World Hickory Open 2013

Added on October 27th, 2013 by Lorne Smith
Posted in General, Greenkeeping, Hickories, New courses reviewed, Slow play

The playing of Hickory golf is a strange occurrence to most golfers.

Nevertheless over the coming years we are likely to see its re-emergence as

1) part of the modern ‘retro-trend’ back to a ‘running’  game, and

2) as a form of golf that gives to its participants so much of the enjoyment that has been lost from today’s recreational game, which is now dominated by unregulated equipment and ball manufacturers, over-soft greens and slow play. 

Alasdair Good, world hickory open, montrose golf links,

Alasdair Good drives from Montrose’s 1st tee

When Lionel Freedman invited me to take part in his festival of international hickory golf, called the World Hickory Open (WHO) at Montrose Links, Angus, in early October, I accepted as a way of hoping to understand the hickory phenomenon better.

Lionel admits it was a ‘cheek’ to use that tournament name when he inaugurated the competition in 2005 with only one non-British player. However, the World Hickory Open seems to have come of age by 2013, much helped by the support of ‘Carnoustie Country’ (more of that later).

There were large contingents of Swedes (which as a country seems to have taken to hickories with relish), Australians, South Africans and of course Americans as well as seven other countries represented among some 100 players (including twelve professionals not even playing for any money!), all playing speedy golf with hickory shafted clubs, mostly carried in small bags and wearing attractive old regalia, including a number of women in dresses.

Czeslaw Kruk, Ueli Lamm, world hickory open

Czeslaw Kruk and Ueli Lamm

Is this a spectacle to be merely laughed at? Well perhaps, as returning to the first half of the last century could well be seen as being a bit strange and Lionel, the showman that he is, is a natural leader of these folk.

As with all passionate causes, there is a pecking order and the British Golf Collectors Society (BGCS), formed in the late 1980s with the objective of bringing golf memorabilia collectors together, has evolved into the key driving force behind the resurrection of hickory golf in Britain. There are now numerous matches and competitions up and down the land for those who enjoy playing with pre-1935 clubs.

Lionel wisely titled his event an Open, rather than confine it to the BGCS where you have to become a member. (As an aside, being a member gives you four copies of their magazine Through the Green every year, offering erudite, detailed articles on the history of the game. I, for example, have discovered the incredible importance of John Low to the formative Edwardian golf era, a man of whom I would guess only 20% reading this article have even vaguely heard!)

british golf collectors society, through the green, bgcs,

BGCS’s quarterly magazine

Hickory players are nothing if not polite and well able to see that the greater good and enjoyment that hickory golf gives, should not be undermined by any factionalism or a disappearing into historical exactitude.

Lionel has been invited by the BGCS to be their honorary starter at the ‘The Hickory Grail’, a prestigious match held every other year between American and European members of the Society. It was played over Walton Heath GC this year and I am advised the result was a tie 12 – 12. If Lionel is half as good a starter as Alan Crow, the President of Montrose Links, who introduced and brought players together on the first tee for the WHO, he will be doing well.

I had played only one hickory round with Harry Bowden across the Struie at Dornoch a few years previously, when I remember the difficulty of getting the ball off the ground with a driver!

monifieth golf links, ron mcleod,

Monifieth’s four club houses and the Ron McLeod Pro shop

I was therefore pleased that we all had a practice Stableford competition across the Monifieth Ashludie course played at 5,100 yards ( we played with ‘mesh pattern lattice’ type balls that travel less far than modern balls). This play was prior to two days at the fifth oldest golf club in the world, Montrose, where they celebrated in 2012 no less than 450 years of playing golf across their turf.

The greens on both courses are high in fine bents and fescue grasses giving firm, true greens of delightful quality and speed. 


Without being able to gain much backspin from the faces of hickory shafted irons, the skill in scoring well comes down to how you run the ball into the green across bumpy ground while avoiding the gathering-in bunkers.

montrose golf links, world hickory open

Montose’s 18th hole

Knowledge of the course becomes paramount in providing enjoyment as you calculate the right spot from which to give the best approach to the green and then watch with baited breath as your ball runs with the movement in the ground, rather than just waiting to see if you have calculated the distance ‘thru the air’ correctly, as required by soft-greened ‘target’ golf.

They say you have to play the Old Course at St Andrews many times before properly appreciating its brilliance in giving enjoyment.

Hickory golf exaggerates that very same concept of discovery and I doubt hickories are as much fun on lush ‘target-style’ courses or modern ‘international’ conurbation type courses.

Indeed, hickories bring a classic course back to how it was initially designed to be played.

Forget playing hickories over, for example, the Burma Road, West course at Wentworth, recently adorned with its new Ernie Els raised greens and penal bunkers. Ernie may protest that all he has done is restore the ‘shot values’ (whatever that means) to each hole by requiring a ‘thru’ the air’ approach to the greens for the Pros but at the same time he has ruined the enjoyment of the normal recreational golfer of this classic previously Harry Colt-designed course. (To be truthful one has to return to 1960/70s at Wentworth to find the ‘running’ game there, as the greens were pure Poa annua ‘sticky puddings’ in the 1980/2000s).

royal montrose golf club, world hickory open

Royal Montrose GC clubhouse

There were a number of strongly built professional golfers in the line-up at Montrose but the longest drive competition was won by my playing partner Alasdair Good, the pro at Gullane, and I doubt it was much more than 230 yards.

We played off Society tees of just over 6,000 yards, with one par five of 514 yards with a 15/20 mph wind blowing across the fairway. It took me three, well-hit, wooden shots using a brassie and two spoons to be alongside this green.

My normal driver has the stiffest of shafts to give me more control as, after a slow backswing, I thrash through the hitting area, worrying less whether the ball hits the middle of the enormous clubface, since all modern aerodynamic balls still go pretty straight and 90% from even the peripheral edge of the face. Not so with hickories; there is a very small sweet-spot that, if attained, allows the ball to fly well with a purity of strike but hit the ball off centre and 50% of one’s power is immediately lost with a slice or hook usually also incorporated into the bargain.

The whippiness of hickory shafts requires timing not thrashing!

In simple terms, when you hit a good shot with hickories it is all about you, not the equipment.

The old adage that low handicappers only remember the two or three bad shots in a round whereas high handicappers walk off remembering the two or three good shots, is transformed with hickories when everybody remembers their good shots!

hickory bag, world hickory open

A typical hickory bag

I borrowed some newly built irons from the last manufacturer of golf clubs in Scotland, St. Andrews Golf Company, who own some of the great manufacturing names including George Nichol (supplier of Henry Cotton’s clubs) and also Tom Stewart who made the Great Bobby Jones’ Clubs when he completed the Grand Slam with hickories in 1930.

I believe some officiados of hickory would frown upon ‘repros’ or, as others like to call them, ‘modern authentics’ (many being made by Tad More in Alabama and Mike Just in Louisville, Kentucky) and their insistence on pre-1935 shafts is meant to give more power but the simplicity of a matched set of three irons seemed to my inexperienced eye to give me some advantage.

One has to discover for oneself how the jigger (low iron), mashie (medium iron) or niblick (wedge) work and I found with my naturally upright swing that I was often catching the ground with the toe of the blade.

I guess as more people take up hickory golf, selecting what clubs to play becomes quite a subtle art, but then again adapting your swing may become also part of the fun.

World Hickory Golf Open, paolo quirici, frida rydbeerg

Winners Paolo Quirici and Frida Rydbeerg

Perhaps one other big reason for playing hickories is that of avoiding all the dull and over-hyped sales talk about the latest modern equipment which these folk might call ‘equipment hysteria’.

After three competitive rounds, I am still completely at sea with regard to my own game but I instinctively feel hickories would be most fun in a match-play situation which of course is where the true spirit of the golf game lies.

Not to be left behind, the American ‘Society of Hickory Golfers’, only founded as recently as 2000, have announced they will be running the first World Hickory match-play tournament next year.

Last year the World Hickory Open was won by Rick Valentine, grandson of the famous Scottish ladies champion Jessie Valentine and he is master of golf at Loretto School Golf Academy in Musselburgh.

This year’s champion was Paolo Quirici, a Swiss golf professional, whose rounds of 72 and 82 gave him victory by three strokes.

world hickory open, The Times WHO article ,

The Times WHO article

The Ladies’ Quaich was won by the 18-year-old Swede, Frida Rydbeerg.

It was good to see Sky Sport reporting the event and The Times also had article on it.

Whereas most of Scotland’s county councils hand over their marketing budgets to organisations like Visit Scotland, Angus have an in-house team who help small businesses market themselves within the tourist market, a major sector of that being the thirty or so golf courses within fifty miles of Carnoustie, six of which are in FineGolf’s GB&I finest 200.

This marketing organisation is appropriately called ‘Carnoustie Country’, using the world renowned municipal, open championship course at Carnoustie as its headline attraction.

There was no semblance among the Carnoustie Country people I met of focussing merely on ‘attempting to justify their own existence’, a criticism often levelled by some at the public sector, and their innate shrewdness as evident in attracting Lionel to hold the WHO in Angus, boding well for their mutual futures.

To quote Lionel, “Some may see us as looking back through rose-tinted glasses. I think we would prefer to be seen as looking forward with the spirits of the great at our shoulder”.

I for one have become considerably more sympathetic to the sociability around hickories, with its emphasis on the enjoyment of the running game, usually played off forward tees and at a brisk pace but I have to admit I am unlikely to give up my 30-year-old Ping Eye Two clubs quite that easily.


Reader Comments

On November 3rd, 2013 James Davis said:

Thank you for your report on hickory golf and the World Hickory Open. Lionel is as fine a gentleman as you will ever meet and a wonderful exponent of this new/old sport. Your account was a pleasure to read. I urge caution. Your Ping Eye Two clubs may find themselves more often left behind as hickory shafted clubs allow you to, again, discover the joys of golf that modern technology simply cannot offer.

On November 25th, 2013 Rob Ahlschwede said:

Great article. Hickory golf is growing slowly but surely. To me it brings back the pure pleasure of playing a centuries old game using clubs designed before the advent of clubs and balls augmented by modern technology. A different kind of challenge.
You will find that over the next few years–some take more than 10–you will work to put together a set of “original” clubs that may have been played by great players of the past–or not!! Clubs that become friends, not tools, and your relationship with them becomes much more personal.

On November 25th, 2013 Andrew Buchan said:

Well put Lorne…or should I say putt.
My fear of using hickories for the first time was more than matched by the sheer joy of hitting my first good shot. I echo the subtle efficiency of Carnoustie Country and the stateliness of Lionel.

On November 26th, 2013 Czeslaw kruk said:

This is a Fabulous Newsletter.
Let us hope for more and an even bigger hickory tournament.
Well done Lionel

On December 1st, 2013 tim alpaugh said:

lorne, very well written piece on the WHO and the evolution of the hickory movement…..there can never be enough praise and recognition given to lionel freedman and his efforts to expand the charm, simple beauty and undeniable pleasure that is hickory golf…..i am delighted that your initial experience was as enjoyable as it is for most who step outside their comfort level and experience the pleasure that the game was to the likes of vardon, taylor, hilton, ball and the many who knew only hickory golf……as a side note, the world hickory match play competition is being hosted by our very own metropolitan hickory society and match play golf, which dominate the amateur, both here and in britain, as well as most golf in the turn of the previous century, will again be brought to the forefront and add one more element of excitement and pleasure to this great game

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