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A growing niche: Hickory Golf

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At first blush, a similarity emerges with historical re-enactment junkies and hickory golfers. Both sets of aficionados strive for authentic recreation of apparel and equipment.

But here is where the two roads diverge. While the re-enactors hope to portray a particular episode from history, hickory golfers strive to create new history while remaining faithful to a bygone era of golf.

Hickory golfers are niche enthusiasts. They compete at courses named Oakhurst, Temple Terrace and Southern Pines. The numbers on the scorecard typically run between 5,800 and 6,000 yards and the clubs in their bags have names, rather than numbers. Terms like brassie, baffy, niblick and mashie emerge from a P.G. Wodehouse story into the light of a new era. Swings slow down or smooth out, and the dull “thlock” of a wooden head and shaft on a golf ball returns to the auditory spectrum.

“Before the 14-club rule went into effect in 1939, players could carry as many (clubs) as they wanted,” said James Davis, communications coordinator for the Society of Hickory Golfers (SoHG). “There are stories of up to 22 clubs in a bag. Players had certain shots they counted on and went to club makers of the day to have clubs made specifically for perhaps only one or two shots a round. Today, a good starter set of hickories might be only six clubs: two wood headed clubs — driver and brassie — and four irons — mid iron, mashie, niblick and putter. Of course there are dozens of other clubs that are commonly found in modern hickory bags from a more-lofted wooden headed spoon to irons such as driving irons, 1- to 4-irons, the jigger and mashie niblick. These are the most common. Other names of clubs get real involved.”

Hickory golf is an opportunity to commune with the era of Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones, of Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson. It is the game of golf without the technological trappings of composite shafts, souped-up golf balls and massive titanium driver heads. Hickory golf allows the ball to move from side to side, to be curved intentionally, to be played low and trundling.

What Is Hickory Golf?

Hickory

Mike Just, club maker for Louisville Golf and a reformed hickory player, discussed the province inhabited by hickory golfers in a recent interview.

“Some people play with clubs originally made in the early 1900s,” he said. “Because good, original equipment is hard to find, some play with replica clubs that are of the same design and materials as the club made during the hickory era. Many people dress in knickers and wear a shirt and tie like Bobby Jones and other great golfers of the period.”

Just also said Louisville Golf has been making wooden-headed clubs for 35 years.

“There was tournament, the National Hickory Championship, where people played with pre-1900 equipment on a course that was maintained the same way as when it was built in 1884 (Oakhurst in West Virginia),” he said. “Original woods from that era cost a few thousand dollars each and players didn’t want to risk breaking them. So they contacted Louisville Golf to see if we could replicate the woods. Our involvement has always been demand driven. After successfully replicating the pre-1900 woods, we were asked to replicate woods from the 1920s.”

Authentic or Replica?

sohg1Hickory Clubs

As with many endeavors that seek a connection to the historical past, debate arises over authenticity. Hard-line wood golfers insist that tournament-approved clubs must be original equipment, built prior to the time when metal shafts replaced hickory ones. A second perspective is that, due to the cost and scarcity of original, quality clubs, approved replica equipment is to be permitted in tournament play.

Just affirms that clubs built as far back as the 1920s are viable for use still.

“Hickory shafts can and do break, but that is a rare occurrence,” he said. “The old vintage clubs need to be refurbished before play or they are likely to fail. But a refurbished club or a replica is much more durable than many people think. If I hand my hickory-shafted driver to someone who has never hit a hickory-shafted club, their first reaction is, ‘Is this going to break when I hit it?’ The answer is obviously no….Bobby Jones hit drives over 300 yards with his driver. That’s a lot of force on the shaft, and his clubs didn’t break.”

Now, don’t think it can’t happen. In 2012, I broke a brand-new hickory 4-iron and was gun-shy the remainder of the round. My hickory-wielding mates assured me that it was a totally random occurrence and that I should give the hicks another go. I’ll do that in mid-February in Pinehurst. Seems like an appropriate place, right?

Who Is Playing Hickory Golf?

Hickory tournaments

Two fellows for whom the hickory game means a great deal are Greg Vogelsang and Kevin Lynch. The former has played hickory for a number of years while the latter is a recent convert. Vogelsang’s proficiency was such that he emerged as the 2011 Vermont Hickory Open champion. Lynch’s enthusiasm is such that he owns two sets of clubs, one from Just and another from Tad Moore. What binds men and women to hickory golf is a need to know the origins of the game, and Lynch and Vogelsang are no different.

“I was trolling around on the Internet and came upon the site of the Society of Hickory Golfers,” Vogelsang said. “Lo and behold, there were guys playing hickory golf. And then I thought, it would be really fun to play hickory golf at Grover Cleveland.”

Grover Cleveland Park, formerly known as the Country Club of Buffalo, hosted the 1912 USGA Open championship and stretches to 5,600 yards, well below today’s standards. Hickory golf, people like Vogelsang have said, brings relevancy back to courses from a different era.

For Lynch, it was about the feel not only of the shots but of the course.

“It’s almost a cure for your swing ills,” he said. “It’s a swing aid in a way. We had a guy, decent golfer, played moderns for two days, barely breaking 90. We told him, ‘Try hickory.’ Next day, at Dormie in Pinehurst, he shot 75 the first time he saw the course. Changed his rhythm. Not only do you feel the club, you need to show more care. Can’t just leave them in the trunk for a year. Store them flat and in proper temperature, so that they don’t warp or bend. They’re strong, but not indestructible.”

Hickory golf is growing across the world, with several European nations holding annual championships. There are hickory golfers in Australia and Japan. The SoHG sponsors a championship series of five tournaments with points awarded for various finishing places. The top finisher is acknowledged at the season-ending hickory championship at Mid Pines, N.C., in November.

The easy access to hickory clubs has been one factor in the popularity of their use.

“Anyone can pick up hickory clubs and have a go,” Davis said. “They are not hard to find, as there are scads of them on eBay for example. Trade shows held in various regions of the country by the Golf Collectors Society show hundreds and hundreds of such clubs for sale. An inquiry to the (SoHG) website will help put anyone in touch with hickory golf enthusiasts in their area. Find a mentor through the SoHG website and get help when choosing a starter set. There are also helpful ‘build a starter set’ stories on the SoHG website.”

At the inaugural Erie County Amateur, an event held in 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of that fabled USGA Open, Lynch and Vogelsang, along with compatriot Eric Hoxsie, played the Grover Cleveland course in their plus-fours, schoolboy caps and their hickories. The modern-ball players asked question after question about the clubs and left with curiosity piqued. Perhaps the niche is growing.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. jim

    May 5, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Hi ,
    with respect to hitting hickory drives of 300 yards plus i have seen several players do this . In the 2012 Canadian Hickory Open I played with Ken Plaunt who routinely drives the ball over 300 yards . No dried out fairways , no downhill , etc he is just a very good player and hits it hard and long … and mostly straight 🙂 There were several others there who also can hit it 300 yards plus .
    If you think in modern terms , you see the top ten lists for stats each week and the longest drivers are 310 ish ….. the top pga pros don’t average 350 – 60 yards . But they can and do hit that far and farther .You see it each week on the tour .
    More importantly , hickory golf isn’t about hitting it the same yardages as your modern clubs – you won’t . It’s about playing golf the way it use to be played . It’s about making great golf courses relative again – the ones that are 6000 yards not 7000 . It’s about earning those 10 extra yards a drive or hitting two more greens through skill – not buying it at the pro shop .
    Give hickory golf a try – think before you play – and before you speak . Thanks for listening and have fun .

  2. Dave C.

    Feb 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I’ve been playing hickories on and off for about 5 years. At age 60, I’ve hit my driver 225 yds max. Usually average about 200 yds, using a Pro V type ball.

    I break 80 a few times a year. I think hickory golf is more fun than regular golf, due to the fact a player has far less expectations with hickories. Buy the latest titanium technology, and expect 300 yd drives, and be horribly disappointed when you drive 215. Hit the hickory 215, and it’s pure joy.

    • mike smith

      Nov 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      Way more fun. Golf has morphed into smashing the ball as far as you can. Then hitting precise yardage with a highly technical iron, and putting with something that looks like you’re trolling for barracuda. Hickory is all strategy and although some can drive it 300 still, everything else takes some thought. Hickory golf is going to boom.

  3. Eddie

    Feb 12, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    I have actually hit a 300 yard drive once or twice. It may have been a downhill fairway with some hook overspin, but I have hit one 340 one time. And I am not a long hitter, averaging maybe 220 with my drives

  4. Jim Conine

    Feb 12, 2013 at 10:53 am

    This is for R,
    You have to know the history. Imparted on to me by Randy Jensen, the balls back then in the 20s had no size or weight limits. They felt the balls would be self limiting…too small and they would be too hard to hit, too big and they wouldn’t fit in the hole. There were varieties of sizes (1.2″ was common) and weights. The pros typically played smaller and heavier balls that would be more penetrating and less afected by wind. That is how they got the bigger distances. In the mid-30s when the USGA changed from 1.2″ to 1.8″ the USA lost 40 yds to the Europeans in distance. Modern ProV1s have distance very comparable to the balls of the 20s.

    To the comment about Classic Golf in Omaha. This is a must if you are are ever in or near Omaha. A shop that is 90% Hickory dedicated with hundreds of vintage hickory shafted clubs for sale. Many full sets too. Omaha is ground zero for Hickory Golf players, with over 150 area players all with their own sets and weekly area Hickory events.

    • Keith Cleveland

      Feb 12, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      I also want to say that I personally witness a former long drive champion fly a hickory driver into a wet hillside 307 yds in Little Rock at the Arkansas Hickory Open and then roll one 340 on the golf course.

  5. JD Hart

    Feb 10, 2013 at 10:49 am

    This is directed to “R”s comment regarding Bobby Jones 300 yards. Were you there? I was not either, but I know there are many references to feats of this nature, in that era. I am also personally aware of Randy Jensen’s tenacity with similar equipment. And know of my own successful connections at the golf ball with hickories. There is historical evidence of a 360 yard drive in the mid 1800’s. I f you don’t want to enjoy hickories, then don’t.

  6. Ronald Montesano

    Feb 10, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Eddie…that’s awesome! Yours is the one picture I did not supply and wondered of its origin. You and Kevin Lynch need to get together. You would have a great time of it.

    R…Technically, he did. Not consistently, as you’ll see when another comment gets posted. As with today, firmness of fairways played the important role.

  7. R

    Feb 9, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Bobby Jones DID NOT hit his drives over 300 yards with the hickory clubs and BALLS of his time. Stop with the disinformation.

    • Mike Henderson

      Feb 9, 2013 at 8:43 pm

      Yes, but he did. Read his two biographies and see where it was documented! The normal long drive for a pro of that era was in the 240 yard range BUT with the hard fairways the occasional 300 yard drive was achieved. Read Down The Fairway or Golf is My Game -THEN make your comments as an informed individual.

    • Keith Cleveland

      Feb 12, 2013 at 12:45 pm

      R, In fact, Bobby Jones and others including Ted Ray routinely hit drives over 300 yards. You must remember there were no sprinkler systems in those days and on dry courses the ball ran forever. These facts are documented in many books concerning the hickory era, including The Grand Slam by Mark Frost, The Immortal Bobby by Ron Rapoport, and The Greatest Game Ever Played, again by Frost, among many others. I am sorry but you are putting out the erroneous information.

  8. Eddie Breeden

    Feb 9, 2013 at 11:25 am

    I gave up modern clubs about 5 years ago. Too much fun playing hickory golf, as you can see by the picture of myself at the top of the article:)

  9. Ronald Montesano

    Feb 8, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    They are certainly a viable alternative to modern equipment. Your swing slows down because you need to make proper and consistent contact. I’m not ready to give up moderns, but I do anticipate playing a bit more hickory this year.

  10. Philip

    Feb 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I am lucky to have a shop in town thatspecializes in these, Classic Golf in Omaha, Nebraska. Randy Jensen, one of the world’s best at hickory, gives lessons there. I haven’t played with them but he jokes that he’ll convert me over one day!

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Opinion & Analysis

“I Love You, Tiger!” At Big Cedar lodge, an outpouring of affection for Tiger Woods

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What a difference a year makes.

About one year ago, Tiger Woods was in Branson, Missouri at Big Cedar Lodge to announce that he was designing a golf course there; Payne’s Valley, his first public course. That day was attended by hundreds of national and local media, the Lieutenant Governor of Missouri and Johnny Morris, Bass Pro Shops owner and the visionary behind the amazing golf complex that has been established at Big Cedar Lodge.

That day, Woods had not played competitive golf for awhile, and he was recovering from multiple surgeries. Woods took a couple of ceremonial swings, the last of which clearly left him in physical distress. Days later, he was in surgery again and his playing career looked to be all but over. The situation became worse when Woods was arrested for driving under the influence, found with multiple substances in his system. It seemed as though the sad mug shots from that arrest might be as prominent in his legacy as the smiles and fist-pumps that accompanied his 79 wins and 14 major championships.

Fast forward to yesterday, where Woods was back in Missouri to do a Junior Clinic at Big Cedar. An estimated crowd of over 7,000 kids and parents showed up on a school day to catch a glimpse of Woods. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with sky divers, stunt planes making flyovers and rock music blaring from giant speakers. When Woods finally arrived, the reaction was electric. Mothers and their kids were chanting. “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” at the top of their lungs. Photographers battled soccer moms for position to get a picture of his swing. Some of the kids were as young as 6-years-old, which means that they had probably not seen Woods hit a meaningful shot in their life. At one point, when Woods was hitting shots and explaining how to execute them, a woman shouted, “I love you, Tiger!” Not to be out done, a woman on the other side of the crowd, who was their with her husband and kids, shouted “I love you more, Tiger!” Maybe the only people with more affection for Woods would be the people in the golf business. A senior marketing official in the golf industry leaned over at one point in the event and said, “God, we could use just one more from him.”

Woods swing looks completely rehabilitated. He was hitting shots of every shape and trajectory on-demand, and the driver was sending balls well past the end of the makeshift driving range set up for the event. But even more remarkable was the evidence of the recovery of his reputation. Surely there are still women out there that revile Woods for the revelations of infidelity, and no doubt there are those that still reject Woods for his legal and personal struggles. But none of them were in Missouri yesterday. Mothers and children shrieking his name confirmed what we already knew: Tiger Woods is the single most compelling person in American sports, and he belongs to golf.

Unlike a year ago, Woods is swinging well, and seems as healthy and happy as he as ever been as a pro. Add to that the unprecedented outpouring of love from crowds that once produced a combination of awe and respect, but never love. Fowler, McIlroy, Spieth and the rest may get their share of wins and Tweets, but if the game is to really grow it will be on the broad, fragile back of Tiger Woods. It’s amazing to think what can happen in one short year.

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Opinion & Analysis

12 reasons serious golfers don’t realize their potential

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What stops serious golfers from realizing their potential? If you are an amateur who wants to get better, a young player trying to achieve more, or a young professional with big dreams, this article is for you.

I’ve made a career out of helping athletes maximize their abilities, golfers in particular. And the things I see young playing professionals doing prior to our work together is often what is holding them back. The reality is that most young players, no matter what their level, have three key problems:

  1. They’re distracted by what’s not important
  2. They have no detailed structure and plan to reach the targets they determine are important to them
  3. They have no formal process to develop mindset and attitude

In the list below, I share what I see working with these young players and some common blind spots.

1. No real plan and steps to achieve targets

Most players do not know how to create a long-term and short-term plan that outlines all steps needed to reach targets. Players should have yearly plans with targets, steps and actions and weekly plans to organize/schedule their time and prioritize key needs.

2. Not focused enough on the object of the game

This goes hand in hand with No. 1. Surprisingly, players seem to forget that the object of the game is get the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes. Trophies and checks are not issued for the best swing, the best putting stroke or most balls hit.

3. Not enough pressure in practice

Most young players have loose practice. The intensity of feelings between the practice tee and the course are too different. Focus and intensity must be a part of all practice. Add competition and outcomes to sessions so some urgency is created.

4. Too much practice time on full swing

The data is clear — most shots in golf happen from 100 yards and in from the green. If the majority of practice time is not spent on these shorter shots, practice time is wasted.

5. An obsession with the look of the swing

Players are not generally prepared to own their own swings and embrace the differences that make them unique. Obsessing over swing mechanics is a major distraction for many players. Many players convince themselves that if it doesn’t look “good” on their iPhone, their swing won’t get results.

6. No structure with the driver

Since scoring is the main goal, a consistent, reliable shape to each shot is important. My experience has been that if players are trying to go both ways with the driver, that is a sure-fire way to elevate numbers on the card. Pick a shape and eliminate one side of the course. Predictability from the tee increases a player’s confidence to put the ball in the fairway more often, creating more opportunities to score.

7. Expectation that they will hit the ball well everyday

Many players have the unreasonable expectation that they will hit lots of fairways and greens every time they play. This expectation leads to constant disappointment in their game. Knowing that the leading professionals in the game average about 60.6 percent driving accuracy and 11.8 greens in regulation per round should be a good benchmark for the expectations of all players.

8. Trying to be too robotic and precise in putting

Some players get so caught up in the mechanics of putting that their approach becomes too robotic. They become obsessed with precision and being perfect. Feel, flow and instinct have to be a central part of putting. This can get lost in an overly robotic mindset trying to be too precise and perfect.

9. No process for assessment and reflection

Players do not have a formal process for assessing practice or rounds and reflecting on the experience. The right lessons are not consistently taken away to ensure step-by-step improvement. Knowing how to assess practice, play and ask the right questions is key to development.

10. Getting in their own way

The voice inside of most young players’ heads is not helpful for their performance. It’s often a negative, demanding voice that insists on perfection. This voice leads to hesitation, frustration and anger. The voice must be shaped (with practice) into the right “emotional caddie” to support efforts and promote excellence over perfection.

11. A focus on the negative before the positive

A default to the mistakes/flaws in the round before looking at the highlights and what worked. When asked about their round, most players highlight three-putts, penalty shots and any errors before anything else. Emphasis should always be on what went well first. Refection on what needs improvement is second.

12. The blame game

Young players love excuses. Course conditions, weather, coaching and equipment are a few of the areas that are often targets, deflecting responsibility away from the player. Many players do not take full responsibility for their own game and/or careers.

I hope this provides some insights on roadblocks that could get in your way on the path to reaching your targets in the game. Whether it’s lowering your handicap, winning a junior tournament, working toward the PGA Tour — or just general improvement — considering these observations might help you shorten the road to get there.

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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: 2018 Valero Texas Open

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With one of the weakest fields of the year, TPC San Antonio hosts the Valero Texas Open this week. Only one player from the top-20 in the Official World Golf Rankings will tee it up here. That man is Sergio Garcia, who co-designed this course with Greg Norman.

Just like last week at the RBC Heritage, the wind can wreak havoc at TPC San Antonio. The course features an exposed layout, making the level of wind is often unpredictable. Expect it to be a factor yet again this year. Unlike last week, the longer hitters do have an advantage on this course, which measuring more than 7,400 yards with little rough off the tee.

Last year, Kevin Chappell held off a charging Brooks Koepka to post 12-under par and win his first title on the PGA Tour.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Sergio Garcia 14/1
  • Matt Kuchar 18/1
  • Charley Hoffman 18/1
  • Luke List 25/1
  • Ryan Moore 28/1
  • Kevin Chappell 28/1
  • Adam Scott 30/1

From the top of the market, it’s hard not to love Luke List (25/1, DK Price $10,000) this week. The big-hitting American is still looking for his first win on the PGA Tour, but he is knocking on the door relentlessly. In his last eight events, List has finished no worse than T-26.

He was so close once again last week, and he should take plenty of confidence from that performance onto a course that theoretically should suit him much better. On this long track, List will have a significant advantage as one of the longest hitters on Tour. Over his last 24 rounds, he ranks 5th in Strokes Gained-Off The Tee and 1st in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green. List is also flushing his irons. He was second in the field last week for Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, and over his previous 24 rounds he sits 3rd in the same category.

It’s not only his long game that is highly proficient right now, either. List’s short game has been stellar over this impressive stretch, too. He ranks 8th for Strokes Gained-Around the Green and 28th for Strokes Gained-Short Game over his last 24 rounds.

The one department holding the big man back is his putting, where he ranks 145th for the season. The rest of his game is so sharp at the moment that he’s in the enviable position of not needing that hot a week with the flat-stick to win. He only needs an average week on the greens to finally break through and claim his first PGA Tour event. There’s nothing to suggest List isn’t going to play well once more this week, and at 25/1 he seems undervalued.

Returning to a track that he adores, Brendan Steele (33/1, DK Price $8,900) is always a danger at this event. As well as winning the title here in 2011, Steele has finished in the top-20 three times since then. Whatever it is about TPC San Antonio, it’s a course that brings out the best in Steele’s game.

It’s been an excellent season for the West Coast native, too. He won his opening event of the season at the Safeway Open and has since finished in the top-30 six times. One of the main reasons for his strong run of form has been his work with the driver. Steele is ranked 1st in Strokes Gained-Off The Tee over his last 24 rounds, and he has only failed to post a positive Strokes Gained statistic in this category once since this event last year.

Recently, Steele’s game is showing trends that he may once more be close to hitting the form that saw him win at the back end of last year. In his previous 24 rounds, the Californian is ranked 10th in Ball Striking and 7th in Strokes Gained-Total. Always a threat at this event, Steele is coming into this week with all parts of his game in sync. He should be a live threat once more in San Antonio.

Another man who has played well all year is Xander Schauffele (35/1, DK Price $8,800). The Californian has made seven of eight cuts this year, and he has finished in the top-25 in four of those occasions. Excellent off the tee, TPC San Antonio should suit the 24-year-old this week, too. Schaufelle ranks 7th in Strokes Gained-Off The Tee and 17th in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green over his last 24 rounds.

With wind likely to play a factor this week, pure ball striking will be necessary. That shouldn’t be an issue for Xander, who sits 7th in Strokes Gained-Ball Striking over his last 24 rounds. There is nothing off about Schauffele’s game right now. He ranks 21st in Strokes Gained-Putting over his previous 12 rounds and 5th in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green over the same period. It’s only a matter of time before the two-time PGA Tour winner puts himself in the thick of contention again, and there’s no reason why it can’t be this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Luke List 25/1, DK Price $10,000
  • Brendan Steele 33/1, DK Price $8,900
  • Xander Schauffele 35/1, DK Price $8,800
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