There lives among us a breed of golfer whose character exceeds our own, modern one. These chaps are hickory golfers, fellows who eschew the alleged benefits of graphite, titanium and other elemental variations for the whip of a wooden golf shaft and the click of a ball off a wooden club head. One of the merry band, Greg Vogelsang, is a western New York resident and recent champion at the Vermont Hickory Open (http://www.hickorygolfers.com/vermont-hickory-open_173_a.aspx). Vogelsang donated a bit of his time recently to patiently answer our run of ten questions, which appear below.
1. In 50 words or less, describe the components of a hickory club and how it differs from a modern club:
The distinguishing characteristic of hickories are the shafts – they are made of hickory wood, although other woods were used, notably ash and bamboo. But, club makers in Scotland settled on hickory from the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee as providing the best wood for club shafts. In addition, the wood heads were made from real wood: persimmon was the wood of choice. Iron heads were forged from iron, and later steel.
The grips are wound directly on the hickory shafts and are generally leather, although some other materials were used.
Hickory clubs differ from modern clubs in a few respects. First, wood shafts have more torque than modern steel or graphite. Due to the torque, the heads twist more through impact. I can’t remember the last time that I hit a duck hook with my modern driver, but duck hooks can be a problem with hickories. For this reason, swingers tend to perform better with hickories than hitters, if a generalization can be made. One experienced player told me that good hickory players look beautiful when swinging, as opposed to some of the modern players who get away with brute strength. The action of Rory MacIlroy, Luke Donald or Martin Kaymer would translate easier to the hickory game than that of JB Holmes, for example.
Second, the wood heads are much smaller than current wood heads. When I look at my driver, its profile is about the same size as my current 5-wood. Misses off the toe and heel are much more punishing.
Because the wood heads are smaller, shaft length tends to be shorter with the longer clubs. That would be due to having to “find” a very small sweet spot on the face of the club, and the fact that the torque in a longer shaft is harder to control. Having said that, it is interesting to note that the great Walter J Travis played very good golf with driver shafts of 48” to 50” in his drivers to compensate for his comparative lack of strength off the tee.
In addition, the ball spins less coming off a hickory club. My drives tend to be much lower and run a good deal more, even with a loft of 11* on my driver (my modern drivers are 9.5*). I think that the heavier weight of hickory has something to do with that.
It is interesting that the classic hickory set included about 4 clubs from the loft of 35* to sand wedge, while the modern set has evolved into 6 or 7 at that end of the set. The lofted irons and their modern equivalents are as follows: mashie (6 or 7-iron), spade mashie (8-iron), mashie niblick (9-iron) and niblick (wedge). On the other hand, there are quite a few irons with stronger lofts, including driving irons (1-irons), mid-irons (2-iron or 3-iron) mashie irons and cleeks (4-iron) and deep-faced mashies (5 or 6-iron). Other stronger lofted specialty clubs included windjammers (i-iron) and jiggers (4-iron). The hickory game was primarily a running game, while the modern game has evolved into an air game.
An interesting story to this point is told about Young Tom Morris. In the 1800’s there was a specialty club, called a rut iron, which had a small lofted head. It was used to hit balls out of the ruts that cart wheels left on the links. As a matter of fact, the path across the 18th and first fairways, know as Granny Clark’s Wyn, leads to the beach. Residents of St Andrews would bring fish, sand and gravel back to town from the beach; the carts would leave ruts. In any event, Young Tom was the first to play lofted pitch shots around the green using his rut iron in the 1860’s. Call it a significant development in the game of golf.
2. How did you get involved in playing with hickories?
I had played in a hickory event in the 1980’s at Cherry Hill, and had about 6 or 7 hickories in an old canvas bag that I had accumulated. One day a couple of years ago I was looking into an old-fashioned leather golf bag on the internet and ran into a web page for the Society of Hickory Shaft Golfers. I learned that this group was organizing hickory shaft tournaments. At some point I realized that it might be fun to play hickories at Grover Cleveland, since that course had hosted the US Open in 1912, and the course is shorter than a modern regulation course. I attended a hickory swap show in Dayton, OH, where I sold many of my old clubs and began to build my current set.
3. Where do you get your hickory clubs?
My current set is comprised of reproductions from Tad Moore. Reproductions are legal for tournament play, as long as they are patterned after clubs that were in production before 1935 with hickory shafts. My current set of irons are reproductions of a set of irons that Victor East, who worked for Spalding, made for Bobby Jones, with Jones’ input. They might be described as early muscle-backs. Mike Just at Louisville Golf, and a company in St Andrews also make hickory clubs suitable for play as well.
Many purists play clubs that were made in the early part of the 20th century. Club makers in Scotland with names such as Tom Stewart, Forgan, Fernie and Morris are much sought after.
4. Describe the golf balls that you use when playing hickory clubs:
For most tournaments we use balls that are currently conforming to the rules of the USGA. Balls that spin and feel soft tend to work best. I have played Pro V1’s and Bridgestone B330 RXS. There is a company in San Diego which manufactures the MacIntyre Flyer, a slightly reduced distance ball with square dimples. We used that ball in the pro hickory tournament in Tampa.
It is interesting to note that Bobby Jones was probably using a slightly smaller, heavier ball than the ones that we use, which may account for the fact he was able to hit prodigious drives under the right circumstance. Of course, Jones had a beautiful, strong action. While drives of 300 yards were measured in his day, he related in one of his books that he won a driving contest before a US Amateur in Portland, OR with an average of 237 yards on soft turf, and Gene Sarazen won a driving contest before a British Open on firm turf with an average of 251 yards.
5. Photos from modern hickory tournaments show participants dressed in period-style clothing. Is this required/encouraged/completely optional? How does it affect your performance?
In the tournaments that I have played, period dress is encouraged. I wear a long sleeved dress shirt and tie when I play in tournaments and either long pants or plus fours (knickers). Sometimes the tie comes off if it is hot. Personally I am not a fan of “dress-up” golf, but I go with the flow.
Back in the 1800’s, players wore tweed jackets for play, even in warm weather. For those with overly long backswings, a tweed jacket might be a remedy. At my age, it would be an encumbrance.
6. Give us a distance correlation between your modern equipment and your hickory equipment. What distance for holes/courses is optimal for playing hickory golf clubs in 2011?
A very good question. I can carry my modern graphite-shafted, titanium-headed driver about 225 to 230 yards, as measured both by eye sight at a driving range with good balls, and on a launch monitor. That would equate to a total drive of about 245 to 250, which is all that I can hope for in calm conditions, firm turf and warm temperatures. I can carry my hickory driver about 210. My hickory drives are lower, with a bit more run than with modern equipment. I would put my total driving distance at 225 – 230.
We tend to play courses in length of from 5800 to 6,000 yards for hickory competition, although we played 6400 yards in Tampa with the restricted distance ball. That course was a brute; the winning score was 79, and David Frost from the Senior Tour scored 81 and finished second.
At 5800 yards, I will hit anything from spoons (3-woods) to niblicks for second shots, so that distance is the most satisfying for me.
7. Some folks (me included) have inherited wooden-shafted clubs from their grandparents. Are these shafts dried-out kindling, prepped for breakage after one or two swings? Is there any way to oil them or bring them back to life?
All hickory is not created equal. Indeed there were different grades of hickory in use in the “Golden Days” of hickory, 1910 to 1930. If you find a good grade hickory shaft with no warping or cracks, it could play just fine, and many of the best players in the hickory games are using shafts that are 80 or so years old. Often, with old clubs, the heads must be re-attached and re-pinned. I believe that good hickory shafts are available for repairing old warped or cracked shafts.
Many hickory collectors particularly enjoy working on their grips and shafts.
8. Say you played hickory yesterday and are playing modern today (or vice-versa.) What transitions do you need to make (both ways) to play effectively?
When I first started playing hickory, I had to remember to swing easier with the wood shafts. However, as I have played more and more, I find that I can take a good cut at the ball now. I will say that a hard fade has become my go-to shot during play, because of the possibility of hitting a big hook when I try to play a draw. I tend to pay more attention to keeping my head steady, or in the same place, with hickory because of the possibility of hitting thin shots or skied shots, and even toed shots. Making contact on the sweet spot has become much more crucial – which has had a beneficial effect on my modern game.
I tend to play more running shots from the fairways, punch shots and ¾ swing shots with the hickory clubs. I remember hitting a really good drive in Birmingham to within 30-yards of a downhill par-4, and thinking “what do I do now?” for my second shot, as I was not confident with my pitching game. I took my 5-iron (modern 7-iron loft) and ran the ball up the fairway onto the green, and made a good 10-footer for birdie.
9. What can hickory golf teach a new generation of golfer, armed with space-age technology and schooled in “bash and search” strategy?
The interesting thing is that the best players play well with either equipment. I have a good friend that played mini-tours in Florida for many years. He decided to play in the pro tournament in Tampa the day before the event. Without any practice, he scored 83 and tied for 3rd. A couple of triples hurt him on the first 9, but he had things sorted out on the second nine. However, I will say that he plays a number of run-up shots with his 8-iron during a normal round of golf.
It is easier to “work” the ball in both directions with hickory, and play half shots as well. Chick Evans won both the US Open and the US Amateur in the same year with only 7 clubs; the tournament in Vermont is limited to 7 clubs. I can easily play just about all the shots I need with 10. So, one learns to be a bit more creative with hickory.
10. What question have we not asked regarding hickory clubs, that you feel is necessary to understanding this facet of golf? Pose it and answer it, please.
Are there any advantages to playing hickory golf?
Much as the wooden bat is still used in Major League Baseball to keep the old ballparks relevant (and to protect the lives of the pitchers), hickory is a great game for older, shorter golf courses that were built before the late 1920’s (when the steel shaft was introduced to golf). Hickory tends to be a walking game with a lightweight carry bag and 10 clubs, which I believe is a wonderful way to play.
Before 1930, ALL of the matches in the US Amateur were played at 36 holes. The best players preferred 36 holes, because at 18 holes they believed that a lesser-skilled, but “hot” golfer might take out a superior competitor. In addition, playing two rounds in one day during a stroke play tournament was common during the hickory era, and survived as the 36-hole final day at the US Open until the heat almost killed Ken Venturi at Congressional in 1964.
36 holes in tournament play is really only possible on shorter courses where the competitors can walk a course in under four hours. My conclusion is that if everyone played hickory golf, golf would take less time to play. And, of course, shorter courses with smaller greens require less fertilizer, chemicals and water, blah blah blah.
One last advantage to playing hickory is that your clubs become special, like friends. Unlike a matched set of irons with steel shafts, hickory clubs have personalities. Some like to be hit right to left, some like to go the other way. Some like to be hit softly, some demand a stronger swing. If you find a good driver or long iron, you need never worry that technology will make it obsolete. I found that I stopped chasing the final 5 yards with a new driver, and was happy when I found a driver that I could hit consistently pretty long and straight. Very good players probably end up with the best clubs; it’s just that they tend to stay in the bag longer!