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Antique Clubs: In Hickory Veritas

Hacking With Your Hickories
Quick: What is the stymie rule?If you want to play the really old-fashioned way, you'd better know that it forbids marking and lifting your ball on the green, at least in match play. The USGA eliminated the stymie in 1952, but at Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia—where the play is all hickory, all the time—the stymie can be applied as a local rule. If you're stymied on the green, you'll have to putt around or over your opponent's ball. Now that's shot making.

If you're good enough to compete in the National Hickory Championship, held every summer at Oakhurst, you don't have to sweat the stymie, because the tournament is medal play. But there are lots of hickory tournaments short of the big one. The Golf Collectors Society (see box, page 132) can keep you abreast of them. Meanwhile, you can play Oakhurst Links anytime for fun (304-536-1884; oakhurstlinks.com). It's a nine-hole 2,235-yard mountain layout that was organized as a club in 1884 (making it older than Saint Andrews in Hastings on Hudson, New York, which is the oldest continuously operated American club) and renovated by Bob Cupp in the early 1990s.

Hickories from the 1920s and '30s feel somewhat heavier than modern clubs, and they make a duller but not unsatisfying sound on impact. The clubheads are smaller, the irons aren't perimeter-weighted and older ones have unscored faces. The hardest thing to adjust to, though, are the old leather grips, which tend to feel narrow, hard and slick. Look for sheepskin suede, which stays soft and comfortable.

I found the woods harder to hit straight than the irons. But the distance I achieved with both was not as abbreviated as I expected. Since numbered irons in matched sets didn't come into vogue until the late twenties, a bagful of play clubs can be a bit of a mishmash, with unevenly spaced gaps between the lofts. Where we are most spoiled is in the wedges. Sand, gap, lob—we have an instrument for every occasion.

High-lofted clubs were rare prior to the invention of the sand wedge, with its welded-in bounce, often credited to Gene Sarazen. Though the number of clubs you could carry was not restricted until 1938, playing hickories conveys the impression that the old-timers did more with less.

If you're not ready for restoration, you can buy a set of reproduction clubs. Some of the best are made by Heritage Golf of St. Andrews Ltd. (011-44-1334-477-299; heritage-golf.co.uk). The top of the line are limited-edition fully playable sets replicating the eleven irons, four woods and putter that Bobby Jones used to win the 1930 Grand Slam. At £2,900 (around $4,600) for the lot, they aren't for dabblers, but Heritage also offers a George Nicoll set (complete with wood, irons, putter, bag and head cover) from the 1920s for £895 ($1,400) and individual replicas of nineteenth-century irons for £135 ($214).

Also worth a look is Keepers of the Green (keepersofthegreen.org). Founded in 1995 as a tribute to Old Tom Morris, it holds tournaments to raise money for handicapped children and adults. —E.L.

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