2017 USHO Champ finds a lot to like in hickory golf
By Jim Davis
Many eyes were on Jeremy Moe in Del Monte for the 10th annual U.S. Hickory Open. Most knew he had won the previous four in a row, and it would have been hard to not root for the likable pro from Florida, where he is now based. But Moe (who placed fourth with a 157) would face stiff competition from such California players as Cliff Martin, the 2016 runner-up (in a playoff with Moe), Nico Bollini, Doug Montgomery and others.
In the end, in another one-hole playoff, it would be Bollini, a talented golfer from Laguna Beach, who would hand Martin another heart-breaking loss. Both gentlemen played superb golf over a testing Del Monte course where the greens were slick and small. Both shot a two-day 153 total. Martin’s sharp approach shots and grooved swing held up all day, but it was a three-putt on a slippery 17th green that proved his downfall.
Bollini, a blonde 34-year-old, has had a few years experience as a touring pro, both in the PGA Latin America tour and on the European Challenge tour. No doubt this experience was a help, but this was his first event with hickory shafted clubs and it would be a test of the transition from modern marvels to wood shafted heads.
Born in Fullerton, Calif., Bollini grew up in Yorba Linda, about an hour from Los Angeles. His father began to teach the youngster the game when he was just 6 years old. By the time he was in high school, he had a remarkable game. In 2000 he was the All County Golf Player of the Year (Orange County) at Servite High School. He also won the SCGA’s Southern Section individual title. He won the SCGA’s Amateur title in 2002. Playing that year in the North/South Amateur in Pinehurst, he took medalist honors and nearly equalled the course record of 63 on Pinehurst No. 2.
Nowadays he plays out of the Hacienda Golf Club near his home in LaGuna Beach where he has a +4 handicap. With his background and skill set, you would think Bollini locked into the modern game, but he says he’s always had a fondness for the old clubs and traditional courses, and feels that modern golf leaves something to be desired, at the expense of course architecture and sheer golfing creativity.
“I have always loved golf architecture,” he says. “It was something I wanted to do even in college and high school. I was fascinated by the old courses and the how and the why of the way they were built and routed. Modern design is made irrelevant by the way the game is played. Guys on the tour just fly over hazards and hit little wedges to the greens. This is not the way our golfing forefathers imagined the game, it’s not how they played the game. They built for strategic play with such as redan holes and punchbowl greens, and places where you could play the run-up shot.”
It will always be a game of precision, Bollini allows, but he says that playing with persimmon woods and older irons restores an emphasis on precise ball striking.
Now employed by Hays Companies, a Minneapolis-based insurance brokerage, and working from its Irvine, Calif. office, Bollini conducts clinics and outings in conjunction with the Southern California Golf Association. He has done clinics many times with Peter Jacobsen, Brad Faxon and Billy Andrade on behalf of their work with CVS and Umpqua Bank.
Bollini has fun at these outings and makes sure the participants do, too. He has become known for his uncannily accurate imitations of the swings of various pros. In that repertoire are Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Corey Pavin, Tom Lehman, Arnold Palmer, John Daly, Payne Stewart and Vijay Singh… and this is just a partial list!
On his own time, Bollini continued to research golf architecture and the older, classic clubs. It wasn’t too long ago before his interest in old persimmons would lead to modern hickory golf.
“I was looking around for good persimmon woods,” he says, “and came across the Louisville Golf website where I noticed they had replica hickory golf clubs. I thought that might be cool to try. I also learned about the World Hickory Open and then the U.S. Hickory Open at Del Monte.”
That led him to a conversation with the manager at a driving range who put Bollini in touch with Mark Willie, a golf pro in Newport, who invited him over to try a few shots with his Louisville Golf Tom Stewart replicas and a couple of old irons with “Sunningdale” cleek marks.
“I was hooked from the first shot,” he says. “I could see right away there would be more involved in playing these clubs and in fitting the right shots and strategy to the holes.”
He and Willie began playing weekly 9-hole rounds with hickories until eventually Bollini purchased a short set of clubs from Jeremy Wright at Louisville Golf. They were too light, so lead tape was applied to most of the backs to bring them up to the heavier D and E swing weight he prefers. Then he started to explore their potential during casual evening rounds at Goat Hill Golf Club, a decaying older course in Oceanside that was restored in 2016 by golf clothing entrepreneur John Ashworth.
“Goat Hill is perfect for hickories,” Bollini says. “It’s a par 65 and there are ocean views. I’d just go out there in the evenings and have a great time.”
Finding his comfort zone with the hickories, Bollini signed up for the USHO, his first hickory golf outing. He had tried earlier to hook up with one of the California regional groups, but the scheduling did not work out.
While preparing for the USHO, Bolllini learned about the pro from Arkansas, Jeremy Moe, who had won the four previous times, so he knew he’d have to bring a solid game to compete. No problems on that account.
“I’m more of a rhythmical player,” he says. “With hickories you can be aggressive but it is a different type of power. You can bring the hammer down with modern clubs and hit as hard as you can, but with hickories it is like a slow gathering and then a crack at the downswing at impact. You have to let the club catch up right there.”
Bollini says that his dad taught him a little mantra for rhythm that has worked to this day. “I grew up with ‘Maria Louisa.’ Maria Louisa. That was the sound to create the rhythm and timing for address to backswing, to impact.”
Doug Montgomery of Cathedral City, Calif., a commercial Realtor, was paired with Bollini and Moe during one round. Playing with them was a pleasure, he says.
“Watching Nico was like watching a touring pro go through his routine and hit the shots that were needed,” Montgomery says. “I was impressed with his even demeanor but mostly with his putting stroke, so fluid, with no mechanics, purely feel.”
Montgomery, who finished fifth overall, hit a lot of greens in regulation, but was undone by a few too many putts. As for Moe, Montgomery found him to be a great playing partner. “Jeremy was very supportive to me,” he says. “I found him to be very social and he provided encouragement to all the players in the group. He was a class act.”
Bollini, who has regained his amateur status with the USGA, feels that while top modern players might find hickories tempting, they’d have to abandon a mindset that binds them to a “break the course record” mentality and learn how to play for Old Man Par. It’s a lessening of expectations that might not suit them.
“You need to fall in love with the clubs and how things were played at that time,” he says. “The main difference between modern clubs and the old ones is the precision. You cannot hit hickories with reckless abandon although I do find similarities with the irons. When you hit them right, they fly nicely.”
As for that fluid putting stroke, Bollini says it’s a result of focus on contact rather than the stroke itself. And he preferred the feel of the blade Sunningdale to the mallet heads he tried.
“With modern putters you focus on a good stroke and no matter where you hit it, you’re likely to make good contact,” he says. “With the hickory blade putter I was focused on perfect contact slightly toward the heel. That freed me up,” he says.
The one-hole playoff hole was his only opportunity to tee it up with Cliff Martin. “He’s a great golfer,” Bollini says. He has a good swing and a good move. And he has those great Tad Moore clubs.”
At the banquet following the competition, Bollini was touched by John Fischer III’s presentation and honored to win the low amateur. “He was a great speaker,” he says. “It was the coolest thing to have somebody there whose dad was around when Jones and others played. It was a real honor.”
Bollini was grateful for his experience at the USHO and says he learned a great deal about the clubs, the people, and the sport. Given time, he says, he thinks that other pros and golf professionals might come on to the hickory game and he hopes the USHO might return to the area. He has spoken with SCGA officials about the possibility and was heartened by a positive response.
“I’ll do some Monday clinics and other outings where I’ll bring some hickories and give them a chance to play them,” he says. “I think there is a huge opportunity here and a chance for the hickory game to grow.
“I might even look into imitating the swing of Bobby Jones for the people and kids at the outings!”