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Hickory Golf – A Modern Game

By Mungo Park

Interest in playing hickory golf is growing steadily around the world. Many golfers have already discovered its delights and fascination. Despite this, it remains a curiosity in the UK to see someone playing with hickories at their local club. Is the hickory game making the comeback that it could? If not, what is preventing it from being accepted as a modern and accessible game? In the past debate over hickories has centred around the concept of authenticity and historical provenance, as well as on seeking to establish a ‘level playing field’ for those using new and old clubs, but are these the most pressing issues? At a time when ‘hi-tech’ manufacturers are driving the development of the sport, is it perhaps time to re-evaluate the importance and benefits of hickory golf?

Golf has not been slow, in recent years, to realise that it needs to be more sustainable and carbon-friendly. On the course, its nitrate-rich, water-guzzling days are clearly numbered. Hoylake bravely led the way, with previously unfashionable brown fairways in the dry summer of 2006, and the course challenged and entertained to perfection. With the enlightened assistance of the R & A, the Golf Environment Organisation, Fine Golf, the SoHG, and many like-minded golf lovers, more is being done to return the game to a more responsible carbon footprint, drawing attention to the pleasures of playing a more free-running game; and fewer target orientated set-ups. All of this is likely to be well understood by the many golfers who know something of the game’s history, and perhaps played their first game of golf with hickory club’s, but that generation (my own) is passing, and hickory golf is increasingly seen as a marginal game, a slightly eccentric ‘bit of fun’, and irrelevant to the greater game. But hickory golf is more than that, and can provide a genuine alternative to ‘hi-tech’ golf. There are good reasons why it should do so, although the golf ‘industry’ is predictably un-persuaded. Every season, brand-driven technological change makes last year’s clubs and balls redundant in a frenzy of celebrity-driven consumption. By climbing onto this treadmill, and driving it round at increasing speed, manufacturers unwittingly diminish the game that they seek to serve. Looking at the bottom line keeps everyone’s head bowed, and the effect on the popular game has been noticeable.

Golfing numbers are slowly beginning to recover, but still few clubs have waiting lists, as they used to. Taking up golf is seen as a major step and people are easily put off. As Adam Lawrence, the editor of Golf Course Architecture observed in April 2011, “Every piece of research tells us that time, cost and difficulty are the three factors that prevent more people from playing more golf. . . and again, “. .golf as a half day rather than a full day activity – is vital to the game’s future success.”

Technological innovation feeds an insatiable appetite, we are told, for clubs and balls that attain, for the mid-handicap golfer, distance and accuracy beyond his or her wildest dreams or ability, ten years ago. But the implications of this appetite are far-reaching and environmentally expensive. Like the greed that drove the world into financial crisis, technological advancement may do the same to golf.

Some other industries have been in the same situation, of dancing to the supplier’s, rather than the consumer’s tune, allowing the thing that they value to change out of all recognition. It has taken committed and vociferous consumer organisations to call a halt and say ‘enough’. Of these, one of the most successful in Britain has been CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). Originally a fairly motley collection of home brewers, students and other beer enthusiasts (I was all of these), it realised in the 1970’s that unless they did something to protect ‘real ale’, it would, quite simply, disappear. It nearly did, but, thanks to CAMRA’s energy and enthusiasm, ‘craft ale’ is now embraced and valued by a massively increased market, for all the right reasons. In taste, its regional inconsistency and diversity add to the pleasure of its consumption, as against the homogenised product that threatened to supersede it. Who now remembers the fizzy blandness of Watney’s Red Barrel? In France, this central truth has long been understood in viticulture, where terroir, the nature, topography and aspect of particular vineyards is minutely understood and specifically valued. Whether in beer or wine we all have our favourites, and they are as diverse and interesting as the regions, the brewers, and the winemakers that produce them. In food markets too the same has been happening in Britain, where those who really care about the quality of what they eat are once again making themselves heard, and changing opinion more widely. Parallels can be drawn with hickory golf.

Although the organisers of hickory events have no formal position within the national management of the game, they are important in bringing a renaissance to the genuine appreciation of golf, based on its original form, and of attracting to the game a younger constituency. Three things stand in their way; plus fours, long dresses and floppy hats. Let me explain.

Hickory golf is a modern game. This is not the paradox that it may seem. Looking at it simply, it presents a distinct and valid alternative to ‘hi-tech’ golf. To be accepted as such, it needs to shed some of its ‘historic’ image. For the young it is easy to marginalise it as too difficult, too ‘quaint’ and played predominantly by men (often over 60) who like dressing up as ‘toffs’ from the 1920’s. It is seen as exclusive and deters those of all ages who are not good golfers, and who don’t enjoy dressing up in period costume. If we believe that hickory golf has relevant and valuable qualities that are disappearing from the game – and I do – we owe it to the game, and to ourselves, to broadcast the fact and to make a free-running game, played on short, intriguing golf courses (of which we still have many) part of the local distinctiveness that makes one round so delightfully different from another. We need not accept the hegemony either of equipment manufacturers or the media. We can reject those course developers whose mistaken perception is that all golfers need the space and equipment to hit 350 yard drives on courses that, in their sterile perfection, are becoming the same the whole world over. At present hickory golf is seen as elite, predominantly of historic interest and perhaps slightly eccentric. Reproduction hickory clubs have been frowned upon, and occasionally excluded from events in favour of those made before 1935. Strokes are sometimes added for incorrect dress. To be taken seriously it needs to abandon the requirement for period clothing, and restrictions on post 1935 clubs, except for specifically historical events. It should encourage entries from the widest possible age range, and particularly from young golfers. If it were to do so, the game would supply its own advertisement, and hickory golf would again become a lively and interesting modern game, accessible to all.

For the player, the challenge of hickory golf is enjoying an undiscovered gem. For the club, there are hard-nosed financial and practical benefits. Presenting hickory golf as a modern game helps golf clubs and their management in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important argument is that older, shorter courses, often of great quality, can once again be considered significant, allowing them to benefit financially and maintain a viable membership. The unsustainable alternative is to re-shape and lengthen the course, often at great expense, only to have to do so again in ten years time as technology moves on. This is not always possible due to expense or land shortage, and the club loses members and slowly fails. Hickory golf presents a simple means of achieving a quick round, more cheaply, on a course that is ecologically sustainable and often closer to home. Adam Lawrence’s ‘golf as a half day game’ becomes a possibility once again. Where a round of 5,480 yards (Kilspindie) will take somewhere around three hours, it is hard to achieve one of 7,500 yards (The Oxfordshire) in less than four. What inhibits the development of courses specifically for hickory golf is the feeling that this form of the game, rather like ‘real tennis’ or ‘Rugby fives’ is a specialist game played by golf ‘geeks’ only interested in history. To some extent this has been true, and it is to their credit that they have kept the hickory game alive but it need not be the case in the future. There is no reason why with a less retrospective image this form of the game should not be promoted as a modern game, played with modern clubs, in modern clothes on exciting new, as well as old courses.

The popularisation of modern hickory golf achieves many things. As has been shown, it reduces the time taken to achieve a challenging and pleasurable game of golf by at least 25%. Two rounds in a day becomes entirely possible again. New courses could be shorter. They would require less land-take. Consequently they would be less expensive to build and maintain. They might again be situated near to centres of population, encouraging a wider catchment of new golfers. Existing ‘short’ courses, of which Britain has many, would not have to struggle or close. Costs of maintenance would be reduced, quality of landscape and ecology would improve, and no extensions would have to be put onto hole lengths. Membership subscriptions could remain more stable, as fluctuations in oil price and fertiliser costs would have a diminished impact on a healthy golfing population.

New formats are already being tried to achieve an increase in golf’s popularity. ‘Powerplay Golf’ was launched on Sky, and the ‘Tee it Forward’ campaign has gained some purchase in the US. Holes the size of dustbin-lids are occasionally appearing, and ‘Footgolf’ is being more seriously discussed as a means of attracting new players. Ironically for hickory golf it already has the capacity to achieve many of the goals that these modern variants seek. It offers a sensible, and potentially a more interesting, alternative to the hi-tech game. Hickory golf can restore distinction to many fine courses. Clubs are still relatively easily made, ecologically sound and reasonably inexpensive. However, if the hickory game maintains its slightly exclusive ‘plus fours and floppy hat’ image, it will remain remote, andbe seen as irrelevant to the golfing public; particularly the young, to whom we pass the future of the game. In so doing it will defeat its own purpose, to protect the pleasure and value of a great game played on great courses. If this is lost, then golf and golfers will be the poorer.

Perhaps the hickory game should follow CAMRA’s example. It encouraged pubs to try a ‘guest ale’ alongside the fizzy homogenous type. Now the ‘real ale’ and ’craft ale’ market is worth billions. Every club that still has a suitable course should be encouraged to retain a couple of sets of hickories to offer to its visitors, so that they can play the course as it was designed to be played. This will expand their enjoyment of the game, and their appreciation of the course. It will demonstrate once again what we seem to have forgotten, that golf played on an interesting course with hickory clubs is a substantial and satisfying test for anyone, whatever their age or clothing preference!

Editor’s note: Mungo Park is a Clubhouse Architect and golf historian. He is the great grandson of Willie Park Snr, the winner of the first Open in 1860. This article is based on a letter written to Jean-Louis Panagel of the French Hickory Open, and was later published by the Wee Nipp, the magazine of the Society of Hickory Golfers.

© Mungo Park 2015