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“Some people play with clubs originally made in the early 1900s,” he said.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

Barnbougle Lost Farm: 20 Holes of Pure Joy

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Another early day in Tasmania, and we were exploring the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-design, Barnbougle Lost Farm. The course was completed in 2010, four years after the neighbor Barnbougle Dunes, resulting in much excitement in the world of golf upon opening.

Johan and I teed off at 10 a.m. to enjoy the course at our own pace in its full glory under clear blue skies. Barnbougle Lost Farm starts out quite easy, but it quickly turns into a true test of links golf. You will certainly need to bring some tactical and smart planning in order to get close to many of the pin positions.

The third hole is a prime example. With its sloping two-tiered green, it provides a fun challenge and makes you earn birdie — even if your tee and approach shots put you in a good position. This is one of the things I love about this course; it adds a welcome dimension to the game and something you probably don’t experience on most golf courses.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The 4th is an iconic signature hole called “Sals Point,” named after course owner Richard Sattler’s wife (she was hoping to build a summer home on the property before it was turned into a golf course). A strikingly beautiful par-3, this hole is short in distance but guarded with luring bunkers. When the prevailing northwesterly wind comes howling in from the ocean, the hole will leave you exposed and pulling out one of your long irons for the tee shot. We left No. 4 with two bogeys with a strong desire for revenge.

Later in the round, we notice our scorecard had a hole numbered “13A” just after the 13th. We then noticed there was also an “18A.” That’s because Barnbougle Lost Farm offers golfers 20 holes. The designers believed that 13A was “too good to leave out” of the main routing, and 18A acts as a final betting hole to help decide a winner if you’re left all square. And yes, we played both 13A and 18A.

I need to say I liked Lost Farm for many reasons; it feels fresh and has some quirky holes including the 5th and the breathtaking 4th. The fact that it balks tradition with 20 holes is something I love. It also feels like an (almost) flawless course, and you will find new things to enjoy every time you play it.

The big question after trying both courses at Barnbougle is which course I liked best. I would go for Barnbougle Dunes in front of Barnbougle Lost Farm, mostly because I felt it was more fun and offered a bigger variation on how to play the holes. Both courses are great, however, offering really fun golf. And as I wrote in the first part of this Barnbougle-story, this is a top destination to visit and something you definitely need to experience with your golf friends if you can. It’s a golfing heaven.

Next course up: Kingston Heath in Melbourne.

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PGA Tour Pro and Parkland Alum Nick Thompson is Part of the Solution

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The tragic shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida moved the entire nation in a deep and profound way. The tragic events touched many lives, including PGA Tour Professional Nick Thompson, who attended Stoneman Douglas for four years and was born and raised just minutes from there.

On our 19th Hole podcast, Thompson described in detail just how connected he is to the area and to Douglas High School.

“That’s my alma mater. I graduated in ’01. My wife Christen and I graduated in ’01. I was born and raised in Parkland…actually Coral Springs, which is a neighboring city. Stoneman Douglas actually is just barely in Parkland but it’s pretty much right on the border. I would probably guess there are more kids from Coral Springs that go to Stoneman Douglas than in Parkland. So I spent 29 years in Coral Springs before moving to Palm Beach Gardens where I live now, but I was born and raised there. I spent four years of high school there and it’s near and dear to my heart.”

Thompson’s siblings, LPGA Tour star Lexi Thompson and Web.com pro Curtis, did not attend Douglas High School.

His reaction to the news was immediate and visceral.

“I was in shock,” said Thompson. “I just really couldn’t believe it because Coral Springs and Parkland are both wonderful communities that are middle to upper class and literally, like boring suburbia. There’s not much going on in either city and it’s kind of hard to believe that it could happen there. It makes you think almost if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. I think that’s one of the reasons why it has really gotten to a lot of people.”

Thompson knew personally some of the names that have become familiar to the nation as a result of the shooting, including Coach Aaron Feis, who died trying to save the lives of students.

“I went to high school with Aaron Feis,” said Thompson. “He was two years older than me, and I knew of him…we had a fair amount of mutual friends.”

And while the events have provoked much conversation on many sides, Thompson was moved to action.

“We started by my wife and I, the night that it happened, after we put our kids to bed, we decided that we needed to do something,” Thompson said. “The first thing we decided was we were going to do ribbons for the players, caddies, and wives. We did a double ribbon of maroon and silver, the school colors, pin them together and wrote MSD on the maroon section. We had the media official put them out on the first tee, so all the players were wearing them. It’s been great.”

“I got together with the media guys and Ken Kennerly, the tournament director of The Honda Classic and they have been amazing. The amount of players that had the ribbons on, I was just watching the coverage to see, is incredible. I actually spoke to Tiger today and thanked him for wearing the ribbon. We really appreciate it, told him I went to high school there. I mean the only thing he could say was that he was sorry, it’s an unfortunate scenario and he was happy to wear the ribbon, do whatever he could.”

Thompson is quick to note the help that he has received in his efforts.

“It’s not just me. My wife has been just as instrumental in getting this done as me. I just, fortunately, have the connection with the PGA Tour to move it in the right direction even faster. I have the luxury of having a larger platform that can get my words out and everything we’re trying to do faster than most people. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart so it was just literally perfect with The Honda Classic coming in town.”

Thompson has also been involved in fundraising that goes to help the survivors and victims’ families. GoFundMe accounts supported by Thompson and the PGA Tour have raised in excess of 2.1 million dollars in just a week.

“One of the most important uses for this money is counseling for victims, for these kids who witnessed this horrific event, or have one degree of separation,” Thompson said. “Counseling for kids who lost a friend or a classmate, who need counseling and to help them with their PTSD essentially. I think that’s one of the most important things is helping all these kids deal with what has happened.”

Thompson acknowledged the fact that the entire Parkland family is activated to help in the healing. As for his efforts, it’s the product of his recognition of just how fortunate his life has been and a heart for service.

“Golf has given so much to me that it was the perfect time to give back even more than I already have. It’s the best we can do. We’re just trying to make a difference. ”

Listen to the entire interview on a special edition of The 19th Hole with Michael Williams on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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TG2: What irons did Knudson finally get fit into?

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GolfWRX equipment expert Brian Knudson gets his first ever iron fitting. He dishes about his favorite irons, some irons that didn’t work for him, and he discusses the wide array of shafts that he tried. And then, he reveals what irons and shafts he got fit into. His irons of choice may surprise you.

Check out the podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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