A growing niche: Hickory Golf

by   (Senior Writer I)   |   February 8, 2013
Hickory Golf

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“Some people play with clubs originally made in the early 1900s,” he said.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.

About

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

  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.

    February 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

      November 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

    February 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

    February 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

      February 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

    February 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

    February 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

    February 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

      February 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

      February 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

    February 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

    February 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

    February 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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