2006: Retro golf

LaGrange, Ga.

Sunset was approaching at The Fields Golf Club, and Randy Jensen was standing on the practice green, batting the ball toward various pins with an 80-year-old putter. He’d been there more than a half-hour, alone, oblivious to his fellow competitors enjoying post-round beers and laughs on the nearby veranda.

In his plus-fours, crisp white shirt, tie and floppy, cream-colored hat, Jensen looked like a character pulled from another era. But he was firmly planted in the present, competing in the Southern Hickory Fourball.

“Randy must have had a bad putting round,” says Mike Stevens, a fellow competitor and teaching pro from Tampa, Fla.

Jensen doesn’t have many bad rounds, putting or otherwise. Among the small but growing legion of hickory devotees, Jensen is fast becoming a legend, having won the National Hickory Championship five times. The day after his post-round putting practice, Jensen padded his résumé in LaGrange, shooting 67 on his own ball in winning the low-gross championship with four-ball partner Rob Ahlschwede.

No one has mastered the hickory game better than Jensen, who owns Classic Golf, an Omaha, Neb., shop where he sells modern and, increasingly, retro equipment. (He also operates an eBay shop from which he sells hickories.) Jensen tests modern equipment at his store so he can discuss the pros and cons with customers, but he has played exclusively with hickories for four years and plays to a plus-2 at his home course.

Like his fellow competitors, Jensen has a love of golf and its history. But he understands that the bond runs deeper.

“There’s a bit of eccentricity to everyone here,” Jensen says, still slapping putts. “There are a lot of outside-the-box thinkers. If you went to your run-of-the-mill foursome players, they’re going to say, let me get the most forgiving Callaway driver and Callaway irons – they advertise more than anybody else – and let’s get a cart and let’s go play golf.

“It’s a pretty big leap to say, let me get some clubs from 1920 with wood shafts and walk the golf course. You’re not seeing that advertised anywhere on TV or in any golf magazine. You’ve got to pull that out of your butt somehow.”

“I’d forgotten the essence of the game, which is that you enjoy the environment you’re in and the people you’re with and make it less work and more fun.”

– Tanner Stewart, recent hickory convert from Zanesville (Ohio) Country Club

Collectors of golf equipment largely are responsible for the resurgent interest in hickory golf. They would gather for shows around

the country and overseas, then pull together makeshift sets and play hickory tournaments before returning home.

Now there is a passionate group of hickory enthusiasts. Pete Georgiady, who organized and runs the 9-year-old National Hickory Championship, estimates as many as 1,250 people in the United States play in hickory tournaments, including about 100 who use 19th-century equipment.

The golf establishment is starting to take notice, perhaps intrigued by the inherent charm of the wooden game.

Georgiady notes that the NHC, won last year by Stevens at Oakhurst Links, a nine-holer in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., will move next month to Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort. And Georgiady says he has several prominent suitors seeking to host the 2007 NHC.

There’s a temptation to label hickory players. They’re traditionalists. They’re historians who want to experience the game as Bobby Jones did. They’re romantics who want to recapture the spirit of the game’s formative years. They’re adventurers looking for a thrill. They’re confident, not afraid to fail. They’re patient, willing to accept the inherent difficulty of striking a golf ball properly with a hickory club. Or they simply enjoy the camaraderie of fellow hickory players. Take your pick.

The truth is, they largely defy any kind of umbrella description. Some, like Stewart, dabble in the retro game simply to remind themselves what they love about golf. It’s not a full-fledged conversion; Stewart and many other hickory players are comfortable living in what one calls the “dual world,” playing both modern and historic equipment.

Playing hickory clubs is more a state of mind than of game. Hickory players talk of friends who are scratch players, some blessed with the fluid, effortless swings ideally suited for the wooden game, who recoil at the thought of touching a hickory club, much less swinging one. Perhaps they’re scared of failure, doubt their talent, attribute their low scores to the modern equipment. Or perhaps it’s something quite different.

“Some people almost seem threatened by it,” says Dave Ellis, Stewart’s four-ball partner and a Zanesville member. “They don’t want to try it because maybe they’re afraid they’ll like it.”

With hickories, says Jensen, “your score expectations are just thrown out the window.”

You won’t shoot your best number, but you might enjoy some of your best moments. You won’t drive across the dogleg, leaving yourself a lob wedge approach.

But, says Jensen, “What about the satisfaction of hitting a fairway wood into a par 4 in two and making par?”

Then it dawns on you: Hickory players aren’t looking for the easiest way to get the ball in the hole. They’re looking for the most interesting route. When he took his hickories to St. Andrews, Ralph Livingston III, who plays out of the Kingsley Club in Traverse City, Mich., says he intentionally hit his ball into Hell Bunker, which might make him something of a pioneer.

“Hazards make it fun,” Livingston reasons. “You want to be challenged.”

“You hit a bad shot with these (hickories) and you just giggle about it. You hit a good shot and you can feel it in your soul.”

– Andy Moye, hickory player from North Carolina

Golfers love to relive their rounds and dwell on their best shots. But hickory enthusiasts talk of moments that are almost spiritual in nature. The bad shots – and there are plenty of bad shots – are the stuff of 19th-hole ribbing. But the good shots almost defy description.

For John Roth, a collector from North Carolina, his transcendent hickory moment came on the par-3 18th hole at Kinghorn Golf Club, an Old Tom Morris design in Fife, on Scotland’s east coast.

“I had a hole-in-one with a hickory-shafted club on a Tom Morris-designed hole,” Roth says, smiling at the memory. “Now, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Chuck McMullin, a top hickory player from Williamsburg, Va., describes in vivid detail the sensation of standing on the first tee at St. Andrews, dressed in “the right clothes” – knickers, long-sleeve shirt and tie – and playing “the right clubs” – an 80-year-old set with the original leather grips, nursed assiduously through the years. He recalls the first-tee jitters standing in front of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, as people milled about, some no doubt expecting the worst, then nutting the drive down the center of the fairway.

McMullin has played the Old Course six times with modern clubs and three times with hickories. “I will never, ever play it again with regular clubs,” he says. “The Old Course is about as pure as it gets, and you have that attitude that you want to visit the past.”

Stewart still loves his modern equipment – and he feels the need to use it during games back at Zanesville CC – but he was almost awestruck at some of the hickories he toted to the Southern Hickory.

“I have a club that has James Braid’s name on it,” Stewart says. “James Braid won the British Open (five times). His hands were on that club. It’s now in my bag. Now that’s pretty neat. I’ve got a club of Ted Ray’s. He was the guy who went up against Francis Ouimet.”

That romance trumps anything hickory players have experienced using equipment from the titanium era. Today’s clubs are so good – so forgiving – that if we hit a bad shot, we’ve become conditioned to chastise ourselves. My equipment is perfect, flawless. So obviously I screwed up – again!

But in the hickory game, there’s no margin of error. The satisfaction of executing a perfect shot flows from the fact that you had to make a perfect swing because the clubs weren’t going to help you.

A dozen years ago, Livingston’s golf bag was filled with the latest golf technology, including,

he recalls, the jumbo-sized Wilson Whale driver once endorsed by John Daly. “I was as techie as anyone,” he says.

But he was bored with golf, ready to quit. Then Livingston began dabbling in hickory and soon became hooked. He hasn’t played modern golf in nine years, and when he took his hickories to Scotland to play some of the classic links courses, a light went on.

“All of it made sense,” Livingston says. “I saw the synergies between the course and the clubs.”

Jensen recalls similar experiences playing his hickories at Merion and Baltusrol.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “That’s the way those courses were supposed to be played.”

Hickory, they say, makes you understand what the architect envisioned. Maybe you can’t clear a bunker with your hickory driver, so you play out to the left with your spoon, which will roll to the corner of the dogleg. That’s important because Donald Ross’ green, naturally, looks like a green VW Beetle, which means that unless your 160-yard approach has the trajectory of a Mickelson flop shot,

you’re going to be chipping back up the trunk, just hoping it stays on the roof so that you have a chance to two-putt. But from where your drive rests, you can finesse a mashie up the chute between the bunkers guarding the sides of the green, securing a par at worst.

Many hickory devotees believe that type of strategic golf has been lost.

“They ain’t got no damn guts.”

– Jay Harris, hickory player from Pinehurst, N.C.

There is a virulent anti-technology strain running through a portion of the hickory set, most adamantly represented by Harris, a dentist who lives on Pinehust’s No. 2 course.

“They,” in Harris’ mind, are golf’s ruling bodies, which he believes have been unduly lax in cracking down on manufacturers’ equipment innovations. The ball flies too far, the clubs are too forgiving. It’s just not golf. So, he says, you get abominations like his beloved No. 2 again being stretched to combat modern-day bombers.

“Somebody needs to get some backbone,” Harris says. His voice rising, he adds, “We’re heading toward 8,000-yard golf courses. How ridiculous is that? Does that mean all the 7,000-yard courses are going to become obsolete?”

Atlanta developer Jack Reynolds doesn’t share Harris’ sentiments. “I think they ought to get to where you can hit it a mile,” he says.But golf technology recently created a dilemma for him. He wanted to turn an old 27-hole course into 18 holes, but found that even with nine fewer holes, he needed more land to accommodate the modern game. Ultimately, he had to close the course.

“There are too many people playing golf now who aren’t good enough to be hitting the ball as far as (modern equipment) allows you to,” says Reynolds, who hadn’t played retro equipment until arriving at the Southern Hickory. “That’s what I’m finding out in this development job. The golf course has been widened out about 25 yards on either side, and it’s for the stray shots, it’s not for the straight shots.”

For some, the subject of technology is largely an intellectual exercise. How do modern clubs borrow from designs of a century ago? Roger Hill, a collector and hickory player from Michigan, looks at the oddly shaped Cleveland VAS irons with which Corey Pavin won the 1995 U.S. Open and sees anti-shank technology from the 1920s. Callaway’s bore-through club design? That dates to 1912, Hill says.

British auctioneer John Mullock says his most recent sale included a 360cc socket-head persimmon driver that’s not much smaller than the oversized heads currently in vogue.

“Nothing is new in golf equipment,” Mullock says somewhat dismissively.

Tad Moore effortlessly straddles this debate. Standing in his office here at The Fields, Moore understands the irony he embodies. All around him are signs of his growing commitment to old-school, hickory golf. He designs and markets hickory clubs under his own name and the Tom Morris name.

Yet Moore’s name is synonymous with modern golf equipment. He holds nine patents for the design of modern clubs and has two patents pending. Golfers can walk into virtually any specialty shop in the country and find his name on equipment, particularly putters and wedges. He’s particularly pleased with the new, moveable-weight Moto driver he designed for the Walter Hagen brand, a Dick’s Sporting Goods house brand, because he says he’s been able to position the weights farther back than in any other driver, enhancing forgiveness.

“I’m just as proud of this as I am of the Tom Morris head and the Tad Moore hickory driver because we really achieved something totally different in the modern titanium driver,” Moore says.

But after a long career designing game-enhancement equipment, Moore, 65, can’t help but wonder if golf manufacturers haven’t lost sight of the game’s romance in their relentless desire to give golfers a few extra yards. He knows the numbers: The nation’s average handicap has fallen negligibly over the past 15 years despite the advent of titanium and solid-core balls, “and people are just spending a lot of money on clubs, churning clubs.”

“Golf to me is a game we play to enjoy other people,” Moore says. “What brings us out to the golf course is not necessarily a 7,000-yard course designed by Tom Fazio. It’s the guys we’re playing golf with.”

“You can hear the swoosh of the shaft coming through on the downswing, and if you hear that, you don’t even have to look.”

– Chris Deinlein, a hickory competitor from Greensboro, N.C.

By necessity, the hickory swing is different from the modern swing. You can’t manhandle the heavier clubs and stiffer shafts.

“I’m a hitter, but you’ve got to be a swinger,” says Mark Barnes, a hickory newcomer. “You’ve got to wait, stay behind it and let that shaft catch up. Anytime I’ve tried to muscle a shot, I’ve missed it badly right.”

If struck squarely on the clubface, there’s a negligible difference in distance between hickory-shafted irons and modern steel-shafted irons, according to Moore. And the stiff hickory shafts impart less spin than modern clubs, probably because of the stiff tip sections, so the ball tends to roll more.

Drivers are a different story. At 43 inches, a typical hickory driver is about 2 inches shorter than a standard modern driver, and the shaft alone weighs more than 200 grams, three times heavier than a graphite shaft. Players will find that their typical drives are 30 to 40 yards shorter with hickory.

“What you have is one of these weighted clubs they’re selling for training, and that’s almost what you’re using for hitting your shots,” Moore says.

The retro equipment tends to favor players with languid, flowing swings. Think Bobby Jones, Payne Stewart or Ernie Els.

Or, if you happen upon a hickory tournament, follow Randy Jensen. You’ll find him walking the course, his bag slung over his shoulder, often carrying his floppy hat in his right hand, playing the game effortlessly, joyfully.

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