Returning to Hickory Golf Out of Love for the Game

Deal W. Hudson

April 27, 2017

A film about the lives of Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom, opened recently in selected theaters nationwide. “Tommy’s Honour” is directed by Jason Connery, son of Sean Connery, who is easily the most avid golfer among the world’s celebrities. The cast included Peter Mullen as Old Tom, Jack Lowden as Young Tom, and Sam Neill as Alexander Boothby, captain of St. Andrews Golf Club. The film won Best Feature Film at the 2016 Scottish BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards.

According to reports, Sean Connery, now 86, stalked the entire shoot, having to use his powers of persuasion to force Jack Lowden to shoot a scene in the driving rain. Bowden, who is quite brilliant as Young Tom, was a complete non-golfer and had to learn not just the golf swing but the golf swing of the late 1800s, when the irons had no grooves, the shafts were hickory, and the balls made of gutta percha, called “the Gutty.”

Lowden’s swing, like that of Peter Mullen as Old Tom, was quite convincing even to a golf curmudgeon like myself. (Shelia LeBoeuf’s swing in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (2005) was a joke, as was Matt Damon’s in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000).) Both Bowden and Mullen worked with Jim Farmer, honorary professional at St. Andrews, who commented, “it actually made it easier that neither were golfers because there were no habits to break,”

But there is a much larger backstory to “Tommy’s Honour” that none of the media coverage has mentioned. Thousands of golfers around the world have put away their steel clubs in favor of playing with hickory shafted clubs, both those from the period of Old Tom Morris and the epoch of Bobby Jones Jr. who was 6-years-old when he won his first championship in 1908. Thus, hickory golf lasted from 1860 when hickory shafts were introduced, until 1935 when steel replaced them.

In the U.S., hickory golf began to develop in 1970 with the founding of the Golf Collector’s Society, where members would meet and play casual matches using their hickory equipment. Those matches grew into tournaments over the next thirty years, culminating in the founding of the Society of Hickory Golfers in 2000.

Within a few years, a split in the executive committee of the Society of Hickory Golf occurred because of an argument among hickory golfers about the use of replica, which had been pioneered by Tad Moore and later by Louisville Golf. The Society decided to allow the use of replica clubs and the modern golf balls, though the “mesh” ball introduced in the early 1900s in mandated for some events. Replicas of both the gutty and a variety of mesh balls are available from McIntyre Golf Company.

However, the tournaments sponsored by the British Golf Collector’s Society, founded in 1987, requires original equipment. Going even farther, the English Hickory Open requires all players wear jackets or suffer a 2-shot penalty! U.S. and UK golfers have started playing regularly in Scotland at the English Hickory Championship founded in 2005 by the late Lionel Freedman, a great ambassador of the game. An International Match was added in 2014, where various countries square off against each other. The 2017 World Hickory Open will be played at Scotland’s Kilspindie Golf Club in early October.

Speaking of other countries, in addition to the UK, there are now hickory golf societies in all the Scandinavian countries, with Sweden being the most active, and most European countries, lead by the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. Several years ago I played in the French Hickory Open at the great Morfontaine Golf Club outside of Paris and plan on playing this year in the German Hickory Open held south of Munich in late September.

There is one confusion about hickory golf which may have been unintentionally exacerbated by the film “Tommy’s Honour.” When I saw the movie with my son, he said, “Dad, they are not wearing plus fours!”

Up until the 20th century, a golfer wore long pants, with a jacket, vest, shirt, and tie. It wasn’t until after World War I that knickers or plus-fours (dropping 4-inches below the knee) came into style.

Thus, hickory event can be either pre-1900 or post-1900 hundred, each requiring different dress in addition to different clubs and balls. The 1920s style of play attracts the most adherents, but gutty tournaments have a very loyal following, such as the National Hickory Championship begun in 1998 by Peter Georgiady. I was initiated into gutty play by Georgiady last year, not expecting to like it much, but converted the moment I felt that gutty crunch off the smooth face of my mashie-niblick.

One thing hickory golfers learn is that golf is golf, regardless of the equipment, the ball, or the course: you have to swing well, think well, and hold up under pressure, if you want to win. But hickory golfers have rediscovered something more important than winning, that golf is a game, a game with a stick and a ball, and it is meant to be enjoyed. You won’t see much gnashing of teeth at a hickory golf tournament, especially with a wee nip of single-malt whiskey after suffering a double bogey.

Finally, it’s difficult for most guys to admit they like dressing up for anything. But I’ll confess, as will most of my fellow players, to enjoying the sartorial challenge of playing hickories. A group of golfers in plus-fours, argyle socks, two-tone shoes, white collared shirt, a tie, and a sleeveless v-neck sweater look a heck of a lot better than their steel counterparts in Bermuda shorts, ill-fitting golf shirts stretched over the bellies, and silly sockettes peeking out from above their golf shoes.

In fact, I was first drawn to hickories when I saw a picture of about a hundred guys, all in plus fours and ties, many smoking cigars, smiling into the camera on the putting green at Mid Pines Golf Club. I said to myself, “Why aren’t I in this pictures?”

I had been smoking cigars and wearing plus fours for decades on the golf course and, all the sudden, I realized I was not alone! In two weeks I acquired a set of hickory clubs, an all-leather bag, and played in my first hickory tournament at, yes, Mid Pines.

Some of my best friends I now count among those I have met through playing hickories. Hickory golfers, I have found, are a special bunch of mwen and women, representing every possible social strata and point of view, but brought together by their sheer love of the game.

Over the past five years, I’ve never looked back, my steel clubs rarely leave my trunk. I’ve rediscovered the game I learned to love as a teenager, embraced again the joy of playing the game rather than making my enjoyment depend on reaching a certain number.

And you know what? Playing hickories is a “game improvement” experience, not only will you learn to swing better, you will learn to let go and allow the game to become fun again.

If you are interested in exploring hickory golf, please visit the Society of Hickory Golfers website at hickorygolfers.com.

Read Newsmax: Returning to Hickory Golf Out of Love for the Game | Newsmax.com
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