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Wooden Performance

This is not just any competition; it is a world championship: the World Hickory Open Championship

By: George Peper

Appeared in March 2007 LINKS

It’s 9:55 a.m. at Craigielaw Golf Club, near the village of Aberlady, East Lothian (about three miles from Muirfield). My tee time is in five minutes and I have just had a rather unsettling experience. The result is that I’m in stall number three of the men’s room, my head plunged six inches into the toilet.

Well, not my head actually, but the head of my putter, a Tom Stewart of St. Andrews smooth-face model, circa 1925. You see, the two of us are about to play in a competition and frankly, the putter has come down with a case of the shakes. Truth be told, I’m feeling a tad queasy myself. This, after all, is not just any competition; it is a world championship: the World Hickory Open Championship.

When I learned of the event, I had inquired about press credentials. Instead, I somehow had been drafted into the field—one of a dozen amateurs competing against 60 or so British professionals, including three-time Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher.

The three-day event began with a practice round followed by a pro-am. Now was the big moment, the championship itself—18 holes of medal play, the only stipulation being that competitors were limited to an arsenal of just five golf clubs, all of which had to be certified hickories, manufactured before 1935.

I had never hit a hickory club. In fact, the only time I had hefted one was when I attached a cheap replica of Calamity Jane to the wall of my den. But the tournament organizers assured me this was no problem—clubs would be provided—and sure enough, when I arrived for the practice round, there on the 1st tee was a taciturn fellow in plus-fours and floppy cap whose business card identified him as Chris “Hickory” Homer, club collector and restorer. Surrounding him were several dozen green canvas pencil bags, each of them bearing a vintage driver, mid-iron, mashie, niblick and putter.

I know the key to success is a slow, syrupy smooth swing, of which I’m congenitally incapable. However, the tournament brochure showed a fine practice range at Craigielaw. I figured a bucket of balls would sort me out. I might not summon the lazy grace of Bobby Jones, but I would surely temper the frenzied lurch of George Peper, at least enough to get the ball airborne.

“Sorry,” the official at the registration desk said, “I’m afraid you can’t practice with the hickories.”

“What?” I asked.

“Our range balls are all two-piece balls,” he said, “and when hickories hit them the shafts are liable to snap.”

Thus it was that my maiden hickory hack came on the 1st tee, where after a few familiarizing swishes with the driver, I stood to the ball, lightened my grip, softened my arms and did my best to summon the image of Ernie Els swinging a lob wedge while submerged in a swimming pool. The astonishing result was a low draw that finished in the center of the fairway, about 200 yards away.

Moments later, I opened the face of my flangeless, dot-punched niblick (which seemed to have the loft of about an 8-iron) and managed to flip the ball over a nest of bunkers to within 10 feet of the hole. Two putts later I was even par for hickories.

“This isn’t so tough,” I thought.

That was the last par I would make for three hours. I continued to drive the ball reasonably well, but somehow failed to divine the secret to clean contact with the irons. The rich variety of misses included a dozen or so tops, fats and push fades, three or four snap hooks, two shanks, and an air ball. Although set up short (barely 6,000 yards), the Craigielaw course had inverted-saucer greens that were literally repulsive, shrugging my off-target pitches into all manner of peril. (Trust me, when you’re against the face of a pot bunker and your most lofted iron is an 8, your two options are to laugh or cry.)

The biggest challenge was not the swing but the grip. The handles of old hickories are wrapped with rawhide that becomes slick with age. The only way I could assure that the club and I wouldn’t part company during the swing was to spit on my hands before each shot. It was a bit uncouth, I suppose, but also awe-inspiring to know I was imparting these venerable old implements with viscous coatings of my DNA.

The haplessness continued in the pro-am; I believe for the first time in my adult life, I failed 18 consecutive attempts to hit a green. The single moment of unmitigated bliss came at the 13th hole where, in an attempt to extricate my ball from a patch of dense rough, I snapped the shaft of my mashie, severing our relationship forever.

My team, however, finished tied for fifth place at seven under par thanks to Mike Stevens, a Tampa-based teaching pro who plays hickories exclusively, Mike Stewart, an affable two-handicap wine merchant from Edinburgh who had won the W.H.O.C. the previous year, and David Hamilton, a surgeon-turned-golf scribe whose obsession with vintage equipment is so complete that he produces his own gutta percha balls, sourcing the gummy goods from dental supply houses. (On the day we played he had broken the bridge of his eyeglasses and had mended them with a brown gob of gutta that gave him the appearance of having a third eye.)

My contribution to the team was zero, maybe less. So I arrived for my tee time in the championship proper brimming with inadequacy. Then as a cruel 11th-hour joke, when I soled the blade of my putter on the practice green, it emitted an audible clank.

“Stick it in a pail of water,” said Hickory Homer. “The wood has just contracted a little. Put the head in water for a couple of minutes and it’ll be fine.”

“Uh, my group’s next to play,” I said, “and the only pail I see is that little red one full of candy wrappers and cigarette butts.”

“OK,” said Homer, “then stick it in a toilet.”

“Right,” I said and hotfooted toward the clubhouse, consoled by the notion that, for the first time in my life I would have an excuse for putting like crap.

Surprisingly, I played No. 1 the way I had two days earlier—a fine drive, a flip wedge and two putts. Then, even more surprisingly, I parred the next hole, a 509-yard par 5, thanks to a long putt from off the green that stopped within a foot of the cup. At the 3rd, a par 3 named Coffin Lane for its row of deep greenside bunkers, I laid my tee shot to rest in casket number two, but managed to exhume and then sank a highly improbable 20-footer. Still even par.

Feeling suddenly confident, I let loose with a big drive at No. 4, another par 5, and was astonished to see it had bounced and rolled 280 yards. On the same hole, one of my playing companions drove it just over 300. (Hickories, I found, can be hit almost as long as today’s clubs, as long as they’re propelling today’s balls.) A skulled mid-iron followed by a fatted niblick left me short of the green, 60 feet away, but once again my potty-trained putter came to the rescue, leaving just a two-footer for par.

The putter saved me again at the next hole. Through the first five holes of the championship I was even par, two strokes ahead of my two playing partners—both of whom were pros—and within a stroke or two of the lead!

Then I found my game. Four bogeys took me to the turn in 39 and on the way home, a freshening wind hurtled my iron play from bad to hilariously bad while at the same moment the putter returned to the toilet. At the 18th I stunned all assembled with a 180-yard mid-iron that finished three feet from the hole, then stunned everyone again by leaving the putt several inches short. My inward nine was 46, the total 85, good for sole possession of 45th place.

The winner was a kid, 17-year-old Zack Saltman, the youngest of three golf-prodigy brothers. (His brother Lloyd was a member of the most recent Walker Cup team.) Playing to a handicap of plus four—while also wearing plus-fours—Zack tooled around in a jaw-dropping 67 strokes—one stroke per hole better than I had.

I consoled myself with the notion that Craigielaw was young Zack’s home course—on my St. Andrews turf, the gap wouldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 shots. Besides, victory had never been my goal. I had come for the experience—the thrill of playing with clubs crafted three quarters of a century ago. And a thrill it was—at least on those odd occasions when clubface and ball united in crisp correctness. Oh, today’s woods and irons are technological marvels, forgiving the worst of our sins, and I won’t be auctioning off my set on eBay anytime soon. But to hit a ball flush with an ancient hickory brings something special, a visceral joy that travels from the tips of your fingers to the center of your ball-striking soul. Golf doesn’t get any purer—or any more fun—than that.

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