HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. — To be honest, I’ve never felt so out of place at a golf tournament as I did walking through the parking lot at Mission Inn Resort & Club on Tuesday morning. I was underdressed, under-equipped and unprepared.
It all rolled into a sense of apprehension as I approached my 8 a.m. first-round tee time in the 2022 U.S. Hickory Open. I had never played a round of hickory golf. I didn’t own hickory clubs. I wasn’t decked out in knickers or other golf attire that might have felt at home in the 1910s but looked entirely novel in the early-morning Florida humidity.
You might think it’s a stretch for a complete hickory novice to take up the game using replicas of ancient golf clubs in a national championship. I certainly did. I’ve performed in very mediocre fashion in plenty of golf tournaments over the decades, but this was a whole ’nother ball game and I tried to focus on my hopes that I – a relatively low-handicapper when using modern equipment – could get the ball in the air. I decided that anything beyond dribblers, shanks, cold tops and even whiffs would be a blessing.
And I was entirely wrong about the whole scene.
The Society of Hickory Golfers, which operates the national championship, couldn’t have been more welcoming. The clubs were relatively easy to hit, even if they don’t go as far. The game is the same, even if it is very different in select ways – just try to get the ball into the hole as quickly as possible.
And it was an absolute blast – two days and 36 holes of tinkering, swinging, chasing foul balls and frequently laughing at my own moderate ineptitude. I even managed to not embarrass myself, shooting 86-85 to finish in a tie for sixth in the open division. I haven’t had so much fun shooting in the 80s since I was about 12 years old.
I had only one day to mentally prepare after Peter Flory – a Golfweek’s Best course-rating ambassador and the mastermind behind a digital replica of the famed Lido course in New York that led to Sand Valley building an actual replica in Wisconsin – told me there was a spot available in the national championship he has tried to win for several years.
After an opening stretch of bogeys – a series of results of which I am just as capable with modern clubs – I eased into hickory golf and took mental notes of why I was falling in love with this centuries-old version of the game. Following are five things I learned:
The equipment is surprisingly good
Jason Lusk’s borrowed clubs provided a touch of needless apprehension before the first round of the U.S. Hickory Open at Mission Inn Resort & Club in Florida. (Peter Flory/Golfweek)
David Dusek, Golfweek’s director of golf equipment coverage, nearly giggled over our Microsoft Teams chat when I mentioned I would begin my hickory journey in a national championship. Breaking 90? No way, he said. I was too reliant on the advantages of modern technology in my golf bag, he believed.
Sorry, David, but apparently I am just as bad without technology as with it. And that’s alright.
Flory, who said he has collected more than a thousand hickory clubs, arranged a borrowed set of eight clubs for me. I had two woods, five irons ranging from the equivalent of a 3-iron to a wedge, and a center-shafted putter. I couldn’t tell you what all the names of the clubs were, but somewhere in the mix was a cleek, a mashie, a mid-mashie and a niblick, I think.
Mine were all replicas, made by Louisville Golf or the esteemed Tad Moore and the like, but not nearly as elaborate as the century-old-or-older clubs that many of the competitors used. These folks will scour the internet as well as tournament swaps, estate auctions, old shops and garage sales in search of authentic hickory clubs that look like they might have belonged to either Tom Morris. A handful of experts will repair these treasured finds to a competitive state, and it’s amazing how well they perform for what is often a hunk of roughly shaped metal, covered with a lovely patina, on the end of a wooden stick with a leather grip.
No, these clubs will not produce the distance of modern gear, even when combined with a modern golf ball, which I believe all of us used in the championship’s open division. For example, I hit my modern 5-iron about 185 yards in the air, while my hickory replica of the same number produced only 155 yards. I’m not exactly a powerful player even with the modern stuff, but my average driving distance dropped from about 255 to maybe 215 with the hickories.
None of that mattered, as the El Campeón layout at Mission Inn was set up short for the tournament (keep reading for more on this). I was amazed, to be honest, at how well these hickory clubs performed. Even without the benefits of a club fitting or Trackman testing, I had stumbled upon a borrowed set that produced flawlessly straight shots when I made decent swings. By focusing on tempo and solid contact instead of some feeble attempt at speed, I was able to find the center of the clubface more often than not.
And the solid thump of persimmon was a treat. I grew up with that sound, dreaming of it in the 1980s as I made due with cheaper laminated wood drivers, and I had forgotten how pleasant it is to hear such a “thwack” instead of the high-pitched scream of modern titanium and carbon meeting urethane. I wish I had some balata balls, or even better, something made before the 1940s when golf balls were almost individual works of art.
Play the right yardages
Scott Staudacher, president of the Society of Hickory Golfers, makes a swing in the second round of the U.S. Hickory Open at Mission Inn Resort & Club in Florida. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
We played the open division of the U.S. Hickory Open at less than 6,200 yards, more than 1,000 yards shorter than the USGA’s U.S. Open for those distance and tech-hungry professionals this year at The Country Club outside Boston. Our modest yardage felt just about right with hickory clubs.
The par 4s ranged from 320 yards up to a max of about 380, meaning all were within range of two good shots. I hit wedges into some par 4s, my cleek (5-wood equivalent) into others, and even persimmon driver off the deck into the steeply uphill fourth hole (hit the fringe, made a par). The four par 5s were all under 500, and the par 3s ranged from 140 up to almost 170. I never really felt outmatched, but it certainly wasn’t a pitch-and-putt.
It proved that distance is relevant, and that even good players don’t have to tackle courses over 7,000 yards to have a good time. Leave those back tees to the professionals and wanna-bes, and instead focus on good contact, even better times and more birdie opportunities.
Putting might be the hardest part
Joey Piatek rolls a putt on his final hole of the second round of the U.S. Hickory Open as Matt Stovall watches at Mission Inn Resort & Club in Florida. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
I’ve never been a great putter. After a single lesson at Sea Island a few years back, I became better on the greens but still not great. And my Tad Moore-designed hickory-shafted putter, as good as it felt and as pretty as it was, exposed one of my greatest weaknesses.
Even with my modern putters, of which there are many, I tend to miss the sweet spot. Blades, mallets – you name it, and I have too many off-center strikes to be consistent. Combine that with a relatively unforgiving hickory putter – this was the most difficult club in the bag to adapt to – and the results were all too predictable. I promise, you can’t appreciate the forgiveness of a modern putter until you reach into the bag for something that predates a Bullseye by about 80 years.
I missed left, right, short and long. The only thing that didn’t happen was any hole-out of significant length on any of those 36 competitive holes. I think my longest made putt might have been 8 feet, and I felt like shopping for knickers and a golf tie after that bad boy dropped.
I wasn’t alone in this suffering. El Campeón is a quirky, classic course with tricky bermuda greens, and any putting surface in Florida’s summer heat and rain is likely to develop a fair amount of grain in the grass. Combining those challenges with our less-forgiving putters, my foursomes each day missed more putts inside 3 feet than I have ever seen. It’s not an exaggeration to say we missed at least a combined 20 putts of that length or shorter, and I was in the top division.
I missed one from a foot away – hit that sucker half an inch toward the toe and missed the hole by a good 3 inches. All I could do was laugh. Just like modern golf, the problem is more frequently the shortest shots and not the longest ones.
Keep expectations in check
Jason Lusk’s first-round scorecard, with the round starting on No. 10, had plenty of ups and downs at Mission Inn Resort & Club in Florida. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
As stated above, I’ve had mediocre results in all kinds of tournaments. My expectations, then, are likewise reasonably mediocre. I recently played in the Florida Over-40 Championship, in which I made the two-day cut but never really climbed the leaderboard – mediocrity at its finest.
With my expectations thusly in check, combined with my lack of experience with hickory clubs and a certain level of intimidation, I set forth merely hoping for the best – get the ball airborne, don’t lose too many balls, don’t rocket one sideways into a playing companion’s knee socks. I tried to simply keep the ball in play, avoiding hazards that I might normally challenge. I was, putting it into the words of Kevin Costner as Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, trying to be humble.
That approach worked. I had set the goal of breaking 90 either day, and I did it both. Now I just need to learn to transfer a bit of that appreciation to my game with modern clubs.
The approach was surprisingly liberating. I didn’t feel like a lesser player because I couldn’t reach a par 5 green in two. I didn’t see it as wimpy to go around a trap instead of over it – with hickory clubs, the ground game and related navigation is much more important. I really appreciated my solid shots instead of trying to pass them off as the expected results. The bad shots didn’t get under my skin nearly as much.
For the first time maybe ever, I went to bed each night after those two competitive rounds thinking about how much I loved the good shots instead of focusing on how much I hated the bad ones. That alone is worth the price of a hickory set.
It’s a lot of fun
With old-school style on full display, several of the contenders in the women’s division pose for a photo before the second round of the U.S. Hickory Open at Mission Inn Resort & Club in Florida. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
I can’t even begin to count how many golf shots I have hit in recent years. I can remember many of the shots on famous holes on destination courses, but the run-of-the-mill pars from most of my rounds just sail out of memory without so much as a look back.
I can recall every shot I made with hickory. I won’t bore you with a recount of the whole 36, but I hit nine greens each day, and I still smile remembering the surprisingly good shots that set up birdie putts. Every shot seemed to matter more with hickory because it was all new to me. I just wanted to see what I could do with those replicas.
And it was incredibly fun.
The whole scene – the old clothing styles that many competitors embraced, the chatter about the clubs and how they were found then repaired, the camaraderie of doing something just different enough as if we were rediscovering an old game – it was awesome. I loved it in ways that are hard to explain because it just felt authentic.
You have to try it for yourself, and then you’ll know too.
James Ciganek and Rylee Stovall earned the largest trophies at the U.S. Hickory Open at Mission Inn Resort & Club in Florida. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
The following are the results of the gross divisions in the 2022 U.S. Hickory Open on Sept. 13-14 at Mission Inn Resort & Club’s El Campeón course in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida:
Open division: 1. James Ciganek, Reston, Va., 79-78–157; 2. Joey Piatek, Munster, Ind., 86-78–164; 3. Peter Flory, Glencoe, Ill., 84-83–167
Women: 1. Rylee Stovall (Editor’s note: She’s only 15 years old), Litchfield Park, Ariz., 81-74–155; 2. Bailey Wiegandt, Louisville, Ky., 86-82–168
Senior division: 1. Steve Simer, Madison, Wis., 85-80–165; 2. Ted Kopec, Niceville, Fla., 82-85–167
Super seniors: 1. Larry Woods, Louisville, Ky., 72-77–149; 2. Gary Krupkin, Richardson, Texas, 77-81–158