Hickory Trickery


The Golf Collectors took their canvas bags and hickory sticks to Merioneth – some of them travelling by train, I trust – for their annual match against Aberdovey last Saturday.  The fixture was a couple of weeks later than usual, and under a cerulean sky it felt like the first day of summer.

“It’s always like this when I come to Aberdovey,” one collector told me … “except the time it was snowing.”

Each team fielded thirty golfers, an impressive turnout which suggests an affection in Aberdovey for doing things the old-fashioned way.  All the more surprising that the Club’s smart new website excludes its gallery of evocative old photographs and indeed any mention of the Club’s history, a subject of great interest to many visitors and anyone writing about golf at Aberdovey.  The format of the match was foursomes, naturally.

Collectors Jorgen Isberg and Philip Nielson

With Aberdovey players not obliged to use hickories, but some choosing to do so – and a few surplus Collectors willing to turn coat and play for the opposition – handicap calculations must have been complicated. “Haven’t a clue – I let my partner work it out,” said a member of the home team, when asked about this.  His partner was the club’s professional, Andy Humphreys, who was using hickories.

“There’s no hit in this club, it’s all swing,” Andy said, interestingly (I thought), after launching a ball into the middle distance from the tee at the long 7th.  Andy reckons the hickory factor reduces him to about 260 yards off the tee, from his customary 300-odd.  The match was played from the yellow tees and Aberdovey is not a long course, so the difference in its playability may not be all that noticeable for a long hitter.

There is more to this hickory lark than distance, however.

“The sweet spot on our old clubs is about the size of a micro-dot,” says Lorne Smith, creator of the website www.finegolf.co.uk and a recent convert to the hickory cause.  “But if you get it right, it does seem to go quite well.”

Decked out in yesteryear golfing finery, Lorne brought his botanist wife Angelika to inspect the garden at Pantlludw before his game, and gave us an impromptu talk on the evils of ‘poa’ – a kind of grass – while Angelika combed the ground on all fours for the sort of plant life that interests her.

Lorne Smith at Pantlludw

Either she was being very polite or she found plenty.

Golf is a difficult enough game. Why add to the problems by using tools which are quite simply less efficient?

For the same reason that some people like driving around in old cars and playing 78s on wind-up gramophones.  They like the look, and feel that modern life – motoring, golf, everything really – has lost its sense of style.

There’s the fun of collecting the old clothes, old clubs and accessories.  The well equipped Collector travels with a folding X-shaped bag stand, as illustrated in this picture of Collector Claes Arma preparing to play a reversed niblick backhand escape from an awkward spot beside the 12th green.

Backhand reversed niblick at the 12th

From our vantage point on the Richard Darlington memorial bench, my co-watcher and I had speculated that the Collector might try a ricochet off the wall of sleepers.  But the niblick backhand was undoubtedly the shot to play.  He pulled it off rather well, and the Collectors were unlucky to lose the hole to a nerveless putt from Andy Humphreys.  That squared the encounter, with six to play.  I found out later that the Collectors won by 9 points to 5, whatever that means.

Hickorists disapprove of the way technology has dumbed down golf, and if you ask them they can explain what they mean by that, in terms of ‘target golf ‘ (bad) and golf played ‘along the ground’ (good).  Hickories give us the chance to connect with our ancestors, for whom and by whom courses such as Aberdovey were designed.  Using equipment like theirs – either authentically pre-1935 or approved repro clubs made by specialists in America – we play the shots they played, and marvel at the scores they made.

Playing the shots they played
-Jorgen Isberg at Aberdovey 

Although America is the home of the dreaded target golf, or perhaps for that reason, it is there that the hickory craze took root. Given their love of olde worlde pageantry and the Celtic fringe, this comes as no great shock.  The revival of telemark skiing started in America, too.  Following the example of the late Payne Stewart, they are the great enthusiasts for tartan and plus fours, and in the matter of new links courses, as are springing up all over America – inland and coastal – they are “plus royaliste que le roi” when it comes to authentic design values, caddie programmes and maintenance. I was more surprised by how many Swedes came over for the meeting: more than a dozen of them, in a field of about 40.

The fact that the hickory club imparts less spin than the modern blade calls for a more strategic approach: more often than not the ball must be bounced and rolled up to the green, not flown at it full pitch. Subtleties of landscaping thus come into play of necessity.   Those of us who are unable to spin the ball with our modern clubs play the game this way anyway, without having to dress up in plus fours and wrestle with cleeks and mashies.

Some courses are more suitable than others: old ones, basically, that have not been modernised.  Aberdovey fits the bill perfectly.  As Lorne Smith points out in a long essay on hickory golf on his website, no collector would take hickories to Wentworth (West), now that Ernie Els has tricked it up with platform greens and ‘penal bunkers’.

Hickorists are sociable types who join a small club within the larger community of golfers.  Gathered together, they discuss their long-nosed brassies and the compression of their balls.  In their fanaticism most of them stop short of using balls made before 1935, but it is essential to use soft ones, partly because they work better with the slower swing speed required for hickory golf, or so I understand; partly because frequent impact with a hard ball risks breaking the club.

One other thing. The simple fact that hickory golf is difficult makes it exclusive, and appealing, if you can do it and others can’t.  I wish I could.

PS (June 2020).  I am grateful to golf historian David Normoyle for these pictures sent from Texas on the occasion of the American National Hickory Championships, which took place in many different venues under corona virus constraints.  I hadn’t realised the purists over there ban the use of the bag and carried sand in wine buckets (of pre-war manufacture, presumably) for teeing up purposes. 


Texan hickorist John Crow Miller on the ball

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