Hickory golf clubs back in vogue

Originally Published: July 11, 2010
By Harold Gutmann | Special to Page 2

2009 U.S. Hickory OpenMatt DoddsCheck out the outfits and the car: In a few days, the U.S. Hickory Open will be held in North Carolina.

As a brand management consultant, Matt Dodds is all about marketing products that are newer, bigger, faster, longer. Better.

But when Dodds goes to the golf course, he takes the opposite approach.

"When I pick up my club now, I can smell it. It's of the earth, it's iron, it's wood, it's leather, it's been crafted." the resident of Burlington, Vt., said. "I've been the guy buying a new driver every three years. I'm off that wagon now, which is kind of nice."

Dodds only uses hickory clubs made prior to 1935. And he's not the only one -- the Society of Hickory Golfers claims almost 300 members nationwide, a number that grows every year.

The highlight of the season is the U.S. Hickory Open, which will be played July 13-14 at Mimosa Hills Golf and Country Club in Morganton, N.C. Only wooden-shafted clubs and club heads designed prior to 1935 will be permitted.

Between 60 and 70 golfers are expected to compete. Among the players last year, there was a group from California, and two years ago there were players from England and Scotland.

Though it's not required, golfers at the Hickory Open are also encouraged to look the part, with knickers, plus fours, dress shirts and ties straight from the Bobby Jones catalog.

"I think people are trying to get back to their roots in the game, and the only way you do it is go back and play the hickory clubs," Barry Markowitz said.

[+] EnlargeChris McIntyre
Matt Dodds Chris McIntyre tees off at the 2008 U.S. Hickory Open with his cool outfit and clubs.

Markowitz is the Secretary of the Society of Hickory Golfers and is also on the board of directors for the Carolina Hickory Golf Association, the largest local group in the country. Located in the Sandhills area of North Carolina, which includes Pinehurst, the CHGA plays a tournament every month.

"People always look at the clubs and say, 'Wow how do you use that?' Well you swing the club and hit the golf ball just like everything else," Markowitz said.

Markowitz started using wood-shafted clubs 20 years ago. As a collector of wood-shafted clubs, he occasionally took one with him for a round as a way to honor the game. He soon realized he enjoyed using the old clubs more than the new ones, even though he can only get a top distance of 190-200 yards out of the driver that was used by 1904 British Open champion Jack White.

"It was the way the game was invented, the way it as meant to be played," Markowitz said. "You have to swing correctly to hit the ball correctly. There's a lot of forgiveness, a lot science now, and that's all well and good but that's not what the intent of the game was."

Now Markowitz only uses hickory clubs, even though he believes it adds about five strokes to his 11 handicap. He likes playing old golf courses the way the original architects intended, before the tee boxes needed to be moved back.

Dodds appreciates how the old clubs allow a player to be more in tune with his swing.

"Modern clubs mask poor performance," said Dodds, a 14 handicap who also uses hickory clubs exclusively. "All modern technology has done is prevent me from feeling where I'm making mistakes."

Though trophies will be awarded to the winners of each age group at the Hickory Open, enthusiasts say the reward is using the century-old clubs.

"In hickory golf, somehow the scoring becomes not the most important part of the game," Dodds said. "There's this rich tradition to it that carries you. If you play well or you don't play well, you still have some rich psychological reward from it."

Harold Gutmann is a freelance writer for Sports Media Exchange, a national freelance writing network.