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Q&A: The rise of hickory golf, its origins and appeal

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CNN recently titled an article “Hickory golf: The ultimate hipster sport?

While I’m not sure ironic mustaches, craft beer, and obscure music snobbery jive with the use of wooden-shafted clubs and the donning of period attire to better appreciate the game, I wanted to get to the bottom of the phenomenon.

I spoke with Mike Stevens, executive director of the Professional Hickory Golfers Association, about the growing phenomenon that is hickory golf and his work organizing hickory tournaments and preserving the rich history of our singular game.

Stevens has been playing golf for nearly 55 years. The western Massachusetts native went to college in Florida. After playing golf collegiately, he was drafted into the military in the early 70s. He began teaching in the evenings while on base.

I asked him how he got started on the hickory and plus-fours side of things.

Mike Stevens (right)

From left: Brian Schuman, director of Metropolitan (NY) Hickory Association, Lionel Freedman, director World Hickory Open and Mike Stevens.

MS: My dad took me out to the course when I was nine. He gave me a Sam Snead Blue Ridge iron…he put together a little set for me and one of the clubs in the set was a hickory-shafted 3-iron. I used that set almost up until I was in high school, and I loved that club.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I was rummaging around in a flea market and there was a barrel of hickory clubs, and I thought to myself: I’m just going grab one of these clubs to have as a reminder of that club I had when I was a kid. When I went to the counter to pay, I asked the guy if he had an old leather grip. He said he didn’t, but [I could] probably get one from the Collectors Society. I had no idea that they existed. I looked them up online, and I joined the society, and I went to one of their annual meetings where people come in with all of their clubs they’ve collected over the years.

They also had a tournament at their annual meeting where you played with hickory clubs. I ended up playing in the tournament and just enjoyed it so much that I put together a set for myself and started playing with them. More and more collectors started playing and they started to organize tournaments around the country…I played in the first National Hickory Championship.

I enjoyed playing with them so much that, eventually, all I played with was hickory clubs. I don’t play with modern equipment at all. But I play sensibly: I play on older golf courses that were built for that type of equipment. Generally, those of us that play try to keep the distance between 5,800 and 6,100 yards.

Hickory golf’s organizing bodies

Hickory-Golf-Clubs-

MS: We have what we call the Society of Hickory Golfers, which is a national organization. There are several world organizations, and I’d estimate there are 2,500 people in the world right now that play hickory golf on a regular basis.

How it really got started? Collectors saying, “Hey, I wonder what it would be like to play with this stuff.” They started playing and realized you can play just as well with these clubs as you can with modern stuff.

It’s a fledgling organization. Right now, we have basically two tournaments in the world with a professional purse. My tournament, which is the United States Professional Hickory Championship … has a $5,000 purse, and it was patterned after the 1925 Florida Open. All of the top professionals in the country came to Temple Terrace and played in that tournament…Walter Hagan, Gene Sarazen, Jim Barnes…when I decided to grow the hickory game a little bit, I thought it would be good for the pros to get some experience with it since a lot of people follow after what the pros do.

I started the tournament five years ago, and I had something like 30 pros come and play, including David Frost. It’s grown slowly over the years. I’d like to have a bigger purse to attract more pros, but at the same time, I want it to be a tribute to the game and how it was first played and make sure we don’t forget how it all started because the more we move into the modern era, nobody remembers any of that. This kind of continues the tradition. That’s really why I started it: to pay tribute to the history of the game.

The other tournament that we have is the World Hickory Open, which is played every year in Scotland, and that also has a $5,000 purse.

What the response has been like

The response has been more positive than anything. Everybody enjoys the experience. Most of the people come back each year. I’d say 80 percent of the people who played in the first tournament come back each year.

The encouraging thing is that I had four or five young guys play last year and they absolutely loved it—I’m talking like 21, 22—and they just had a blast and they’re coming back next year. And I’ve got four or five more young guys trying it for the first time this year.

But everybody who plays had a very positive experience and enjoyed it very much. I’d like to get more pros playing to re-establish that they’re the caretakers of the game and they should be passing it along to everybody.

What it’s like to play hickory golf

Everybody wears a shirt and tie, usually. You don’t have to wear knickers, but a lot of people do. In the era, everybody wore a shirt and tie, which gave it sort of an elegant look.

The actual play: Everybody talks about the modern swing and things of that nature. But the ultimate test is if you can get the club squarely on the ball. It doesn’t really matter how you do that. When using a hickory club, if you hit it well, there’s not a whole lot different from a modern club other than distance. The feel and the trajectories are all pretty much the same. If you mishit, however, then it’s really bad. So, precision is a little more involved…but it’s more satisfying when you hit a good one. That’s part of the enjoyment: When you hit a good shot, you know you made a good swing.

A few of hickory golf’s good things

It brings back a lot of memories of when I was playing as a kid. So, a lot of it’s nostalgia. Part of nostalgia is it makes you feel good. That part lifts my spirits a little bit when I’m playing.

And the other nice thing about playing with hickory is, it doesn’t take long. You’re playing on shorter courses. You’re playing on courses that aren’t overly penal; they always give you an opportunity to make some kind of a recovery shot. You can usually buzz around an older course in 3.5 hours to 4 hours, maximum.

For more, check out the PHGA, the Golf Collectors Society, and the Society of Hickory Golfers websites.

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GolfWRX Editor-in-Chief. Follow me on Twitter. [email protected] for any comments, complaints, glowing praise.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Greg V

    Mar 16, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Tom Duckworth –

    It is quite OK to use antique clubs, but most hickory players will re-glue iron heads on old clubs, particularly if there is a bit of a rattle when you tap the head on the ground.

    If you go to the section on this site: Classic Golf and Golfers – Hickory, Persimmon and Classic Clubs – you will find a thread on Playing Hickory Golf. In that thread, say withing the last 3 or 4 pages, there is valuable information on how to re-glue and pin old iron clubs. Also there is some good information for restoring wood clubs.

    Old shafts can break, and new shafts can break as well. There are people who will sell replacement shafts. Tad Moore is one such person.

    I know of a local club repair person who has done a nice job of re-gluing, re-gripping and restoring my hickory clubs. At this point I chose to play them, but I leave the repairs to an expert. You may be able to find one in your area.

  2. Tom Duckworth

    Mar 14, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    It sounds fun I would have liked a bit more information on equipment. Is it OK to use old clubs or are they too fragile? I have some around that seem pretty solid and will modern golf balls hurt these old clubs?

  3. Ronald Montesano

    Mar 14, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Sprinters finish in under 3 hours. Sprinters who have no interest in camaraderie, etc. Sprinters who play alone, or perhaps with a fellow sprinter, get around in under 3 hours. Golf in the USA has a social element to it. There is no reason a 4-hour round should be denigrated. Folks who operate on the extremes are snobs by nature and definition.

  4. gvogel

    Mar 14, 2015 at 9:20 am

    There are two companies making reproduction hickory clubs: Loiusville Golf and Tad Moore Hickory. Tad is a frequent contributor to this site. He was an early adaptor and founder of hickory golf, and still continues to play at a very high level in hickory tournaments.

  5. Tony Tubrick

    Mar 13, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    I enjoyed this article very much. I am an almost lifelong resident of Omaha, Nebraska which has its fair share of hickory golfers and excellent hickory-friendly courses to play at. In addition I am kept busy at Classic Golf restoring and repairing hickories for players around the country and even the world.
    I’ve seen hickory golf grow dramatically in recent years. It’s encouraging to see the sport grow in this direction and I highly recommend golfers try it not just because it is the business I am in but to experience a bit of the roots of this game the way it was played over 100 years ago. Quite addictive. I find when I do get out and play that I choose to play my hickories much more often than my modern clubs. It’s simply more fun and challenging.

  6. Dan

    Mar 13, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    I live in a Detroit suberb. We have a group (The Wyandotte Hickory Organization, Wyandotte, MI) with over 60 members from 5 states and Canada who play hickories 1-3 times per week. We have 2 tournaments every year where we wear knickers (some guys wear kilts), ties, period hats, and we are lead onto the course by a bag piper. We also play several matches every summer against a group of players from the other side of the state, Grand Rapids (The Michigan Hickory Tour). Great fun.
    My hickory handicap is about the same as my modern club handicap. Hickory play has actually improved my handicap because tempo is so important in hickories. Every year we play a hickory match against the local high school varsity golf team. Yes, they use some of our extra player sets,,,and they have a ball. They can’t go out for a beer after with us,,,but someday.
    If anyone reading this lives in Michigan or Northern Ohio and would like to try hickories we have a lot of play sets. Contact me at: [email protected].
    Oh, the cost of joining the WHO (our mascot is obviously an owl) is the cost of a shirt and a hat and a round of drinks.

  7. Jim

    Mar 13, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Good information. Lots more can be found on the website of the Society of Hickory Golfers. Look under “Resources” and you’ll info on finding hickory clubs and putting together a starter set. Good fun learning about this style of golf. One thing for sure, it’s a lot more fun to play.

  8. cody

    Mar 13, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    nice write up. The only thing that I would have included would be where can you acquire the gear?

  9. RI_Redneck

    Mar 13, 2015 at 10:58 am

    LOL. Great first post there bud. On a serious note, I hope to acquire a couple of sets so my son and I can start participating in this. I love the old stuff and trying Hickory is #1 on my bucket list. Love to play in Scotland at that tourney. That would be the BEST!!

  10. U3

    Mar 13, 2015 at 9:47 am

    3.5 hours to 4 hours is TOO LONG playing on shorter course with hickory. You should be getting done in under 3 hours.

    • Jon

      Mar 13, 2015 at 10:41 am

      U3, if you believe that rounds played with hickory should take less than 3 hours then shouldn’t we all be playing hickory instead of modern equipment? The courses I play our 4-somes can get around in about 3-3.5 hours with modern equipment. If we switch to hickory we should be able to finish in about 2.5 hours. Please explain so I can better understand the logic.

    • Dan

      Mar 13, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      It takes us no longer to play a round with hickories than to play a round with modern clubs. Time is a function of the player, not the clubs.

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Akshay Bhatia WITB 2022 (November)

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Driver: Callaway Rogue ST (9 degrees @8)
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