Having a ball playing hickory golf

Every year I try to play in at least a dozen golf tournaments. I mean real tournaments, not pro-ams or charity events.

My favorite event of 2009? The Selma Four-Ball Classic, held at stately Selma (Ala.) Country Club.

Modern golf clubs are forbidden. Put away your Callaways, TaylorMades, Nikes, Titleists and Pings for this one, because competitors play with hickory-shafted clubs.

This is where I met the Hickory Tiger, named after a certain golfer who has won 14 major championships.

The 54-year-old Hickory Tiger, AKA Randy Jensen, knows a thing or two about majors, having captured the U.S. National Hickory Championship a record eight times. Jensen showed up for the Selma Four-Ball Classic with longtime partner Mike Stolarsky in tow.

They played, they birdied, they won by four, they returned home to Omaha, Neb., where Jensen manages Classic Golf, a shop specializing in vintage clubs and apparel.

“Do you play regular golf?” somebody asked the Tiger.

“If, by regular golf, you mean graphite shafts and titanium driver heads, no way,” he answered. “I don’t play anything but hickory golf.”

“Why is this?” came the follow-up question.

“It’s too easy with modern clubs,” he said. “You can hit the ball all over the clubface and still hit good shots. Playing with hickory is more of a challenge. It’s more fun.”

Hickory golf has been in exile some 75 years. It was 1924 when the U.S. Golf Association issued its approval of steel shafts. Six years later, in 1930, Bobby Jones used hickory in winning his Grand Slam. The last USGA championship captured by hickory was in 1936, when  lawyer John Fischer II of Cincinnati won the U.S. Amateur.

“It’s hard to express how much my dad loved those hickory shafts,” said his son, John Fischer III, also a Cincinnati attorney. “He went to the MacGregor factory, and it took him two days just to find the right ones.”

In conjunction with the Golf Collectors Society (www.golfcollectors.com), the younger Fischer has published a delightful 36-page memoir, “The Last Hickory Golf Champion,” about his late father’s hickory adventures.

Today there is a resurgence of hickory, as reflected by national hickory championships in Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Scotland, Sweden, Finland and the United States. 

The Society of Hickory Golfers (www.hickorygolfers.com) promotes hickory tournaments in North America, and an annual hickory tour has emerged. Many hickory events have been contested at Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where golf has been played since the 1880s and where the grass is cut by the world’s most efficient lawn mowers, sometimes known as sheep.

In Selma, I spotted a license plate with one word on it – HICKORY. It belonged to Tad Moore, one of the world’s best-known golf club designers. For decades, Moore created clubs for Maxfli and other companies. Now he has turned to hickory.

Moore produces replica clubs in a shop on Selma Ave (www.tadmoore.com). Also in that shop is putterman Otey Crisman III, whose father, Otey Crisman II, made aluminum-headed putters, most with hickory shafts, that won the Masters five times and the PGA Championship four times.

As hosts of the competition at Selma Country Club, Moore and his wife, Carol, showcased Southern hospitality in spectacular fashion. This included a heavy emphasis on early 20th century apparel and nightly parties at antebellum homes.

Hickory appears to be sweeping the South. In Louisville, Ky., Mike Just, president of Louisville Golf, introduced a line of hickory clubs in 2007 and watched them account for about 15 percent of Louisville Golf’s sales in 2008.

In Greensboro, N.C. Chris Deinlein plays in a regular money game at Sedgefield Country Club with his hickory-shafted clubs. Sedgefield is long enough and tough enough to host the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour, but that doesn’t stop Deinlein.

“Sure, I get comments,” Deinlein said, “but I don’t care. This is the only way I play. If I sacrifice 10 or 15 yards off the tee, so be it. I believe the game was meant to be played this way. And old courses do not become obsolete when golfers use hickory.”

Almost all golfers score higher with hickory than steel. The drives are shorter (240 yards is a monster hit) and the irons don’t have much sole bounce and tend to be diggers.

An authentic player such as Jensen will use nothing but original clubs. Others may play replica clubs. There are two types of hickory competition – pre-1905, with clubs and gutta-percha replica balls from that period, and pre-1935, when the clubheads were much improved and rubber balls had emerged. Most tournaments fall into the pre-1935 category, with players using the softest modern balls they can find.

To that end, a company called McIntyre White Authentic Golf, located in San Diego, manufactures three different rubber golf balls using modern soft cores and Surlyn covers with old-time designs.

All this is like a step back in time, but it’s more. Hickory golf is a ritual in which the history and traditions of golf are honored and celebrated.

If the truth be told, some of us would do it just to play dress-up in the elegant clothes of another era.

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