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Antique Clubs: In Hickory Veritas

Getting the Shaft
A shaft can warp from years of lying at an angle in an attic, where temperature and humidity are uneven. The USGA recommends conditions of just below 65 degrees at 50 percent humidity. "The wood will dry out if the humidity is too low, but the leather will rot if it's too high," says Jerris. "What does the most damage, though, is expansion or contraction due to temperature and humidity fluctuations."

A hickory shaft that warps is more likely to be machine made. The earliest models were split by hand into thick dowels. Since wood splits along the grain—and the first trees harvested were as much as 150 years old and had tight, straight grain—early shafts are tough old buzzards.

Hickory is an American tree. The Scots may have had their doubts about early American golfers, but they had a high regard for our hickory, which in the early 1800s almost totally replaced elm, hazel, ash and greenheart in Scottish clubs. A lot of American persimmon was imported, as well.

By 1913, golf magazines were already bemoaning the lack of good hickory. Younger trees were felled, with looser, spongier grain. Logs that would have been rejected in the old days of hand splitting were sawed into millions of one-inch dowels in factories.

To tell whether the shafts on your old commons have an internal flaw, such as rot, insect damage or an unseen crack, Ralph Livingston recommends the "flex test." Grab an end in each hand and bend slowly, like Superman with an iron bar. Turn the shaft ninety degrees and bend again. If it creaks, crackles, sounds squishy or groans, you'll need to replace the shaft with one of a similar vintage from another club—which helps explain why collectors buy hickories by the hundreds. Livingston skips the flex test on any collectible display clubs. But for something to play with, he says: "You've got to give it a chance to snap in the shop, and not on the course, where you'll have a sharp wooden stake flying through the air. Someone could get hurt."

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