The Cult of Hickory - MASSGOLF

The Cult of Hickory: traveling through time at the Country Club of GReenfield

By: Rich Rapp

A note from the author: As a relative newcomer to the team at Mass Golf, I am delighted by the opportunity to explore the boundless history and culture of golf in the Commonwealth. I intend to scour the state, from the top of the Berkshires to the shores of Cape Cod, in an effort to catalog the myriad ways golfers engage with the game, past and present.

Driving up a leafy hill to the County Club of Greenfield’s clubhouse, I was confronted with a very conspicuous swarm of men in plus fours and flat caps around the practice green. Nary a jogger or quarter zip in the bunch; neck ties, bowties, suspenders, and argyle were all in vogue in 2023, which makes sense, considering this was the site of the Massachusetts Hickory Open hosted by the Society of Hickory Golfers.

As I walked up to the table, completely out of place in shorts and a baseball cap, my host for the day (we’ll call him Hickory Bill), said, “Ah, yes. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Was I unwittingly being indoctrinated into a cult? Frankly, writing this days later, a hickory club leaning against my desk, I am beginning to realize I very well may have been.

Upon checking in, I quickly found that though there was an element of cosplay going on, competitive golf would be played—albeit with century old technology. Any concerns about dipping a toe into this niche group proved unnecessary. For a society with the lofty motto: “Preserving the Traditions of the Game,” the participants were rather unpretentious. The Massachusetts Hickory Open was truly open to anyone with $55 and a curious mind.

Hickory Bill scoping out the 8th fairway (Mass Golf)

Hickory Bill handed me a flat cap, swore that though he’d worn it once, he’d had his wife wash it, and marched me over to his car. His trunk was replete with about 60 hickory shafted clubs–a jangling heap of niblicks, mashies, brassies, and putters.

From an aesthetics perspective, it’s easy to understand how collecting hickories could quickly blur the line between hobby and obsession. The clubs are striking, with a smooth wood grained shaft that leads to a head that feels substantial and hand forged. Many of the irons are stamped with mysterious looking symbols, also known as cleekmarks, that can send you down a Da Vinci Code level research rabbit hole.

Hickory Bill lent me what he called his playing set, which are modern reproductions. Reproduction sets can cost just as much as a modern set of clubs and the irons didn’t feel all that different from contemporary blades. The Tad Moore Victor irons I was gaming run $1,200 for a 3-8 set and are modeled on the Spalding J Victor East Bobby Jones vintage.  The 56° Tad Moore “Howitzer” niblick goes for $225—considerably more than the Titleist Vokey wedges I normally play.

As I marveled at what will surely stand as the coolest rental set I will ever use, Hickory Bill asked why I decided to write about the event. “A paper down in Philadelphia wrote about us when we played at the Cricket Club. Called us the ‘Links Luddites,’” he said with a bemused smile.

Cute as the alliteration may be, I would quibble with the characterization of this group as luddites. Their ethos is less the renunciation of modern technology, and more a reverence for the early tools of the game. Several players opted to ride in motorized carts, their baggy knickers fluttering in the breeze, and we played with modern golf balls, so it’s not as though everything had to be period specific.

Rakishly charming, Hickory Bill was the perfect character to guide me into this new, old world. When I shook his hand, I half expected to be transported to 1920 like some sort of Field of Dreams time warp. He grew up at the Country Club of Greenfield and his grandfather helped build the original clubhouse in 1905, so I suspect that when he’s strolling the fairways there, he is actually experiencing temporality in layers of memory, rather than a linear plotting of 18 holes.

The par-5 14th is defined by a railroad track that lines the left side of the hole. Hickory Bill said that when he was a kid, long, slow freight trains frequently chugged by on those rails. If the timing was right, after he hit his drive, he would hop on the train and ride it up to his ball. He had mentioned that the head pro was like a babysitter for him and his siblings back then, but I’m guessing the pro wasn’t privy to this mischievous use of transportation. As he told the story, his gaze steadily traced the line of railroad tracks, and I’d bet he was picturing those old train cars.

The 15th at the Country Club of Greenfield (Mass Golf)

In a way, the entire Society of Hickory Golfers is about playfully doubling back on the expected evolution of the game and reveling in the opportunity to overlay different eras of golf. The essence of the sport hasn’t change much—get this ball in that hole in as few strokes as you can. Just because big manufacturers are continuously pressing forward to outdo their previous equipment innovations, doesn’t mean that we need to keep pace to compete and enjoy the game.

Some of the great golf courses in the world are being restored to their original designs, using modern machinery to strip the added features that were lauded as progressive, but in retrospect, may have been excessive. Scaled back equipment is another way to unlock the original intent of the Golden Age golf course architects. Several of the people I spoke to at the event peppered the names of those architects into conversation, so there’s evidently a connection to that era of golf that goes beyond the equipment and attire.

As for the round itself, the equipment took a bit of getting used to, but not to the extent I expected. When I asked for any hickory specific advice on the first tee, Hickory Bill said, “when it’s into the wind, swing easy. When it’s downwind, swing easy.”

Those words instilled a defensive mindset, which proved unnecessary. Easy needn’t mean passive. This wasn’t a Revolutionary War reenactment, firing blanks from old muskets. These clubs were built to be hit.

The first tee shot I pured sent shockwaves through my body—not the physical reverberation of creaky clubs, rather rapturous glee as the ball compressed into the face of the driver, before it soared off towards the green Western Massachusetts mountains.

Yes, blasting a modern driver can provide a thrill. But this felt like barreling up a baseball with a wood bat—the feedback is sweet and instantaneous. More crackling than thunderous.

As any golfer will tell you, the game is an insatiable pursuit of the next well struck shot. Hickory or not, this would be a round like every other: tantalizing peaks and expletive laced valleys. Though Hickory Bill and my other playing partner Doug were encouraging to this wood wielding rookie, there was not a lack of competitive spirit. Every ball was to be putted out, every scorecard attested to.

Hickory Bill may be twice my age, but he has plenty of game. He was a methodical one or two over on the front, before a back injury flair up took him out of contention on the inward nine. Though I’ll admit he still bested me by one shot on the day.

The 9th green at the Country Club of Greenfield (Mass Golf)

After the round, he said he had a gift for me in his car. That gift was a club, which turned into two clubs (“well you might as well add a driver”), which turned into three (“of course, you’ll need a niblick”), which turned into me driving home with a pretty good-sized hickory starter set in my trunk (“my wife told me to start giving these away anyway”).

The Hickory Open hit on all the best aspects of golf: community, competition, curiosity, and a golf course that asks a variety of questions. After the tournament round, I went back out for a twilight eighteen with my modern clubs. It was calm and reflective in the way that solo twilight loops often are, and it truly highlighted what I love most about this game: there are so many ways to engage with it, and an endless number of things to take away.

I hold no delusions that I’m going to convert to a full-time hickory player in bold pursuit of a truer game, nor am I getting tailored for plus fours any time soon. But I’ll be sure to take my hickories for a spin a few times this summer, and who knows, maybe I’ll see Hickory Bill at next year’s Open.

The field at the Massachusetts Hickory Open (Contributed)

“How delightful it was to gaze through the window of the clubmakers shop, or sidle into the shop itself, with its smell of fresh shavings, and glue, and pitched twine, and watch the various processes—to see the artist-workman remove the head every now and again from the vice, and hold it up to examine its curves, until their grace satisfied him; and to watch emerge at last, polished and varnished so that you might see yourself in it, the graceful head with all its glorious possibilities.” (W.L. Watson, Golf, Feb. 1898)



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