The Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Dreamy late spring days in the West Virginia valleys have the locals thinking about summer chores to come while the temporary inhabitants of the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs rise late to contemplate a new day of pamperings and recreation.
A few miles away, in one secluded valley, 38 men and women gathered June 9-11 at the old Oakhurst Links for another chapter in the ongoing saga of the National Hickory Championship. Thirteen of these were new to the competition and would soon learn what many before have discovered – the NHC is no pushover.
The 19th playing of this seriously tough golf outing employs all 19th century equipment, or as close as a replica will come, and is played to 19th century rules. The Czar of the tournament, Peter Georgiady is his name, ensures these rules and standards are vigorously observed.
Over two days and 36 holes, the contestants – from Canada, Florida, the Midwest, and other points of the compass – work their McIntyre-manufactured Park gutty balls around the course, said to be the oldest documented course in the U.S., of early 1880s vintage.
Georgiady noted that the earlier ball employed by the NHC, called the “Oakhurst Ball,” is no longer manufactured from its source in England. Thus the McIntyre Park ball is under consideration to become the “official” NHC ball. This was a transitional year, the few remaining line-cut Oakhurst balls not already consigned to the tall reeds on No. 2, being allowed in 2016.
NHC cognoscenti know darned well that the Czar and his cabinet will employ their customary and exacting attention to detail on this important matter. (It has been reported by those close to the matter that the differing characteristics of the not-as-long McIntyre ball combined with the Czar’s slow swing speed proved problematic for his game. Lamentably, he broke the shaft on what he said was his most accurate club, no doubt contributing to an historic personal score. Given the Czar’s unquestioned reputation for balance and restraint, we suspect that any decision regarding a new ball will be made with all due consideration and wisdom.)
Golfing legend Lee Trevino stopped by, quietly easing into a chair behind Mike Just who was busy working on a golf club. After a moment, Trevino casually posed a question. Just began to answer, then caught himself, having recognized the voice, and turned around in complete surprise to see a big ole grin on the former Texan. Winner of two U.S. Opens, two Open Championships, and two PGA Championships, Trevino discussed discussed club shafting with Just and said he played with old wood shaft clubs when he first was learning how to play golf. He said Laurie Auchterlonie in St Andrews had made a driver for him.
Trevino also told a story on how to beat Seve Ballesteros who was famous for pulling the ball back on the green with spin on wedge shots. Trevino said any time the flag was located on the back of the green Seve had no room to spin the ball backward to the hole. The wiley Trevino, however, would take a practice swing with a full divot, which filled the club’s grooves with dirt and reduced any spin. For a player of his caliber, it was then short work to play short and let the ball release to the hole.
On the whole, Trevino spent about 40 minutes with the group, who were more than tickled with the unannounced visit from such a great champion and fine gentleman.
As to the contest, let it be known that in the three divisions, two were won by rookies and all three were new names for the engraver.
From Enniscrone in County Sligo, Ireland, Sarah Helly took the title in the Women’s Division. Well played and well deserved for the new champion.
In the Reserve Division, long-time NHC competitor Bern Bernacki of Pittsburgh, Pa., realized a bucket-list goal by winning the title with a net 150, three clear of Kris Hayden of Louisville, Ky.
NHC rookie William “Wardy” Wardwell of Turners Falls, Mass. is the 2016 champion. An enthusiastic hickory golfer and organizer of a regional group in Massachusetts, Mr. Wardwell turned in a wonderful 168, besting by three strokes the young hickory lion Seth Lomison of Pfafftown, N.C.
Mr. Wardwell’s victory was all the more impressive as the field included three-time NHC champions Mike Stevens (Tampa, Fla.), and Bobby Sly (Kingston, Ont.). Also in the field were 2014 champion Tom Johnson (Tallmadge, Ohio), and 2013 champion Andy Just (Jeffersonville, Ind.).
Other NHC awards:
Lynah Sherrill Award: Greg Smith
Dundee Prize: Matt, Tammy & Seth Lomison
Best Dressed Lady: Tammy Lomison
Best Dressed Man: Marsalis Davis
Bogey Award: Jimmy Sherrill
For information about the NHC, its history and past champions, visit the website at www.hickorychampionship.org
On a side note, your writer wondered about the many long-term NHC hands, those who have attended the tournament since its inception. They are a dedicated group, filled with passion for the sport, and devoted to the history of the sport. A query to Mr. John Crow Miller of Dallas, Texas, was rewarded with the following reply:
“To your question, The National Hickory Championship began in 1998. I began playing in the second year, and have only missed one other year due to a calendar error. I was halfway to WV when I figured it out. Thank the Lord I was able to fly back to Dallas from Atlanta before I boarded that little plane to Lewisburg – but my clubs and luggage spent a long weekend in WV. That makes 17 years for me. Mike Just, of Kentucky, who is in charge of producing accepted reproduction hickory clubs for guttie play, has also logged 17 years.
“The 18-year men are Tom Johnson, of Ohio (he of Foxburg Hickory Championship fame), and Rob Ahlschwede, of Washington (noted Kilt-dresser). These bright golfing lights also started in 1999, and they have never suffered a calendar snafu for 18 consecutive NHCs.
“We have four 19-year men, who represent the NHC Originals: Pete Georgiady, of North Carolina, our founder, also known as The Czar (self-proclaimed but widely acknowledged by his minions), Ross Snellings of Augusta, Georgia (who doubles as the Pied Piper of the NHC), Russ Ravert, of Missouri (the NHC Statistician), and Mike Stevens, of Florida (the smooth professional who possesses the most envied swing in hickory golf).
“Each year, the Czar conducts a tournament dinner, which celebrates all manner of golfing achievements, at the NHC and beyond. That dinner ends with “three cheers” for the Czar. This year, we recognized Dave Brown with “two cheers”, for his incredible efforts to supply the hickory golfing world with beautiful reproduction golf balls that have taken our sport to a new level – as backwards as we can dare to go. Finally, we closed with “one cheer” for Ralph Livingston III, whose spirit lives on in this very friendly competition that could not have started without him, and his many friends who made up the NHC’s original field.
“Hip Hip, Hooray for the NHC.” – JCM
William Wardwell of Turners Falls, Mass. is the 2016 NHC champion.
Bern Bernacki of Pittsburgh, Pa., is the 2016 NHC Reserve Division champion. He holds the
Ralph Livingston III Cup, the traveling trophy for the Reserve Division.
Rico Johnson watches as Bob West putt.
Pete Georgiady, left, enjoys a “wee nip” with LB Fowler.
Lee Trevino took time from a busy day to visit the NHC. Above, he chats with Mike Just about club making, repair, etc. Reveling in the conversation and Trevino’s company are: