Back in 2011, I wrote an article for the SoHG website on assembling a hickory club play set (SoHG Editor Jim Davies contributed to the article, which is still posted here). It has lots of tips about which clubs to buy and how to buy them. With the creation of this new Florida Hickory Golfers website, I thought the time was update those thoughts by answering the questions that we hear from almost every person just starting out in hickory golf. Enjoy. – RG
So these clubs have wooden shafts?
Yup. We play hickory clubs, which generally date from the late 1890s to 1935. Most people play clubs which which were manufactured between 1920 and 1935, the last era of hickory golf, sometimes called Modern Hickory or even Bobby Jones Golf.
BTW – these are solid wood shafts. They don’t have metal cores like Callaway hickory sticks. If your hickory shafts have metal cores, they are not legal for play in our world.
Are they originals?
There are a lot of original clubs in our bags, but we also play with replica clubs. Just a few companies worldwide still manufacture hickory clubs. You can find a list of them here. To be legal for play in our events, these manufacturers must design their replicas off the specs of original clubs.
How do I put together a set of hickory clubs?
Your initial goal is to assemble a hickory play set. The phrase play set is key. You’re going to play with these clubs. You need clubs that can take to the course and hit. You don’t want expensive collectables that are too valuable to swing and you don’t want unplayable wall hangers that produce nothing but frustration. A decent play set is the essential starting point to transforming your relationship to hickory golf into something enjoyable.
Although a modern set of golf clubs typically numbers 14, the basic hickory set has fewer. The late Ralph Livingston III, one of the pioneers of modern hickory golf (and creator of the excellent web resource hickorygolf.com), recommended the following six-clubs as a basic starter play set:
- Brassie (serves as both a driver and fairway wood, about 13-14 degrees loft)
- Mid-iron (for long iron shots, about 25-27 degrees loft)
- Mashie (for approach shots, about 34-36 degrees loft)
- Mashie Niblick (short approach and pitch shots, about 43-47 degrees loft)
- Niblick (lofted for bunker and pitch shots, 52 -57 degrees loft)
There are many more hickory clubs than what’s listed above and as you get further into the game, you’ll fill out your set. But those six clubs are pretty much all you need to get started. Many hickory players (especially those in Europe) carry just five or six clubs. A lot of folks currently playing carry no more than 10 clubs. Although some people in the hickory era carried 22 or more clubs, one doesn’t see that much anymore (although it is legal in our events).
Where do I get clubs?
If you’re in a hurry or aren’t interested in the unique weirdness that every original hickory club offers, your best bet is to buy a set of ready-to-play replicas. There are three modern makers of hickory clubs whose products are approved for play by the Society of Hickory Golfers – Louisville Golf (www.louisvillegolf.com), Tad Moore (www.tadmoore.com) and St. Andrews Golf (www.standrewsgolfco.com). All three turn out first-class products that are beautiful and very playable. Many modern hickory golfers who lack the desire or time to search for and restore old equipment embrace replica hickory sets. For others, a large part of the allure of hickory golf is the never ending search for original, playable clubs. There are basically three avenues to acquire original hickory clubs.
Topping the list is person to person — from a friend, at a tournament’s trade/swap meet, a Golf Collectors Society meeting or the rare shop that carries hickory clubs. Ideally, the seller is knowledgeable and can answer questions. Such clubs have often been tested and cleaned up to some degree, so they can be put directly in your bag and played. In the best situation, a seller might let the buyer take the club to the range and hit a few balls before cash is exchanged. If there’s a downside, it’s usually price – clubs purchased this way tend to be priced at a premium because they’ve been cleaned up and the seller knows what a club is worth. But for many, it’s no problem to pay a premium to get a good quality club that’s been vetted by a knowledgeable player.
One note – occasionally, a non-playing collector might sell clubs he’s never hit or vetted in the least. He might have bought some hickories at an estate sale, tripled the tag price and thrown them on a table at a show, hoping to make a few quick bucks. While it is possible to find a gem in the pile (especially if you know exactly what you’re looking for), experience has shown such clubs are often priced too high for the degree of uncertainty involved.
Non-golf vendors such as antique shops, flea markets and thrift stores – stores without any serious link to golf — often become outlets of first resort for hickory clubs. Upon someone’s death, the attic is cleaned out and that old bag of hickories makes its way to a shop where the sellers know nothing about golf. Often, these people only consider hickories for their decorative possibilities (where do you think those bars and pro shops get the wooden clubs hanging on their walls?).
Occasionally, deals can be found in these situations – particularly since the sellers can’t believe anyone would actually swing these clubs. More likely, the clubs will be overpriced and abused in some way (sloppily painted or chrome plated for instance). Don’t be surprised if you see common hickories in such shops marked as much as $75 or $100! Considering the amount of restoration typically needed, a common flea market club is rarely worth $20 – $5 is probably closer to the real value; unless you know for a fact you’re holding something truly special.
Nearly every hickory player will tell you horror stories about buying clubs on eBay. There are cut-down shafts, drivers with cracked heads, sellers who lie in the description or never ship the club. Yet, almost every hickory player buys clubs on eBay. Why? Because despite the occasional bad club and the rare evil seller, hundreds of hickories are bought and sold on eBay monthly and most transactions are satisfactory. If you’re smart and patient, you will get some great deals.
The primary downside of eBay is you don’t have the club in your hands to inspect. You’re relying on pictures (often blurry) and descriptions (often vague) created by people who often don’t know anything about the club they’re selling. Of course, when a seller doesn’t know what he has, tremendous deals for the buyer are possible. Even so, caution is essential. There is a long list of tips about buying hickories on eBay available in the original SOHG article about this subject.
Can I get some help?
Absolutely. As soon as you start playing with a local group – probably with loaner clubs – you’ll discover knowledgeable players who will be happy to give you loads of advice on hickory club purchases. They might even have a bag of clubs they’d be willing to let you try out and buy if you like. These are among the best sources for clubs, as the seller might be your partner at the next event. They want you to be hitting a good club. Money could be riding on it! So ask questions, get help and soon enough, you’ll find yourself with a bag of hickories — probably helping the new guy who’s asking How do I put together a set of clubs?
In the Florida Hickory Golfers, several players have bags of extra clubs they’d be happy to bring to an event in order to sell them. Just ask around at any event.
Are there special hickory balls?
Good question. The short answer is No. At the moment, most hickory events allow you to hit any USGA-approved ball. Hickory players tend to favor soft balls with low compression – the Wilson 50s and Duos, the Bridgestone E6 and B330s, the Maxfli Noodle, the Callaway Chromesoft and Supersoft. We could go on and on as there are a lot of choices. Some folks hit their ProV1s because that’s what they hit with their modern clubs and they’re not going to change. What everyone generally avoids are cheap, high compression balls (most Top Flite models, often dubbed range rocks) and balls designed for high speed swings and tour players (almost anything with an X or Extreme in the name).
There is an endless discussion about hickory events only using sanctioned reproduction hickory balls, which are modern, low compression golf balls are heated and then stamped with a traditional pattern. The McIntyre Golf Company is about the only company producing such balls in any quantity. They offer a variety of surface patterns authentic to various eras of hickory golf. Their lineup is below.
Some players complain that reproduction balls don’t go as far as their normal balls, but lots of folks figure that if you’re going to play hickory clubs, shouldn’t you be playing a hickory-period ball too? The debate rages on.