Old Kinderhook Is More Than “OK”

A personal report by MacDuff
being an account of a visit to the Old Kinderhook resort
in the Lake of the Ozarks and the playing of the
7th annual Interstate Hickory Championship on Oct. 30-Nov. 1, 2014

   The Lake of the Ozarks, created by impounding the Osage River in the northern part of the Ozark Mountains, undulates through miles of Missouri valleys, covering a surface area of 55,000 acres, according to the reference books. Its innumerable coves and inlets provide vast opportunity for fishing, swimming, cruising on house boats, or private get-aways. This correspondent found the wooded valley near Camdenton, in which Old Kinderhook nestles, to be the perfect respite for a road-weary traveler.

   It is approximately 640 acres or so of rolling and steeper hills. And if the rises are not so high as to induce fear of height, they are high enough to create wonderful vistas of the surrounding area. Jan Skola, who initially developed the site, originally set out to investigate the land with a view to buying a single lot, at the urging of his wife, Cindy. He returned owning the lot, that is to say, the entire lot. “I have a knack for seeing the potential in a given property,” he told me at dinner one night. “It was not hard to see what could be done at Old Kinderhook.”

   Other names were initially attempted for the new development, but nothing seemed to click until someone mentioned that Camden County used to be Kinderhook County, after Martin Van Buren, during his 1840 presidential campaign. Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, N.Y. His supporters formed the “OK Club,” to promote their man, but it did not come off. What did last was the term “OK”, which many believe to be a plausible genesis for the common term that means “all is well.” The Skolas liked the concept, as did Tom Weiskopf, who designed the golf course, and so Old Kinderhook came to be.

   All is definitely well in this off-the-beaten-path community, with its elegant hillside mansions that share the property with smaller but cozy cabins lined along several fairways of the golf course. Resembling quaint log cabins, the notion is quickly disabused as one becomes more acquainted with their uncluttered arrangements, their entirely comfortable interiors, and their irreducible devotion to the happiness and comfort of their owners and renters. For these cabins, and many of the homes, are available to rent through the property’s lodging management. Our party of eight gentlemen arranged lodging at one such place located just off the first tee. Its three bedrooms accommodated us to perfection, and if the house could not help one overcome a roommate’s demon-like snoring, well, you can’t have it all.

   The first night at the Interstate Hickory Open belongs to Fred and Sherry Smeltzer who open their attractive and roomy house to the golf participants and their guests for an evening of good cheer and conversation. The two have lived in the area since 1979. Fred had a radiology practice in the area. In 1997, they purchased lots at Old Kinderhook and moved in after their home was completed in 2004. “We will stay here until we need assisted living,” Sherry says.

   And how did hickory golf come into the picture? “We have been playing with hickory clubs for about 10 years with our good friends, Peter and Debs Herrington,” Sherry says. “Peter, a student of history and lover of antiquities, saw a strange looking golfer looking forlornly at a broken club here at Old Kinderhook and asked him what in heaven’s name he was doing. The gentleman was from Canada, wearing plus fours and carrying a bag of wooden clubs. A friendship was made and then, like lemmings, we all marched over the cliff together.”

   The friends worked together to create the Interstate Championship and have been hosting it these seven years, beginning with a rather chilly beginning in 2008, when only eight players took to the field. It was during the first week in December.

   “It was so cold,” says Sherry, “that Debs and I wore flannel lined jeans.” Peter Herrington moved the outing to the first weekend of November, which is the time that lodging and golf rates are reduced. He had intended the outing to attract teams from different states for a casual challenge event. While the concept has been slow to catch on, the outing itself has grown to 44 players in 2014, with 38 men and six women.

   “Some people who have played in our tournament come once, and don’t come back,” Sherry says. “But a large group of people have played every year since 2009. That’s pretty cool! It’s also neat that several of our local residents play in our tournament, the only time of year they use hickory clubs. They borrow them from Fred each year and look forward to playing at the tournament, but don’t play hickories the rest of the year!”

   Eight from Michigan entered the field in 2014, all but one of them members of the Wyandotte Hickory Organization. Led by Ed Ronco, this hickory golf-loving crew enjoys traveling to events throughout the country and have competed as far away as Edmonton, Canada. Ronco himself competed in Carnoustie, Scotland this past October as a member of the U.S. team in the inaugural International Hickory Cup sponsored by the Society of Hickory Golfers. So welcomed were the Michigan men at Old Kinderhook that, to a man, they hope to return for many future Interstate outings.

   It helps that the Michigan contingent are keen on single malt whisky, and that a highlight of the Interstate Championship is the single malt tasting that has become a signature of the event, largely through the Smeltzer’s fine taste in the best aqua vitae that Scotland has to offer.

   “We have about 150 single malt scotches,” Sherry said. “We are particularly fond of two categories:  first, a group of 25 that were distilled in 1977, the year of our marriage.” This group includes distilleries such as Glenlivet, Highland Park, Bunnahabhain, and Pulteney, as well as lesser known distilleries like Ardmore, Glenisla, Convalmore, and Strathclyde. The second group consists of bottlings from distilleries that are no longer producing. These include Speyside distilleries Convalmore (closed in 1985 and dismantled), Glen Mhor (demolished in 1978), Imperial (mothballed in 1998), and Dallas Dhu (closed in 1983); Lowland distilleries Inverleven (closed in 1991 and demolished), Littlemill (dismantled in 1996), Rosebank (closed in 1993 and later demolished), and St. Magdalene (closed in 1983); Highland distilleries Brora (closed in 1982), Glen Esk (closed in 1982), Glenugie (closed in 1983, later demolished); and, finally, the Islay distillery of Port Ellen (closed in 1982).

   “We want to emphasize that we are not collectors and all of our scotches are available for sampling at our annual tournament,” Sherry says. Surely, this is the sui generis of hickory golf tournaments – a perfect alignment of good golf, good friends, and good scotch.

   The good natured Fred Smeltzer, a retired radiologist who has found a new love working on old golf clubs, is there to lend a hand with the tasting, to discuss the strengths and deficiencies of each label and to tutor the virgin palate in the art of the right amount of water needed to release the heady aroma of the chosen whisky. A buffet of good food followed, and that followed by the delightful buzz of conversation between old friends and new.

   “Have you seen Fred’s workshop?” asked a friend. I had not and followed his lead below to an enormous room, several actually, devoted to the art of repairing, restoring, and creating hickory golf clubs. I confess to having perhaps one pair of needle nose pliers. Here, arranged carefully on the perforated wall, there were 10, each for a specific purpose. The reader must extrapolate from here and consider the many additional rows of both recognizable and curious implements. A bandsaw here, a frequency tester there, a sander or two, and dozens of other machines bore testimony to Mr. Smeltzer’s passion for the hobby and his acumen in finding the right tool for any task that may restore vitality to the bent and ancient hickory club.

   On this evening, the host, prompted by a most rude fellow, gallantly shared with us the art of spine balancing. This does not refer to lying prone upon upon one of Mr. Smeltzer’s contraptions. Instead, as he demonstrated, by placing the grip of a club in a secure vise with the face of the club pointing directly up on the other end, a simple test for a club’s balance may be had. One just brings the club head down by an inch or so and lets it go. The club head, its grip held secure in the vise, will vigorously bounce up and down. If its “spine” is correctly balanced – that the placement of the head on the hosel is directly perpendicular to the bounce of the shaft – the club head will bounce straight up and down with no deviation. An unbalanced club will, as one who has tasted too many single malts, undertake a loopy path.

   Mr. Smeltzer also produces a handsome replica of the early ambi-dex wood putter made by the Thomas E. Wilson Co. in the 1920s. These were awarded to the lucky first place medalists of men’s and ladies teams, whose scores will no doubt improve further with this instrument in their bags.

   Though it may not hold up to the hickory purist, we must report on a considerable room adjoining the golf workshop that is given over to fabric work. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bolts of many colors, designs, and textures are tucked in wall compartments. “That’s not really pertinent to hickory golf is it?,” asks Sherry. Perhaps not, but it further illustrates the creativity and agile minds of our hosts. “My husband is the fabric lover,  I am the one who sews,” she says. When the family was young (two children) and Fred was putting in long hours as a physician, Sherry had little time to sew. Once the children were grown and the couple moved to Old Kinderhook, she found more time, making her daughter’s and step-daughter’s wedding dresses, and some other special outfits. “Fred bought me an embroidery/sewing machine so now I can do a lot more projects in the sewing room,” she says. As the family grows – Sherry now has a son and daughter, two step-daughters, a daughter-in-law, and two sons-in-law; eight grandchildren and four step-grandchildren – “there are plenty of garments and accessories I can make for them.” (Sherry also embroidered hats and towels as gifts for the tournament’s winners.)

   As for the Herringtons, Peter and Debs, as tournament hosts, are clearly beloved of all who have been coming to Old Kinderhook for the Interstate Championship. Mr. Herrington’s deft wit is beautifully complemented by the sagacity and charm of the gracious Debs, or “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” Lucky are they who are invited to their cottage for an after-party drink. Mr. Herrington is a spritely conversationalist whose interests are many and whose stories that range from early days in an English Public school, to wine, politics, and food make for a lively evening. Their cozy cottage makes any guest at once at home with the many books, prints, and Mrs. Herrington’s beautiful collection of teapots and dinnerware.

   I suppose a few words must be said about the hickory golf tournament.

   The Tom Weiskopf course did not disappoint. Though the tournament days were chilly, the first especially, with a biting wind that made gloves, jackets, and fleece hats a popular accessory, the skies were generally sunny. We played the course at 5,700 yards. It roams outward in three spokes from the central area of the clubhouse. Water features, though present on many holes, are never a truly dangerous hazard, except for the “unreconstructed” swing. Fairways are generous and reward the well-struck shot with plenty of roll. Bunkers are generous, too, and come into play on most holes. The yawning behemoth in front of the 6th green requires a towering escape should one fail to reach the green perched some 20 feet or so above the fairway. This writer became the personal foil of the 8th hole, which took him to task all three days he played it. From a highly elevated tee, the player has only to find the safety of another generous fairway, but there are woods left and rocky wasteland right. Some 100 yards short of the green, a creek bisects the fairway. There is water to the left of the green and unforgiving woods to the right. Did I say the water is not truly dangerous here? I lied.

   It was all great and good fun, though, and many fine shots were to be had and enjoyed. The company was terrific and the taste of Old Kinderhook just right for a late-season round in the Lake of the Ozarks. It is easy to see why this tournament – let us rather call it a gathering of hickory golf-minded friends – has become such a beloved heartland event.

The results of the 7th Interstate Tournament –
Eight men’s teams represented Colorado; Iowa; Kansas; Missouri; Michigan; Nebraska; North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. Three ladies teams represented Colorado, Missouri, and Nebraska. In addition, five couples competed on the Thursday for the 9-hole Couples Competition.

Men’s Event
First – Lendell Phelps and Mike Marquart of Missouri with 84 stableford points
Second – to Ed Ronco and Larry Pinchback of Michigan with 83
Third – on a card playoff, to Duane Baylor and Dave Gamet of Nebraska

Ladies Scramble
First place – Chris Shanahan and Cindy Austin of Nebraska
Second Place – Charlie O’Neill and Debs Herrington
Third – Patti Pittinger and Judy Beasley of Colorado

Couples Event
First – John Hutton and Patti Pittinger of Colorado
Second – Mike and Cindy Austin of Nebraska 2nd.

From event organizer Peter Herrington:
Grateful thanks to our Tournament Hosts Fred and Sherry Smeltzer for once again opening their house for the Thursday reception; to Fred for making splendid reproduction putters for the winning Men and Ladies, and to Sherry for embroidered hats and towels for 2nd and 3rd places, together with place medals. John Hutton kindly presented a golf plaque which went to Kelly Gay Sr and Jr. of Iowa who lost the 3rd place play off. Thanks to Scott Pilgrim from Dallas, many of us will be sartorially correct next year, and many clubs were acquired to ensure the golf will also be superior come the new season.

The Interstate Competition will be held from Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 5-7, 2015.

   We had hoped to post a photo gallery along with the report, but a web snafu prevents this just now. Until that is resolved, please click here to visit a gallery posted by the wonderful Fran Sibley.