Recently I had the great pleasure of receiving an invitation to play golf against Sweden’s hickory golf society at Worplesdon Golf Club, where I have been a member for many years. For those of you who are non-golfers, “hickory” golf will mean nothing, so here is a brief history to paint the picture.
The exact origins of golf are much debated, but all are agreed that the game began many centuries ago either in Holland or Scotland with some form of stick and ball sport. The oldest surviving rules of golf were written in 1744 for the Company of Gentlemen Golfers in Edinburgh. By the late 19th century the game had become widespread across the United States, Great Britain and its colonies. At that time golf clubs were manufactured from hickory, a hard, dense, shock-resistant wood, of which there are several specials native to Asia and North America. This same wood was also used to manufacture baseball bats.
The various hickory golf associations of this world have two divisions: pre-1900 and pre-1935. Our day of golf was from the latter of these two, which mean that we used authentic, vintage clubs that were manufactured before 1935. We also used a modern golf ball, but of the soft variety as the harder golf ball is damaging to the clubs. The pre-1900 divisions use a vintage ‘gutty’ made from a rubbery material known as Gutta-Percha.
It was a splendid sunny day and we had a very close fought match. Our Swedish opponents were regular hickory golfers, and were even fully dressed in the golfing attire of the era, resplendent in plus-fours, long wool socks, crisp shirts, wool ties and sleeves jumper (jersey). They were very generous in giving us extra shots (i.e. an advantage) as we were so unaccustomed to using these wonderful, old-fashioned weapons. Interestingly, the modern fast golf wing simply does not work with the hickory clubs because they have too much bend and torque. With a modern swing the club head will be pointing way right at impact. It is necessary to swing the club as the fine players of the 1920s and 30s did; a long, smooth, flowing swing with an emphasis on ‘hitting from the inside’ – a sensation that you are hitting to the right of the target.
The irons gave a rather unsatisfactory and unpowerful clunk when striking the ball. The driver, on the other hand, when struck out of the sweet spot in the middle of the clubface, was an absolute joy to hit and could send the ball distances not too far short of today’s super-charged drivers.
For any keen golfers out there, I would strongly encourage you to have a go at playing with hickory shafted clubs. They require more finesse to use, but will reward you with a more responsive feel than modern golf equipment. There is also a lovely sense of returning the sport’s origins and playing it in the same manner as some of the game’s greatest exponents such as Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan.
There is a hint that another game will be set up at Walton Heath next year, and I very much look forward to having another go at wafting these beautifully crafted hickory clubs at a little white ball in a large green field.