Ralph Livingston III — Modern Hickory Golf Pioneer

“Hickory golf is a challenging sport. If you don’t like the challenge, go take up putt putt golf.”

Ralph Livingston III was nothing if not passionately devoted to the game he embraced in the early 90s. His research into authentic hickory equipment and their relationship with the golf course architecture of the time led to ground-breaking theories of the game’s methods and the methodology of early club and cleek makers. Mr. Livingston, 54, passed away early on the morning of Aug. 17, 2012 at his home in Grand Rapids, Mich. For several years he had battled a persistent brain tumor. When the tumor failed to respond to treatments, Mr. Livingston’s health began to decline rapidly. His many friends and acquaintances will always remember a robust hickory player who would occasionally stop by a bunker or green on an older course and remark how it had been changed over time, usually for the worse.

He is survived by his wife, Krista; parents Ralph II and Joanne Livingston; two brothers, Kevin and Scott; and a sister, Donna; all of Grand Rapids. The family plans a quiet observance at the Kingsley Club near Traverse City, Mich., where Mr. Livingston was a long-time member.

Mr. Livingston was an avid supporter and member of the Golf Collectors Society, the British Golf Collectors Society, a founding member of the Society of Hickory Golfers, and a founding member of the James Braid Society. He and British golf historian David Hamiliton founded the Hickory Grail, an international fixture of the BGCS. The Grail is a biennial Ryder Cup-style match between European and U.S. members of the BGCS. The Ralph Livingston Medal is awarded at Grail matches to a golfer for contributions to hickory golf. Mr. Livingston took pride in winning the Scottish Hickory Champion title in 1999 and 2001. He was an early visitor to the Oakhurst Golf Links in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., and an enthusiastic supporter of the National Hickory Championship, a pre-1900s golf competition, in which he was a fixture for many years. In 2009, after several years absence, Mr. Livingston and his wife, Krista, traveled to White Sulphur Springs to attend the NHC and to receive the championship’s Dundee Prize, awarded at the director’s discretion “to a golfer who has exhibited stalwart principles of sportsmanship and exceptional golfing spirit.”

Mr. Livingston’s book, “Thomas Stewart Jr. – Golf Cleek an Iron Maker” (2010, Gilson Graphics, limited edition) was the culmination of years of research into Stewart’s club making expertise and a serious attempt to describe what the clubs were intended to do, why they were made the way they were. No other golf book presents such a exhaustive and lucid examination of a single club maker.

In earlier years, Mr. Livingston could nearly always be counted upon to visit the annual and regional meetings of the GCS, where his display table would be laden with Stewart clubs. He was a ready conversationalist about hickory golf and held strong opinions about its various aspects and the necessity for hickory players to approach the sport with due diligence regarding original equipment in order to thoroughly understand the game as it was played and the intimate relationship between original equipment and the golf courses of the day.

His website, www.hickorygolf.com, became a legendary go-to site for novice as well as established players. Here they could learn more about the clubs, restoration and maintenance techniques, find hickory golf events, the basics of building a play set of clubs, and much more. Such was his importance to modern hickory golf that movie producers would seek him out for advice on the authenticity of clubs to use in their period-golf films. His clubs occupy starring roles in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” and the “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Much more can, and will, be said about his contributions to hickory golf in the days to come. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, is the number of players he inspired to take up hickory golf. Countless are those in this golfing niche who will say they first learned of hickory golf from Ralph, or purchased their first clubs from him. Mr. Livingston passed many happy hours in his workship building playsets for new players or finishing specific clubs for experienced players. His craftsmanship was superb. He crafted a model of an early Morris playclub that was approved for play at Oakhurst.

His workshop may be quiet now, but his love for the game has been well established in the many hundreds of us who carry on the sport he so enjoyed.

Far and Sure, Ralph.