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The Hickory Tiger

Randy Jensen can drive a golf ball 320 yards in the air, but no one will ever see him do it. That's because Jensen, an Omaha, Nebraska, golf-shop owner and former state public-links champion, had a revelation, one with which very few golfers will ever be able to identify: The whole trouble with golf, he realized, is that it's just gotten too easy.

So, three years ago, Jensen renounced forever his titanium-head woods and steel-shaft irons. Instead he now plays scratch golf with an eighty-year-old set of clubs actually made of wood and iron—a mashie, a niblick, a spoon and other antiques that the average golfer would be most likely to encounter at a yard sale.

"You can play with modern clubs," Jensen says, "and you can mis-hit it all over the face of your driver and still get some pretty good results out of it. A player with hickory clubs can't do that. If you're a little bit off, man, you can shoot some bad numbers really easily. I like that aspect of it."

A small but growing number of devoted masochists share his sentiments. In 2004 some thirty hickory golf tournaments, played with vintage equipment or with replicas that meet 1920s specifications, were held around the globe. And Randy Jensen is the Tiger Woods—or the Old Tom Morris, if you prefer—of that world; he plays a dozen or so of these amateur events a year, winning most of them, and could play another dozen if time, and his budget, permitted.

The centerpiece of his schedule—and by far the most hard-core of these events—is the National Hickory Championship. Held every summer at Oakhurst Links, a nine-hole course in the hill country of West Virginia, the NHC requires its competitors to play thirty-six holes with clubs and balls—and in clothes—that imitate the game of golf as it was first played in the U.S. in the late-nineteenth century. Jensen came to the 2004 NHC as the prohibitive favorite, having won the tournament in four of the six years since its inception. His winning score in 2003, on a course that measures a measly 2,235 yards, was a four-over 152, and if you think you could do better, let me tell you, laddie, you aren't man enough.

Oakhurst Links is the Colonial Williamsburg of golf, where only hickory play is permitted and there are knickers for rent in the clubhouse. It's one of the twenty-plus courses that claim to be the oldest in America, but the only one dedicated to preserving itself exactly—and I mean exactly—as it was in the old days. Oakhurst's fairways, for example, are cropped by a flock of sheep. (In case you're wondering, hitting wool is a one-stroke penalty.) Tees are not permitted; instead each packed-dirt tee box holds two buckets, one filled with sand and one with water, from which you construct a mud stand with your fingers for your ball. Rakes in the bunkers?Please. Marking and cleaning your ball on the green?Not around here we don't. At the NHC, even golf bags are proscribed; clubs are carried loose, which tends to make you rethink how many you really need anyway.

But the balls—ah, the balls. The hard, three-piece ball that we all grew up with didn't come into use until the twentieth century, and so at Oakhurst golfers play with simulated gutta-percha balls, or "gutties," manufactured out of rubber in Britain and retailing for seven dollars apiece. They resemble volleyballs that have shrunk in the dryer, and hitting one is roughly analogous to playing tennis with a dead ball; the farthest even Jensen can smack one of these specimens is 220 yards. First-time NHC competitors get a set of four in the mail a few weeks before the tourney, so they can acclimate themselves to the peculiar, profoundly unsatisfying whump that's felt and heard when mashie meets guttie. The balls are such rarities that losing one in the rough—as frequently happens at Oakhurst—is a real threat to one's equanimity. There's a practice tee out by the sheep barn, but it doesn't get a lot of use, because when you hit an Oakhurst ball, you have to go find it and bring it back.

Golf, in any form, is irreducibly about masochism, so it's not surprising that Oakhurst's living-museum approach—after laying dormant for sixty years, the course reopened this way in 1994—attracts players from all over and of all skill levels, from the lowliest duffers to Tom Watson and Lee Trevino; the latter reportedly started out his round at Oakhurst in characteristic high spirits and left after just nine holes in a rage of frustration.

In 1998, a golf writer and antique-club enthusiast named Pete Georgiady organized the first NHC. The tournament is really two events in one. For Jensen and a dozen or so others, it's an exercise in self-denial and intense competitive concentration; for the rest of the field, it's a chance to be like those folks who dress up on weekends and reenact the Civil War. They wear plus fours and tasseled garters and hoopskirts and pretend it's the old days and shoot thirty over par and have themselves a ball. The period dress . . . well, there's a kind of culture gap there; either it strikes you as ridiculous or it doesn't. Even if one does yearn to experience firsthand how profusely the average golfer sweated in 1884, shouldn't experiencing it once do the trick?

Jensen, when he takes the tee to defend his title in August 2004, wears his usual simple white shirt and tie and a floppy cap. Now forty-nine, he bears a passing resemblence to Steve Elkington, mixed with a young Jimmy Carter. The sheep are out by the ninth tee as he begins his first round, his threesome filled out by fourteen-handicapper Allen Wallach, whose flair for 1880s golf fashion is such that the tourney's annual Best Dressed award is named after him, and Jack MacDowall, a North Carolina wood-company executive whose grandfather was a golf pro in Scotland and who played with hickory clubs for the first time in the previous day's practice round.

On the 226-yard first hole, overhanging trees dictate such a low ball flight that a pond just sixty yards off the tee is brought into play. All three clear it safely, though, congratulate one another on their pars and feel bullish. Then comes the second hole, a 322-yard par five that is, believe it or not, monstrously difficult. The tee shot is a blind dogleg right that must clear a raised bunker, and if you're lucky enough to find your ball after that, the approach to the green is a narrow chute framed by steep sidehill lies. Behind the green is jail. It takes nerves of steel to try to get on in two; Jensen goes for it, comes up just short and pars again. He spends considerable time waiting for his partners to search for their balls in the deep rough. It crosses my mind, as he waits, that he could probably take the driver out of any regular golfer's bag, drive this green and putt for double eagle. But to him that would be no fun.

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