Featured Interview with Ralph Livingston
Ralph Livingston III is a Commercial Advertising Photographer in Grand Rapids, MI. Livingston started playing pre-1935 Hickory golf clubs ten years ago and has played them exclusively for eight years. He finished last year as an 8 handicap with Hickories. He collects and plays Tom Stewart of St. Andrews golf clubs to experience early 20th century golf and is in the process of writing a book on Stewart. Livingston also collects and plays Robert White of St. Andrews golf clubs to experience 19th century golf.
As is evident in his Feature Interview, he enjoys researching hickory era ‘play’ through the use of the clubs and a collection of books from the era. Presently, Livingston is trying to gain the ‘big picture’ understanding of what golf was like by combining research into the implements, the balls, golf course architecture and agronomy. Livingston established an excellent web site www.hickorygolf.com as a place for people to find information about playing Hickory golf. Finally, he has furnished clubs for the play scenes in ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ and now for a new movie in production ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ from the book by Mark Frost.
He is a member at The Kingsley Club in northern Michigan.
1) The year is 1926. Golf architecture is at a zenith with world-class courses opening including Royal Melbourne West and Yale Golf Club. Please describe the clubs that would have been in Robert Tyre Jones’s golf bag at the time.
In the Jones books, he described the Woods he carried as being a Driver with a loft of 8 degrees, a Brassie with a loft of 11 degrees, and a Spoon with a loft of 17 degrees. The Irons were; A Driving Mashie, a No. 1-Iron, a No. 2-Iron (38 1/4′ long, 24 degrees loft), a Mashie Iron, a No. 4-Iron (36 3/8′ long, 31 degrees loft), and a Mashie (36 1/4′ long, 35 degrees loft), a Spade Mashie (36 1/4′, 39 degrees loft), Mashie Niblick (34 1/4′, 42 degrees loft), and a Niblick (35 1/4′, 50 degrees loft). Calamity Jane, his Putter, had a length of 33 1/4′ and about 9 degrees loft. The specs included above are from my documentation of the Grand Slam clubs in 2003. His set changed around between 1926 and 1930, the clubs that were common to both years I included those exact specs.
It is important to note the comparison of his clubs to modern clubs. The Driver was strong even by modern standards. Wood heads require 2 extra degrees of loft to achieve the same trajectory as a metal wood. The Driver would be equal to a 6 degree modern (metal) Driver.
The Brassie would probably equate to a weak Driver, and the Spoon would be a good match to a 4-Wood.
Driving Mashies are around 17-18 degrees and would be about a modern 2-Iron.
The 1-Iron would be about 20 degrees and match a 3-Iron.
The 2- Iron at 24 degrees would match a modern 4-Iron.
Mashie Irons are usually about 27 degrees and it would match to a 5-Iron.
The 4-Iron at 31 degrees matches to a 6-Iron.
The Mashie at 36 degrees is between the 7 and 8-Iron.
The Spade Mashie at 39 degrees is like a weak 8-Iron.
The Mashie Niblick at 42 degrees matches well to a modern 9-Iron, except for the short shaft.
The Niblick at 50 degrees falls about half way between a PW and SW.
2) What kind of golf ball did he use at that time? What were its playing characteristics?
I have not been able to find documentation on what ball Jones used in 1926. The 1930 ball is known, one of which is on display with Calamity Jane II at the USGA. It is very likely he played a version of the 1.62′ minimum diameter / 1.62 oz. maximum weight ball that was ruled legal by the USGA and the R&A. Any combination of lighter and/or larger was legal. The floaters available were usually 1.74’/1.55 oz. It wasn’t until 1931 that the USGA set the 1.68′ /1.55 oz. ball, later changed to 1.62 oz. It is unlikely he played an ‘off the shelf’ ball, or that any of the other top players of that day did. Jones mentions that he could contact the ball manufacturers and have the balls wound tighter if he needed more distance. There are quotes about the longer smaller balls being livelier and less easily controlled around the greens and that might have been a factor in what ball they were using dependent on a particular courses condition. In some of the advertising it is stated that the smaller balls are known to roll less than the larger balls. Prior to the early 1930’s, the roundness and balance of the balls was also a known problem. In 1930, one of the ball companies started advertising their balls showing an X-ray of how accurately the center mass was placed. There are stories that the top players would go and hit a batch of balls to find the ones that went straight and use those in tournaments.
Here are some quotes that should be of interest:
‘I had never played with a gutta-percha, or Gutty, of course, and never heard of it. The rubber-cored ball went on the market in 1902, the year I was born. The first ball I played with, after I began to notice that there were different kinds, was a Haskell Whiz; a fascinating ball marked with a little blue circle. I liked it a lot, and then, being fickle, I fancied the Dunlop Bramble and the Zome Zodiac, the latter name hypnotizing me… As late as 1916, the first year I played in a major championship, I was changing about frequently-sometimes in the same round. There was a big invitation tournament at East Lake, when it started raining the day before the tournament and rained steadily all through the event, and I was fond of the Black Circle ball then, a small and heavy and tightly wound ball with great distance (I believed), and against the wind on the wet turf I used the Black Circle, and with the wind I changed to a Black Domino; a big ball which sat up better in the soggy grass. I had ideas of golf ballistics in those days, or thought I had… Those old balls, with the fancy names! All in the discard long ago-but I loved them devotedly in turn.’
Down The Fairway, 1927 by Robert T. Jones Jr. and O.B. Keeler
‘The Haskell, or lively rubber ball, proved to be the most radical and revolutionary innovation the game has known. It was directly responsible for the prodigious growth of the game, which with the old Gutty was restricted in interest mainly to persons who were willing to study and work with it until they were at least decently proficient.
The fascination of the new ballistics was by no means restricted to players of golf. The manufacturers, after catching their breath, started out on an orgy of experimental production. They put practically everything inside the rubber strands from soft soap to some sort of acid that ruined the eyes of inquisitive children who cut into the missiles or bit them open. They made the balls smaller and smaller and wound the strands tighter and tighter, and Ted Ray and Abe Mitchell hit them farther and farther until finally the legislative powers took hold of the situation to prevent the standardized golf courses from being scrapped and made over on the Great Plains of the middle west or the Desert of Sahara; and for other purposes as the conventional legislative bills recite.’
The Bobby Jones’ Story, from the writings of O.B. Keeler by Grantland Rice
‘A little time ago the ruling authorities of the game found it advisable to put certain restrictions upon the form of the ball, which was tending to become gradually heavier and smaller and so powerful in the hands of the best players as to upset the design of many courses. They laid down that, ‘The weight of the ball shall not be greater than 1.62 oz. avoirdupois, and the size not less than 1.62 ins. in diameter’.
(This is in reference to the British Ball)
The Foundations of Golf, 1925, J.S.K. Smith & B.S. Weastell
‘Yet, even the rubber-cored ball has been constantly improved throughout the years. We have learned more and more about various things, including methods of construction, and even respecting the efficiency of various kinds of markings. Perhaps the greatest progress has been made in producing balls of greater uniformity. When you consider that a difference of five yards in the driving power of two different balls may make the difference between having a putt for a birdie and playing the next shot out of the bunker, the importance of this may be appreciated.’
Golf Is My Game, Robert T. Jones Jr.
‘The longest courses these days are about 6800 yards in length, and it is impossible to foresee what the ultimate limits are to be. If each year the manufacturers add length to the ball, it will be necessary, if we wish to maintain a championship standard, to provide for extending our courses indefinitely.’
The Links, 1926, Robert Hunter
‘The new standard Golf Ball has eliminated from the top-notch ranks the mechanical golfer of the past and the skilled shot maker will now reap his deserved reward. The game was becoming too stereotyped with the old ball. The former ball did not place enough of a premium on a well-hit shot. The sluggers were getting such distances off the tee that they had nothing but easy pitches for second shots. Once they perfected this one method of approach, they scored consistently well. With the present ball, the skilled shot maker can play golfers who have the ability to hit long tee shots and then hit their next shot by merely judging the distance and using the required club. I have seen most of the top ranked golfers at Pinehurst this winter, and the ones who are winning titles now are adjusting their game to fit the changing conditions. On the other hand, some of the amateurs who formerly played in the 70’s at Pinehurst were in the 80’s this winter because they really were not top-notch golfers and the new ball showed up their deficiencies. —The larger ball also shows up the poor putter. The old ball could be cut or stabbed without affecting its course, and if it was started on line it usually dropped. The new ball must be stroked perfectly to get results. — The golfer with one shot in his bag will get nowhere in the future.’
Golf Has Never Failed Me, Donald Ross
‘When one watches the Titans at play, their tremendous drives often make their seconds absurdly easy. Holes of 440 yards are sometimes reduced to the drive-and-pitch variety, and their accuracy is often so machine-like that the game seems silly. But such golf is much more frequently seen inland than by the sea.’
The Links, Robert Hunter
‘I shot a 92, I remember, using a big, fat Glory Dimple. Even then I had ideas about golf balls, and I never have quite got over the notion that until a golfer can shoot consistently at 90 or better he will have more success with a larger and lighter ball than with the small, heavy, high-powered projectile used by the experts. The big ball sits up better and gets away more readily from a not quite exact and firm impact. It is much easier to pitch, and if it does not yield quite as much range to the occasional crisp, hard punch achieved by the duffer, it should be remembered that most of the duffer’s punches are neither crisp nor hard, but punches with the power put in too early, or too late, or cutting somewhat across the line of play. To all such efforts the larger, lighter ball is more sympathetic and responsive.’
The Autobiography of An Average Golfer, O.B. Keeler, published in 1925
3) How was golf viewed at that time in the United States?
We have to remember that in 1926, the game of golf was still relatively new in the US. There was a huge influx of people coming into the game. Beginners were a far larger proportion of the players than exists today and not all the Golf Clubs starting up would want to have a Championship course designed to deal with the championship balls. The majority of the amateurs would have played with the lighter and/or larger balls and they were obviously not capable of playing courses of the championship length and difficulties.
The term ‘Championship Course’ had meaning in that era. Donald Ross talked about a request for a Businessman’s Course versus a Professional Course. It appears the Golf Clubs were actually requesting courses designed within the capabilities of their members as opposed to the modern standard of generically creating (so called) ‘championship’ courses. When being critical of the various architect’s efforts of the Golden Era we need to analysis the individual courses and maybe only critic the ones obviously designed for Championship play. There had to be compromises when they did the Businessman’s Course.
‘There are, to be sure, many golf-clubs which could afford to have a Pine Valley, a Myopia, a National Links, or a Lido, and yet which would decline any one of them as a gift. They want an easy course as free as possible from hazards.’
The Links, Robert Hunter
4) Please provide a brief history on shafts.
Until steel shafts became legal in 1929, the average golfer had a hard time getting good clubs. There were four grades of shafts, rated G, O, L, and F. G was best, F was lowest. The average shaft in an American made club probably rated in the L’s and encompassed both O’s and F’s, but virtually never a G, except when a club was made for a top player. Most of the best hickory apparently went to the Scottish professionals both abroad and in the U.S. You consistently see clubs coming from the UK and Britain having far superior shafts to those used in the American made clubs. The top Scottish club makers appear to have always used G or very good O shafts. The American club pros would hold out their absolute best shafts for their top players, and these were used in Scottish heads they special ordered. Within the G’s, probably 10 percent of those are a grade better than the rest, and I place them in their own group. These shafts are found in the clubs of the very top players. Unlike the stereotypical view of what describes a hickory shaft, these shafts are in the X flex range of a steel shaft and have a torque measurement that is comparable. Where a steel shaft X shaft for an Iron might frequency at 300cpm, these hickory shafts have frequency specs in the mid 300’s, usually 50-70 cpm higher then the steel. The equivalent shaft for a Wood club has a cpm in the mid to upper 200’s, more closely matching the frequency of a modern shaft. On a Deflection Board they still come in as standard R, S, and X but there is something else going on with the wood vibrating at a much higher frequency. This might contribute to the extra feel that is attributed to them. Steel shafts are blamed with the explosion in the number of clubs players started carrying. With the significant reduction of ‘feel’ in the steel shafts, players became less versatile in using their clubs for multiple shots.
Soft flex shafts were intentionally used in the 19th Century to help the lesser player get the Gutty ball up in the air. The use of lower quality, flexible shafts in the 20th Century probably worked out well for the beginner and lesser players of that era too. It should be noted that Bobby Jones used a very flexible shaft that was putter length, 34.25′, in his Mashie Niblick. This club was probably used almost exclusively as a Pitching and Chipping club. The soft flex gave some extra loft on the shots for extra stopping power.
5) How far could Jones carry his driver at that time? How much roll could he typically expect?
At the fourteenth hole at Oakland Hills in Detroit, Jones describes this shot in his book, Down The Fairway, ‘I remember that at the eleventh hole Charlie Hall, the famous Birmingham slugger, with whom I was paired, got away a drive of 360 yards and I nearly matched it with one of 340 yards; the two pokes aggregated just 700 yards. And I got a longer one, potentially, at the fourteenth hole of the same round, where the drive goes straight against a sharply ascending hillside leading up to the green, 340 yards away. With no help whatever in roll, my shot there was just off the corner of the green. I think that is the longest ball I ever hit, for carry, though some have traveled a good deal farther before they stopped rolling. The following quote is kind of interesting. The errors being that the ball was not ‘loosely wound’ and was one of the small, heavy British balls, along with the probability that many of those ‘drives’ were done with either his 1-Iron, Driving Mashie, or Brassie to keep it in play.
‘What was surprising was Jones’ length off the tee. He was hitting a loosely wound ball with a hickory-shafted club, and yet his drives consistently reached a distance of 270 yards. Perhaps the course was exceptionally dry in June of 1926.’
Lewis H. Lapham, T&L GOlf.com, playing against Bobby Jones’ card of June 16, 1926 at Sunningdale, where he qualified that day for the British Open with a score of 66.
6) What were the dominant factors that allowed him to hit it that prodigious a length?
Not unlike today, it had to be the ball.
7) How far could Jones carry his Mashie?
From his book, Down The Fairway, Jones describes a shot at the tenth hole at The Scioto National Championship of 1926. The distance to the green was 175 yards, and using the Mashie he hit the ball out of deep rough and over a tall tree to land at the far edge of the green. Jones’ Mashie had a length of 36 1/4′, and a loft of 35 degrees.
8) What modern club has a similar amount of loft?
It depends on the brand of clubs you compare against. There are still no standards for clubs and manufacturers are still bumping up the lofts and lengths so players can hit their 7-Iron 175 yards like the pros. They have pretty much de-lofted the 1 and 2 Irons out of existence, and in some of the Graphite shafted sets it looks like the 3 and 4 Iron might go. To answer the question, it should match in performance to something between and 7 and 8 Iron when compared against modern steel shafted forged blade clubs. What is interesting is that Jones’ Mashie is 1/2 inch shorter than most other Mashies of the same loft, as were most all of his other clubs. The Mashie Niblick is a real Mongrel, around 2 inches shorter than the average.
The problem with comparing hickories to graphite is the extra shaft length required to make graphite shafted clubs weigh in properly. The loft and length relationships can’t be matched up because the graphite shafts need to be cut longer to have the club feel right with adequate swing weight. I think I remember that for every 1/2 inch of length you gain 5 yards and the graphite Iron sets are setup with as much as an extra inch in the standard sets.
9) How far could Jones carry his Niblick?
If his typical pitch swing was about 3/4 strength it could be expected he was capable of a shot of around 120 yards. The distance with my 51 degree Niblick with a full swing and using a Pro V1 is 105-110 yards.
‘Speaking of the Niblick, I would like to put in a word for this much-misunderstood club. Most players regard the Niblick as purely a trouble club, for blasting shots out of the sand and for hacking the ball out of the deep rough and from other horrid places. But to me the Niblick is far more than a mere excavator. It is a trusty and effective pitching club from the fairway, and when I am confronted with a pitch up to 90 or 100 yards which must stop short on landing, instead of trying the cut-shot with a Mashie-Niblick, I like to play a plain straightforward pitch with the Niblick, not bothering about any cut-the added loft of the Niblick ‘s blade takes care of the stoppage automatically. It is a grand pitching club, within its rather limited range; for me, at any rate.’
Bobby Jones, Down The Fairway
10) Did Jones specifically mention swinging at Ã‚¾ strength?
There are a number of statements from him and the other players about the clubs and how they are swung. Most every golf instructional from the era discusses it. Basically, the Mashie and all clubs down through the Niblick (7-Iron through Lob) were used at 1/2 and 3/4 swings for the majority of shots and this group was described as Pitching clubs. The clubs above the Mashie were described as Approaching clubs (6-Iron on up). Jones talks about changing his mind on the Mashie and was starting to view it as a full swing Approaching club. Many of the Iron sets with 9 or more clubs produced after the mid 1920’s had the 4-Iron with virtually identical specs as the Mashie. The Iron head shape is easier to make a full swing with than the Mashie head shape. The Mashie, Spade Mashie, Mashie Niblick and Niblicks are all a little awkward at a full swing but feel well balanced with a partial swing.
11) How effective were Sand Irons at the time?
The Sand Wedge was invented and patented by Edwin Kerr MacClain in 1928, so at this time in 1926 players were using Niblicks to get out of the bunkers. Horton Smith purchased the rights to this club and named it the Hagen Sand Wedge after Walter Hagen. Bobby Jones added this club to his arsenal and used it successfully in his quest to win the British Open in 1930. Gene Sarazan popularized the sand wedge when he designed (and played) his own model for the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. The Hagen Concave Wedge was declared illegal by the USGA in 1931, and Sarazan’s design came in afterwards to fill the void. There are a handful of other makers that had a Sand Iron available in the late 1920’s and 1930’s; they are just surprisingly scarce. A standard Niblick with a sole of 3/4 inch or wider, is very effective at hitting a ball out of a bunker. It just takes some practice and understanding that the face needs to be laid back wide open so that the sole will act like a wedge and bounce down through the sand like a sand wedge does splashing the ball out with good control.
‘There are two things to consider in playing from a sand trap, and the most important of these is a relaxed grip with loose wrists. ….. The other essential is the opening of the face of the Niblick, thus permitting the club to cut in under the ball. …. From a deep trap you explode the ball out as the best means of extracting it.’ (Pat Doyle, golf professional at Myopia Hunt)
‘One day while I was discussing this super shot with Freddie, he explained to me his success was due principally to the fact that he laid the club face back so far that it was actually pointing to the sky. ‘But this is not all there is to it, another very important thing is to aim to the left of the hole, as we must, of course, play this shot from the outside to the inside, or from right to left. I don’t grip the club tightly with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, so my sand trap shot is almost entirely a left-handed one. … I get a lot of back spin on this shot and by playing it freely make the little pellet travel straight for the pin, stopping abruptly and frequently bouncing back a foot or two, curling in toward the hole.’ (Freddie McLeod, US Open winner in 1908 at Myopia Hunt)
Great Golfers in the Making, H. B. Martin
12) What was a typical green speed at the time at some of the finest courses in the United States?
It wasn’t until 1935 that Edward Stimpson, the Massachusetts Amateur Champion developed the Stimpmeter, still used by the USGA today. There is not much evidence that green speed was a concern before then. Prior to the late 1930’s, words like true, smooth, and fine were used, with uneven or bumpy describing undesirable greens. Today we would consider all of the greens slow and uneven. James Braid often used his Cleek on the putting green. Many of the early putters had heavier, mallet type heads that gave a solid strike on the uneven surfaces.
Turf Management, 1997, Jay S Dobson
My guess would be if Stimpson felt he needed to create a device in 1935 to measure green speeds, the awareness of it must have started much earlier. With the introduction of Bent grass, did that contribute to the ability to mow lower? I understand they were mowing and rolling greens in the mid-teens for tournaments with statements about them being double rolled. It would be interesting to do the research to timeline the mower heights and maybe test what the speed effects were of rolling the greens.
Creeping bent grass putting greens were first planted at East Potomac Park, Washington D.C. in 1918. In the fall of 1922, bent grass runners were available commercially for the first time, and golf clubs established small bent nurseries. Commercial concerns with an interest in experimenting with velvet bent grass and carpet bent grass, established larger nurseries, ensuring the future of the vegetative methods developed in these early days. (From the USGA’s ‘Bulletin of Green Section of the Vegetative Planting of Bent Grasses: An Historical Sketch’, K.A. Oakley)
‘The hole was a pitch of 125 yards to an ample green below the level of the tee and sloping rather steeply to face the shot. It had rained the day before, and the green had been rolled that morning, and the sun had come out and dried it to a fine crust. Both of us reached and held the green from the tee and the major was quite close, with my ball well below the cup. I putted up near the hole, and the ball rolled back about a dozen feet. I putted again. And again. And again. The ball continued to go up and look at the hole and roll back. It appeared there was only one way for me to get inside the major’s position, and that was to sink the putt. On the seventh attempt I did this, for a cagey 8.’ (Brookhaven, 1914)
The Autobiography of An Average Golfer, O.B. Keeler, published in 1925
According to Harry Vardon, American green-keepers are not cutting the greens so close as we do on this side. There is water laid on at most of their courses, and so they have what would be termed slow greens. Naturally these are easier to putt on than fast ones. These slow greens are not going to be good for American golfers in their invasions of our courses, as coming off slow greens on to fast ones is the very deuce; but of course in America there has to be a good thick bottom on the putting greens for fear of their being burned up by the heat. There is nothing that scares a good putter more than seaside greens that have lost all trace of their natural colour, where you can see the hole but no line to it, and the ground is polished with the sliding of those who have gone before.
Present Day Golf, George Duncan, first published 1921
13) What was the status of irrigation at that time with courses in the United States?
It is important to follow up on the distinction between the ‘Championship Courses’ and the Sporty Courses of the era. It would be very surprising if the Championship Courses designed by any ‘Name’ architect would have been constructed without irrigation in the US. The majority of the courses tournaments would have been held at would have had full irrigation. I think many golf courses can get a better idea of what their course had in irrigation by checking their historical records for construction expenditure. In the United States, a full irrigation system was estimated by Alistair MacKenzie (The Spirit of St Andrews) to cost $10,000 out of a $30,000 construction budget. This was assuming that abundant water was available.
The USGA was regularly publishing articles about irrigation starting around 1921. In 1928 they published an article from a club that lacked an irrigation system, the tone being this was an increasingly rare situation amongst the USGA courses.
‘Neither is it possible to deny that over the longer range there has been a steady improvement in the conditioning of our better golf courses. When I first played in England at Hoylake in 1921, the country was in the grip of a record-breaking drought and there existed no means of applying artificial watering. Many of the greens, notably the sixteenth and eighteenth, were impossible to hold, even with the shortest pitch. Nowadays, it can be counted on that any course where a big championship is played has means of artificial watering from tee to green throughout.’
Bobby Jones, Golf Is My Game
The L.R. Nelson Manufacturing Corporation patented a brass garden hose coupling device in 1904 and expanded its product line to include brass irrigation sprinklers by 1911.
Although golf putting greens were being hand watered, sometime between 1907 and 1912, the importance of irrigation for golf courses in the U.S. (as well as the world) became apparent.
Sometime before World War I, Mr. W. Van E. Thompson created what might have been the first large area rotating sprinkler head mounted on a roller base, with water supplied by a hose, for use on golf tees, greens, and fairways. In 1912, Pebble Beach Golf Club became the first U.S. golf course to use a hose-less (underground) irrigation system using Mr. W. A. Buchner’s sprinklers, a slow-rotating, hose-less sprinkler irrigation system. The revolving arm roller sprinkler was being used on golf greens and at the Los Angeles CC in 1918. This was also one of the first clubs to install pipe and quick-coupler valves around WW I.
‘I remember that on the five-hundred-yard home hole, both Britons (Harry Vardon & Ted Ray) took Cleeks on the tee to keep out of the lake at the bottom of the hill, two hundred and sixty yards away, and then amazingly fired cleek shots to the green for their seconds. In all their seventy-two holes of play in Atlanta, I saw a Brassie used in the fairway once, by Harry Vardon on the seventh hole at Brookhaven. This I regarded as miraculous, gauged by the regularity with which everybody of my acquaintance employed the wood through the fairway. I realize now that the course was dry and fast- Ëœiron turf,’ Ray called it- and the powerful Britons simply were eating it up with their irons after long drives.’ (Eastlake, 1913)
The Autobiography of An Average Golfer, O.B. Keeler, published in 1925
14) When and why did you switch to playing with hickory clubs?
It was about 12 years ago that I found my first hickory club; a Tom Stewart made Putter. It drove me to start researching the clubs of that era and to start trying to find more clubs. I eventually managed to assemble what I thought was a complete set with all the clubs restored as best as I knew at the time and went off to my first Golf Collectors meeting. That first one was a scramble and everyone on the team could share out of each other’s bags. A bunch of the guys had been playing in these for a couple of years and were greatly surprised to feel what a restored club felt like. Typically, they would grab a handful of clubs from out of the basement and just play with whatever they happened to grab. Score was usually kept by how many clubs were broken during the course of the day. Over the next two years I divided my play between the hickories and moderns, with the hickories taking an ever-increasing percentage of the available rounds each month. That second year I nearly had a sub-par round with the hickories (gassed on the last hole), but followed it with a sub-par round with them. I had not sniffed a par round with the moderns in months so I took that as a clue that hickories were the way to go and have only played with the hickories since then. I have hit some modern clubs since then, but have not played a round of golf with them. I do use a 1920’s Tom Stewart steel shaft converted Mid-Iron as my driving range club because the range balls are too harsh on the hickory shafts.
15) What is the purpose of your website www.hickorygolf.com?
When I started researching the clubs, the documentation I had done on the ones I owned showed me the wealth of misinformation that existed about the play characteristics of the clubs. After a few years of restoring them for play, all the while experimenting with new techniques, it made sense to put something down on paper. Originally I was going to do a book but decided to put it on the web to make the information more readily available. It has been fun to watch the hickory events go from being ‘hackers’ to real tournaments as more of the participants started restoring their own clubs and learned what the clubs were really designed to do. Most all of the semi-regular hickory players are shooting within 4-5 strokes of their regular handicaps and winning scores started to close in on scratch when the courses ware set-up between 6200- 6500 yards.
16) Are there different playing characteristics with a hickory shaft than a modern day steel one? What are they?
It is interesting to note that steel shafts were legalized by the USGA in 1924, and the R&A in 1929, but few of the top players made the change until some time after the R&A legalized them. Many still playing them into the mid-1930’s. Jones didn’t replace his hickories until some time after he retired in 1931. The film series he did in Hollywood helped show his transition from hickory to steel. In the films on the Niblick and Mashie Niblick he was still using hickory shafts but later you could see he was using steel shafted Irons but again still using hickory shafted woods. This is also unusual as common thought is the Woods were replaced with steel shafted versions but the players used the Hickory shafts in the Irons for the enhanced feel. With regards to Jones, it might have had something to do with the relationship he had with Spalding.
17) From 1926 until now, what have been the three biggest changes in technology?
a) Graphite shafts (ultra light) – The ability to build a lightweight club with a much longer shaft for increased club head speed. Hickory shafts and steel shafts are heavy enough to limit most players to 120 mph swing speed and also limit the length of the Shaft. There were some hickory shaft Drivers produced with up to 50 inch and some pros were using them effectively. They would be very difficult to swing and would probably have felt like one of those two pound warm up clubs. They couldn’t reduce the weight of the heads to compensate for the added swing weight, as the heads needed the mass to move the ball and for basic strength.
b) Golf Balls-consistency of construction, dimple aerodynamics and cover materials combine to make balls that are far more consistent in their performance. Also, the computer analyzing of spin rates to match balls to the player.
c) Player Conditioning- Ever since the magazines documented and published John Daly’s club head speeds, players have jumped on the bandwagon to gain more club head speed. Most notably, players don’t drink and party like was done in the 1920’s. And especially not the drinking during a tournament round of golf that regular took place.
18) Are there any events for admirers of hickory golf to gather for a game?
This is a sampling of some U.S. and International events.
May 26-29 -Scottish Hickory, Gullane, Scotland
June 12-16 – Stockholm Hickory Week, Sweden
June 18-19 – GCS Region 2 Trade Fair and Hickory Tournament, Gettysburg, PA
June 24-26 – The Hickory Open at the Kingsley Club, Kingsley, Michigan
July 9 – The Region 7 ‘Heart of America’ Hickory Championship and Golf Show, Eagle, Nebraska
July 22-23 – The Adirondack Hickory Open, Bluff Point Golf Course, Plattsburg, New York
July 30-Aug 1 – National Hickory Championship, Oakhurst Links, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
August 25-27 – 5th Annual Canadian Open Hickory Championship, Legends Golf and CC, Edmonton
September 5 – Washington State Hickory Championship, West Seattle Golf Club,
Sept. 17-19 – Charles Blair Macdonald Tourney 2004, Niagara on the Lake Golf Club
October 13-16 – The 34th GCS Annual Meeting & Trade Show, St. Charles, Illinois
November 12-14 – Mid Pines Hickory Open Championship at Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club, Southern Pines, North Carolina (800.323.2114)
November 18-20 – Region 9 Hickory Tournament and Trade Show, Ventura, California
19) What kind of ball do people use at such tournaments? Is the next step to try and play with balls that reproduce the playing attributes of balls pre-1935?
The current balls are probably very close to the better balls the pro were playing in the late 1920’s, but are not quite as long as the hottest ball available. I play a Pro V1, as do many others, and I think it is probably reasonably close. What it might lack in distance it makes up for in accuracy from production consistency. You get the sense of feel they talked about as you can feel the ball on the face. The Titelist Balata that has now gone away was closer to the proper feel. All of the hard balls available are very wrong for these clubs. Range balls can be deadly to them cutting the life of the club in half, or less.
20) How is the best way for someone to get started playing with hickories? What would constitute a decent starter set? How much in general are we talking about?
The best way is to go to one of the Golf Collector Society meetings or to one of the hickory tournaments and be able to look through the clubs, hand selecting out what appeals to you. Because of a number of factors including, deterioration from the years, poor construction, poor design, and the growth of the game at that time was so fast most of the people being brought in to make clubs never had enough experience, only 1 in 20 clubs you come across is going to make an acceptable player. The Woods are probably more like 1 in 50 and a great player is 1 in 250. Buying off of e-Bay is a total crapshoot if you aren’t familiar with the clubs, their makers and there average production quality. On my site I list some club dealers that are good players and are familiar with the quality of clubs required for play, as opposed to collecting. If you can’t make it to a show, these people can get you started properly. Getting together a set that fits you and helps you achieve the possibility of shooting scores within 4-5 strokes of your handicap will take an investment in time. Getting hands-on at a show will expedite achieving the set you want but you also just have to get experience playing them and learning what you like in a club. Putters and Woods are especially no different from today. They are such personal preference clubs they have to be selected by the user. The Irons are more forgiving, to a degree. The K-mart clubs of that era are horrible clubs to experience as compared to today, where the K-mart clubs are probably made by the same Chinese company that makes the Callaway’s. All the top quality clubs of that day were special ordered and fitted to the player, so you have to go through these clubs and find ones that were made for a player with similar characteristics to your own. It is very important to get the shaft lengths, the grip size and the lie angles all redone to fit you.
The clubs you can get, unless you make arrangements, will not have been restored for play. There are a few people around doing good play restorations on the clubs. I describe on my site how you can do it yourself, but if you are not handy you will need to hire out the work. These are not unlike finding a 70-year-old car in an old barn and wanting to drive it. They have to be restored to function anything like they originally did.
Mostly you need to get a starter set to play around with for a while to get familiar with the clubs. I would suggest a Brassie (modern 3-wood), Driving Iron or 1-Iron (modern 3 Iron), Mid-Iron or 2-Iron (modern 4-Iron), a Jigger or 3-Iron (5-6 Iron), Mashie (7-8 Iron), Mashie Niblick (9-PW), a fairly broad soled Niblick in the 52 degree range, and of course a Putter. These should cover about 90% of your shots and you can fill in the gaps later and replace the initial group of clubs with others you think will better fit you.
Potentially playable un-restored Iron clubs start at around $30 each. Woods start at about $50 each, but I wouldn’t buy one for less then $75 these days. All of them can go into the $150-500 each range depending on how badly you want to use something that is scarce or rare. There are some collectors with accumulations of clubs that number in the five figures and they are interested in selling various sized sets. The interest in this sport has grown significantly in recent years and the playable clubs are going up steadily in price against the demand.