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The Hickory Tiger

The third hole is where his ordeal begins. It's a simple par three, but he catches one fat off the makeshift tee and puts it in the heavy gorse. It's a miracle that his ball is even found, and it's all Jensen can do to make bogey. By the fourth, the camaraderie the threesome shared is pretty much gone. Wallach, who with his eccentric swing and dangling cigarette is the central-casting image of a guy you'd pick up as a single on a muni course—apart, that is, from the bright-red knickers, matching tam and tartan knee socks—swears as he skulls one across the fairway. Jensen has his game face on. He's carrying six clubs, his partners just four each. He answers MacDowall's chatter politely but mumbles as he does so, staring at the ground.

He never does pull it together on the opening nine. He leaves several putts an inch short—the Oakhurst greens, it must be said, are about as long as the primary cut at most country clubs and would surely cause a revolt on any other public course in the nation. Jensen comes to the ninth—an uphill, 179-yard par four, and no, that's not a misprint—three over, and then the unthinkable happens: He mis-hits his tee shot so badly that it disappears into the creek about twenty yards in front of him. Stone-faced, he tees up a provisional and drives the green, just missing a putt for what would have been an all-American four. Still, he walks off the ninth green four over par, and people in hoopskirts and plus fours are whispering in disbelief.

He rallies slightly with a one-over thirty-eight on the second nine, but he still ends the first day three shots back of the seventy-six posted by first-round leader Russ Ravert, a doctor of education who once camped out in the nearby state forest during the tournament in order to afford the trip on a grad student's budget. The buzz around the clubhouse is comparable to what one hears when Tiger Woods flirts with the cut line—except for Georgiady, who is uncharacteristically silent. "Randy's a second-day player," he says eventually, flashing a Cheshire cat grin. "He likes to come from behind. He needs a challenge."

A month before the NHC, at 6:30 on a hot and humid Monday morning, I met Randy Jensen and his friend and fellow hickory devotee Rob Ahlschwede—a mountainous former University of Nebraska lineman with a long white beard—on the tenth tee of Omaha's Benson Park Golf Course to get in a quick nine holes of old-style golf before Jensen opened up his shop. Throughout, as Ahlschwede and I struggled along, Jensen tried his best to treat the round as just the sort of social game he probably never plays—he doled out mulligans, engaged in a little trash talk and offered me swing tips (a teaching pro, his evaluation of my position at impact actually included the word "abysmal"). But there was no concealing the fact that golf is to him a serious business. Finally, in order to satisfy his competitive urges, he insisted that we stay on the ninth green for a series of putting contests, all of which he won. "Did you see him on that last putt?" Ahlschwede asked me later. "Did you see the look on his face?He was really settling in. That's what he's like when he's competing."

In addition to being mentally tough, Jensen is a fitness enthusiast, compulsively careful about what he eats, and he can and will tell you exactly how much he bench-pressed on a given day and for how many reps (seven at 315 pounds on the Monday before the NHC, for instance). He has the obsessive nature and the taste for the encyclopedic of the true golf wonk; our lunch later that day began with a ten-minute disquisition on the history of the golf ball. His wife, Donna Isoldi, herself a golfer, speaks only admiringly of her husband's obsession. In fact, when Jensen won the Omaha World-Herald Publinks Tournament in 1989, Donna was on the bag. "I've never seen anyone who could recover from a bad shot like he does," she said. "He's competitive, but in the good sense, not the psychopathic sense. And he's the best teacher in the world. I've told him, 'If we ever get divorced, I'm still coming to you for golf lessons.'"

For years Jensen was a collector of antique clubs and memorabilia, and then he had his conversion experience. "The Golf Collectors' Society would have these meetings," he said, "and at the end they would have hickory tournaments. I had some hickory clubs sitting around the shop, so I got a bunch of them together. When I played them for the first time, in 1989, I didn't know how far they hit. I'm 150 yards out, I've got a mashie, a spade mashie and a midiron—what do I hit?I didn't know! So I started to get really interested."

So interested that he became extraordinarily proficient and then made the ultimate committment, swinging the hickories exclusively for the last three years. "Heck, what am I missing by not playing the moderns?" he concluded at the time. "I figured, why play them at all?I have more fun with the hickories, and I'm a good player, so I don't sacrifice much in terms of my score."

Jensen plays three to five mornings a week, early, with a friend or on his own. Rarely does he wind up golfing with strangers, but it happens. "It's pretty interesting," he said. "Sometimes it does a real head number on somebody with a $400 titanium driver that he just bought yesterday and I'm outdriving him. You see the circuits overloading, the fuses blowing."

Does Jensen ever think about how today's pros would fare with the old clubs?"I would be in favor of outlawing graphite shafts and titanium heads for the pro Tour," he said. "Just like in baseball they have wood bats so that Babe Ruth's records can stand up against modern-day records. I can tell you that if they did that, Tiger Woods and a few others would separate themselves from the field even further than they are now."

Having heard that, one starts to understand why a talented perfectionist like Jensen would turn to hickory golf—to distance himself, at least in his own mind, from the technology-aided rest of us. Later, in the front part of the store, a customer attempted to return an oversize titanium driver he'd bought earlier that month, claiming that it hadn't improved his game. Jensen is respectful to such people, because their belief in technology is ultimately what finances his passion. But to a select few, he makes a more heartfelt pitch: "Listen," I overheard him say on the phone a while later, "one of these days we've got to get you out on the course with the hickories. Seriously. You'll never go back."

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