakers advertised and sold gutta percha golf balls that would float.

    A series of three photographs in the June 16, 1899 issue of Golf Illustrated provide a fascinating pictorial account of Freddie Tait playing his floating golf ball from the middle of a green-side bunker full of casual water during the final match of the 1899 British Amateur (won on the 37th hole by Tait's opponent, John Ball Jr.). The account accompanying these photos reads in part:

    The scene is the bunker at the Alps hole, the 17th. The bunker was full ofwater and both Mr. Ball and Mr. Tait found it with their second shots- Mr. Tait'sball lying in the middle of the water and Mr. Ball's on sand just on the edge. With great heroism Mr. Tait waded in over his boots and successfully played the floating ball on to the putting green. Mr. Ball followed suit with an equallybrilliant shot, he also having to stand in the water to play it (8).
    The President iron pictured is more than a water iron. It represents one of the earliest original ideas in the world of golf clubs, an idea born of a mind thinking beyond the realms of tradition and simple evolution. The bold design of this club-a gaping hole through the middle of the face-gives it a dramatic and stunning appearance. Nevertheless, it was an ineffective and unpopular club.

    The President iron, or "ring mashie" as it is sometimes called, was introduced in 1879:

    A New Golfing Implement . . . -A new club, or rather an important improvement on an old one, has been produced by a zealous member of the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club, Mr. W.G. Roy. The well-known iron "niblick" has always presented difficulties, especially in the hands of others than the most experienced players, and . . . frequently fails in removing a ball from the hazard. Mr. Roy's object has been to render it a sure and easy instrument even in the hands of the uninitiated, and he has submitted his improvement to . . . Tom Morris, who reports that it is quite a success-that it . . . allow(s) sand, mud, or water to pass through the opening in the head. The first club of its kind has just been made by Tom Morris, and has been presented to the Lord Justice-General, ex-Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club . . . . The new weapon will be distinguished by the name of the "President." . . . The "President" . . . resembles the "niblick" in having an iron head, the main improvement being that the iron is bored in such a way as to allow sand or mud to pass through a hole at the back, instead of being caught as formerly along with the ball (Fifeshire Journal, 31 July 1879: 6).
    According to Garden Smith, the President iron disappeared shortly after its introduction:
    How many golfers have seen a "President," or even know what it is? If we remember rightly the "President" appeared about twenty-three years ago. . . . It came, we think, from Musselburgh, and it was called after Lord President Inglis, a member of the Honorable Company, and an ardent golfer of the old school. The actual inventor, if we remember rightly was Mr. J.H.A. MacDonald, now Lord Kinsburgh [Smith's recollection was incorrect]. The club was simply an iron niblick with all the centre bored out so that only a thick ring of metal was left. It was supposed to be of great efficacy in water or sand, as it allowed the obstructing element to pass through it, and the ball received the full force of the blow. As a matter of fact it was no good. It hadn't the necessary balance or weight, and as there were practically four hitting surfaces, it was impossible to be sure that the ball had not been hit more than once, or "pushed, scraped, or spooned," within the meaning of the act. The "President" soon disappeared (Golf [ny], Apr. 1902: 242).
    W.T. Linskill also ascribed the rejection of this club to its dreaded ability to hit the ball more than once during a stroke:

    The president is a niblick with a hole through its head. This club is now not much used. A celebrated professional once maintained that in using this club it was next to impossible to avoid striking the ball twice, the penalty for which is losing the hole (1889, 23-24).

    The President iron pictured was forged by James Anderson of Anstruther, Scotland. As shown on the previous page, "Anderson -Anstruther" inside a small circle is stamped low on the back of the blade, towards the toe. The stamp was placed at this location to accommodate the large hole through the face. The middle of the blade back is the traditional location of the maker's mark. The author has seen seven genuine President irons. Anderson's cleekmark is clearly identifiable on four of the seven. A single example is marked with Gibson's "star" cleekmark. This club, also marked "T. Aitken \ Yarmouth," was made in the late 1890s (most likely at the request of a customer) and copied Anderson's iron in most respects. The hole is shaped the same; the hosel is quite substantial; and the blade is much thicker than an ordinary late 1870s iron. Unlike the Anderson examples, the Gibson example has a dull blade crease.

    Today, the President iron stands as one of the most desirable clubs in the club collecting world.  As a direct result of its strong visual characteristics and singular nature, the President iron was reproduced on various occasions in modern times, often complete with a rustic finish. But not all of them were sold as replicas. Unfortunately, a few fake President irons were made with the intention of committing fraud-fooling unknowing collectors. Even replicas, after changing hands a few times, are occasionally represented as the real thing.

    The President iron was one of the first irons ever developed that was not embraced by the market-place. Prior to 1879, the square toe iron, the round toe iron, the light iron, the heavy iron, the track iron, the lofter, and the cleek were accepted as worthwhile clubs in their day. Each one endured for many years. The President iron, on the other hand, was rejected and disappeared soon after its introduction, a fact which explains its rarity.

    Although the President was quickly impeached, the water iron resurfaced in the early 1890s when Peter Paxton devised such a club:

    He has also a "water iron"; so that with a ball that floats and an iron which assists the player to recover the ball from the water, one . . . sees that in these days of inland greens with numerous water hazards, golfers are very materially assisted in diminishing the risks resulting from a bad lie (Golf, 17 June 1892: 226).
    Paxton's club was not described, but what the author believes to be an example of his water iron sold at Christie's July 1992 golf auction. It was made and marked on the hosel by Willie Wilson, a well-known supplier of iron heads to Paxton. The blade consisted only of its outline and two evenly spaced horizontal "braces" extending heel to toe (the area above and below each brace was an open slot through the head). Before it closed in 1993, the P.G.A. World Golf Hall of Fame, in Pinehurst, North Carolina, had an example on display.

    In 1899 the R&A began allowing free drops for balls lying in casual water through the green. In 1900 the USGA followed suit. Consequently, the need for a water iron after 1900 was reduced but not entirely removed. There was still no relief from casual water in a bunker or other hazard, and golfers still found their way into ditches, streams, lakes, etc.

(This web layout does not follow the book layout.  Locations and quality of clubs do not match the highly detailed printed pages.)