This essay/opinion is posted as a member’s response to the Autumn 2011 Wee Nip article on original and replica clubs. We invite you to post your comments too.
What clubs to use?
Original or replica? That is the question. The autumn Wee Nip published a feature on the topic. Members of the SoHG board were not a little nervous about it, as there are strong feelings on the subject; I, however, thought it a good thing to discuss rather than bury in a bunker and pressed forward with all the anticipation of a high-handicapper facing a difficult, forced carry. Here are a few further thoughts from me, and then, I hope, you will add your own wisdom as there is a place to add comments following the article.
The question is a philosophic one that speaks to the heart of modern hickory golf. What is hickory golf? How should it be played? Can we ever, truly, recreate the game of old? Perhaps not, but we try, in our various ways, to do so.
Modern hickory golf is an absolute delight to play and its adherents are growing in number. They find greater charm in the old game than in its often coldly calculating descendant with carefully machined shafts, precision heads and promises of lengthy glory and glowing scorecards. Hickory golf seems a more organic game to me, closer to it source with players, professionals and club makers of the day more intimately involved with the equipment. Hickory clubs are inherently organic. Shafts are wood wrapped in leather and cloth with an iron head glued to the end. Each shaft whispers its own nuanced performance, which, if its wielder take time to hear and understand, can produce an art worth crafting. Old shafts and club heads speak from ages of experience.
Their more recent hickory cousins, married to current shafts created with modern equipment, speak the same language but with a fresh, strong and energetic voice. Are these old and new relatives equals on the course? Do the youngsters out-perform their aged veterans? I’m not sure there is a succinct answer or ever will be.
I love the romance, if you will, of the old clubs and the things they can teach us about the game we love. I believe all of us should do our best to research the old sticks, find a few we like and begin to build a play set. The older clubs, after all, are the reason we all got into this in the first place. I have several old clubs. None that would send a Georgiade or a Harris into a tizzy of adulation; nonetheless, I have played them all and understand their weaknesses and strengths. I know what they are capable of, because I have listened to them. All, that is, except for the old Stewart cleek, whose secrets are too closely held for me to decipher.
With the older clubs we learn the virtues of patience and slow discovery. Our strokes become steadier, slower, surer in their cadence and execution. We learn that clubs often used for a mid-approach can be, on occasion, equally applied for a pitch or a run-up. Perhaps a mashie niblick for a certain bunker shot rather than going right to the coveted Hagen wedge is the better choice for an artful escape. A driving mashie or iron off the tee may be the correct choice where wind, water or other danger tempt the play club. If you listen to them, they will tell you what they can or cannot do in any given circumstance.
We also learn from them in the workshop. Not all modern players of early clubs have the skills, time and patience, or tools to take a club apart, but many do and in their workshops are a mini-lyceum of learning. Here one comes to understand more of the art of the early clubs through repair and/or restoration. That student who has removed, cleaned, re-pinned and re-glued a head; who has lightly sanded, cleaned and refinished the shaft; who has applied a strip of carefully selected leather and given it an individual touch with the whipping – that student holds in his hand more than just a golf club. He holds a member of an august society, one that he has baptized through careful ministrations in his workshop/lyceum. He will be closer to this club and what it does than one purchased from a rack in a store. Such a club will find an honored place in the bag and when the player comes to employ it for the first time on the course, he will do so with a measure of pride and accomplishment before he ever swings it.
As for the newer models from the modern club makers, I know these have strong playing characteristics, especially the wooden heads, which seem to induce golf balls to great feats of accuracy and length. Perhaps new woods in 1927 did the same thing. I don’t know. I do know that these great new clubs offer a quick entry into the sport of hickory golf. For the growth of the sport, that’s a good thing. For the new player who wishes to join our number, that’s a good thing. For the modern hickory club maker, who traces his art to such predecessors as Forgan, Stewart, Nicoll and others, that’s a good thing. And for all of us who love hickory golf and wish to perpetuate its enjoyment and camaraderie, that’s a very good thing.
Myself, I own only one modern hickory club, a driver that I won (or that Barb Kopec won, really, as I was her tag-along partner) at a Southern 4-Ball Hickory Championship. It is a Tad Moore club and, rather than play it, I have it displayed as it really is a beautiful club and I don’t win a lot of trophies. Perhaps Tad would prefer I take it out and smite some helpless Wilson 50s with it, but I like it where it is. In truth, the memories of these events, of good friends and good times, are better than trophies.
Maybe that’s where the real value of modern hickory golf lies. In the memories we fashion through the friends we make and the special events we visit. Tournament champions will come to the fore, I think, regardless of the clubs they play, original or replica. These fellows are blessed with the talent to make well chosen clubs work just right, old or new. I have seen a young man from South Africa hit a ball with a 1920’s driver some 283 yards. Could we say that it’s not in the club, but in how you use it? Could such a young talent hit a modern replica driver, say, 293 yards? Who knows? Which way is the wind blowing? How does he feel that day? Is his timing off from one swing to the next? Variables.
As I say, I love the old clubs, but also find much to appreciate in the new and the obviously careful craftsmanship that goes into them. I’ll always be drawn to the original clubs and will take them to the course at any opportunity to explore their virtues and faults. For the newer clubs on the block, the replica clubs, there is a Louisville Golf jigger I’d like to try and a Vardon putter. That Tad Moore driver may find its way off the pegs and into the bag one day, too. Just for fun and exploration of a game that provides so much fascination and, often enough, just a little exasperation.