Golf’s long history bespeaks a reverence for tradition . . . until you consider equipment. The first duffers played with curved sticks and spherical balls made of wood. Then, in the last century, they advanced through steel shafts to club heads made from high-tech alloys and graphite shafts that hammer multilayer balls hundreds of yards with ease. Still, a burgeoning coterie of golfers is shunning today’s aerodynamic drivers and fairway hybrids for a glimpse of the game’s golden era by shooting with hickory-shaft clubs dating from before 1935.
“There is a terrific amount of pleasure in hitting a shot off the middle, because hickory clubs are very unforgiving,” explains David Kirkwood, the former European Captain of the Hickory Grail (the biannual hickory equivalent of the Ryder Cup between Europe and the United States).
The drivers are completely fashioned from wood and the irons are a combination of hickory shafts and metal heads. The designs are also from yesteryear—none of the huge, forgiving heads born of the last few decades. The only concession to modernity is using contemporary balls. The result is you’ll lose about 30 percent of your distance on drives, so hickory tournaments are typically played at shorter yardage.
But the allure is not all masochistic challenge. For some, hickory golf is retro cool. For others, it is an anti-modern movement, a protest against the development of equipment that now leaves legendary golf courses to be torn up with a driver and a wedge. Many believe that modern-day equipment has removed the finesse and skill required in days gone by. After all, the world’s most famous links courses were not designed with the modern club in mind. Part of the hickory passion is to experience these celebrated courses in their original form.
Among the numerous hickory societies around the world is the Society of Hickory Golfers in the U.S. Its website gives tips on how to play with the clubs and will point you to tournaments. It also advises on how to procure a “play set” (clubs sturdy enough to play, not just collectors’ items). Strategies for sourcing clubs include haunting tag sales and eBay for vintage equipment and shopping the small number of manufacturers who are still making the clubs. While your handicap may suffer in the transition, the good news is your bag will be lighter: the recommended set includes just six clubs: a brassie (wood), a mid-iron, a mashie (approach club), a mashie niblick (short approach), a niblick (pitching wedge) and a putter.