Johnson Bests Big Hickory for Foxburg Title

It may be argued that Tom Johnson is one of the nation’s foremost gutty ball players. It fact, it may well be stated so, indisputably. With his latest victory at the Foxburg Hickory Championship, Aug. 8-9, he adds a second title from the year’s Gutty Slam.

Johnson claimed the NHC title in early June on the Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Scheduling kept him from entering the All American in May on the Rock Island Golf Course where Steve Simer won. The remaining 2014 event on the Gutty Slam roster is the CB Macdonald Championship on Sept. 5 at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada. As yet, no player has claimed all four titles for a “Gutty Slam” in a single year.

As to the 2014 Foxburg event, the weather set up beautifully for the 30-player field, which included three First Tee of Pittsburgh players (on Day Two), among them fast-rising hickory stars Samantha Shumaker and her sister, Shelby.

The nine-hole Foxburg Country Club, established in 1887, was the star of the show, said Johnson, who also is the event’s founder and organizer. “It was in excellent condition, set up fairly and, in tandem with ideal weather, set the stage for great pre- and post-1900 golf.” The FHC offers a post-1900 golf division, the Fownes, for those who favor the more modern new-fangled equipment.
 
The Leader Board, after day one, showed Bill “Ernie-Big Hickory” Ernst (Neenah, Wisc.), with a 78, for a slim one-stroke lead over Johnson (Tallmadge, Ohio). J.W. McMath (New Philadelphia, Ohio), was another shot back with an solid round of 80.
 
In the Senior Division, it was the “Dog” – and there is only one in modern hickory golf – four-time Foxburg senior champ Dave Ellis (Zanesville, Ohio), who finished the first day with 82. Nipping at his heels were a trio of Jim’s – Jim Clawson (Charlottesville, Va.) with 84, and Jim Thomas (Loveland, Ohio) and Jim Koss (Oneida, Wisc.) both in with 87.

All great scores with pre-1900 clubs and the McIntyre line-cut “Braid” gutty golf balls, now in use for the sixth year at Foxburg.
 
In the post-1900 Fownes Division, Barry Markowitz (Sanford, N.C.) held a three-stroke lead over Mike Campailla (Mogadore, Ohio).
 
Day Two
Following an agreeable night of dining and socializing, the company assembled for another perfect day of golf. The First Tee players joined us this day, playing in the pre-1900 division, as did Chris Lane, a free lance photographer who was accumulating photos and information about pre-1900 golf enthusiasts and hickory golf in general.
 
Overall scores were slightly lower (around 1 stroke per round) than day one. Fine scores (see the chart below or click here for a pdf) were turned in by Jim Koss (Hobart, Wisc.) the Reserve Champion, and Mike Just (Louisville, Ky.) the Reserve Runner-up. Jay Harris (Pinehurst, N.C.) was the Super Senior Champion with Jim Thomas (Loveland, Ohio) the Super Senior Runner-up.
 
Ellis is clearly the alpha dog in the Senior division, which title he has claimed four of the past five years. He successfully defended this year, with Clawson as the runner up and Mike Henderson earned the Runner-up position, with Mike Henderson (Chesapeake, Ohio) finishing third.
 
While these competitors were duly engaged, most of the gallery shots came from the direction of players in the Open Division where Ernst, Johnson, and McMath were hard at work. Ernst, you will recall, entered the crucial round with stroke lead over Johnson and two over McMath.
 
After the front nine, Ernst still maintained a one-stroke lead on Johnson, whom he could not shake. An errant shot here and there had McMath falling away by a few shots. Here is a quick summary of the back-nine duel.

10 – “Yellow” – Johnson’s approach sailed over the green at this 324-yard par 4, but a fine chip and better putt saved par. Ernst posted a near-nonchalant four.
 
11  – “Long” – Ordinarily a 180-yard par three, for this event it is a short par four. Ernst and Johnson both were slightly left and maybe 10 to 15 yards short of the green. Ernst, playing first laid it fairly close. Johnson’s clever chip, however, found the hole and an eagle 2. Ernst missed the birdie and accepted his par. But the damage had been done and Johnson was now up by one.
 
12 – “Hill” – Both players took disappointing sixes on the 390-yard par 5. Ernst and Johnson both made disappointing sixes when they should have done better, Johnson missing a very short putt on the hole; the second such mishap during his round.

It is no easy matter having Ernie Ernst chase you round, as Roger Andrews and Steve Simer can attest. When he is at his best, his relentless barrage of par and the occasional birdie can wear down the staunchest opponent. Johnson, however, a veteran of the horrors of Oakhurst, can hold up against anyone.
 
13 – “Glory” – A par 5 playing at 394. Both men were in fair shape after two shots, in nice position to approach the green. Here, Johnson struck and struck hard, holing from 40 yards from the right rough for a three. Cheers from the gallery sent birds scattering from the trees. Shaking his head at this unexpected blow, Big Hickory nonetheless carded a steady par. Johnson’s cushion was three shots going to 14.
 
14 – “Ten Strike” – No blood was taken at this 375-yard par five where careful pars were recorded by all three players, though McMath was now too far back to threaten the two front runners.
 
15 – “Putter’s Grief” –  A weak iron from Johnson on this 150-yard par three found him under a tree to the right, nearly out of bounds. Sensing an opening, Ernst sent a confidently struck tee shot to just past the hole on the right side. His niblick suddenly alien in his hands, Johnson took two shots to reach the green, and two putts for a double. Ernst, with a routine par, had reduced Johnson’s lead to one.

As any schoolboy knows, a one-shot lead into the final holes of a golf tournament is nothing to bank on. Anything can happen and there are nerves to consider, not to mention the unforgiving nature of pre-1900 golf clubs against balls of gutta percha (or nearly like).
 
16-18 – Over the final three, Ernst gave away two strokes and Johnson carded three steady pars for a three-stroke victory over a capable and testing opponent. Johnson finished with a two-day 155; Ernst with a 158; and McMath with 165.
 
“The second nine was something, holing out from the fairway, missing a short putt, holing out again… wow,” Johnson said. “I can only say I was impressed with Ernie’s reaction to such good fortune to an opponent. He kept his cool, and played himself back into position – tremendous.”
 
In the Ladies Division, contested among the First Tee of Pittsburgh participants, sisters Shelby and Samantha Shumaker each paced the other with nearly mirror rounds of 103. They are a sophomore and junior, respectively, in high school. Playing partner, Natalie Abt, another high schooler, closed with a nice back nine to finish with 104. A scorecard playoff was used to determine a victory that gave the medal to Samantha, on the fourth hole.

“The First Tee prides itself on developing young people as well as teaching golf and you can certainly see the result of their efforts. All three young women presented themselves well and played wonderfully,” Johnson said.

This is due in no small part to First Tee coach Frank Rosenzweig under whose tireless tutelage several budding young players are learning about the sport and its history.
 
“I thank everyone for taking the time to attend and making Foxburg such a fine event,” Johnson said. “I also thank the board of directors of Foxburg Country Club. This is a special place, and we are fortunate the members allow us the opportunity to have the course two days a year.
 
“I am especially thankful for a fervent group of enthusiasts, keenly into renewing friendships, sharing misery and incredulity, shaking hands and wishing each other well, and looking forward to seeing each other soon. This is some group of people, hickory golfers, as are the people who share the experience with them. You know who you are, and I am thrilled to be one of you.”

Though he was naturally happy with the win, he’s had his share of successes and well understands both his luck and his position as a hickory player. That said, his first win at Foxburg, last year, given his personal investment in the event, was a big one.

“It might have been the most emotional experience I have had in golf,” he said. “My personal feelings for the course, investment in the event, and sharing it with Karen and so many close friends… wow… it still hits me years later.”

He has two wins at Foxburg, one at the NHC, and “three or four” Eastern Canadian Championships, which combines a day of gutty golf and a day of post-1900 golf.

Johnson noted that most players employed the McIntyre line-cut “Braid” golf ball, with himself as the lone exclusion – he played the “Vardon,” a McIntyre bramble ball. “The course played somewhat shorter with the Braid and Flyer balls, but not much easier,” he said.

“Foxburg is an ‘inside 50 yard’ course,” he said. “The ball is not much of a factor within this range. Additionally, I don’t think the Flyer is easier to hole from the fairway, though it seemed easier to miss short putts. But that might have been just me.”

The Foxburg Hickory Championship and its devoted players have come to represent the best of modern hickory play, pre-1900 or otherwise, for the camaraderie of its players, the enthusiasm for which they approach golf with the traditional clubs of an earlier time, and the spirit of friendliness with which they enjoy a bit of living golf history. Congratulations to Mr. Johnson and the Foxburg players for another great event.