On Sunday at the NHC, Jensen, just as Georgiady predicted, comes roaring out of the gate. Playing with Ravert in the last foursome, he opens with five straight pars; Ravert, meanwhile, after hacking out of the right-hand rough on the brutal second hole, winds up with double bogey. By the fourth, Ravert's lead is gone. He and Jensen both bogey the sixth, but then Jensen turns it on, with birdies on two of the last three holes for a one-under thirty-six on his opening nine. Ravert cards a disappointing forty-two.
At the turn, all three of Jensen's playing partners—Ravert, Tom Johnson and Rob Pilewski, the latter playing in his first-ever NHC—sit at least two shots back. But then Ravert birdies ten and eleven, and after Jensen double-bogeys twelve, his lead is back to one. A one-shot lead is fragile under any circumstances, but when the competitors are playing with hickories, with the most humiliating shank just a slight mis-hit away, the knicker-wearing gallery holds its breath on every shot.
And then, at the par-five seventeenth, Jensen shows why he's the defending champ. From about 160 yards out, he hits a gorgeous long-iron second shot to ten feet for an easy birdie, putting Ravert and the others away for good. He ends up shooting a four-over 152 for a three-stroke victory and his fifth National Hickory Championship title in seven years. What's it like to dominate such an obscure corner of sports, to hold a "national" title that few people even know exists?The perfection that Jensen looks for in himself is such a private matter anyway that questions of money or fame are immaterial; what's satisfying, he says, is to play well in conditions "that the uninitiated would term unfair."
On my flight home from Oakhurst, the ads for clubs in the golf magazines read a little differently than they used to. One word stands out above all others: "forgiving." Billions of dollars have gone into the effort to design and build clubs that will absolve our swings of all their sins against perfection. It's too seductive for most of us to resist, but Randy Jensen, like a handful of others who have gone off the grid, isn't interested in any of that. In the world of golf, he's the Unforgiven.
WHERE TO BUY EQUIPMENT
The best place to shop for hickory-shafted clubs is at one of the Golf Collectors' Society's regional trade shows. Call 904-825-2191 or visit golfcollectors.com for dates and locations. A set of four playable irons will cost $45$150.
Many of the woods used by the top hickory players are replicas made by Louisville Golf Company. (Authentic woods and brassies are less common, more expensive and more fragile than irons.) Louisville woods cost $150$250. Call 800-456-1631 or visit louisvillegolf.com.
In St. Andrews, Scotland, Auchterlonies Golf Shop, founded by 1893 Open champion William Auchterlonie, continues its hickory-club-making tradition. Located on Golf Place; 011-44/1334-473-253, auchterlonies.com.
WHERE TO PLAY
While you can use hickories at any range or course (play from the most forward tees), these two clubs encourage their use:
Oakhurst Links, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is a nine-hole course restored to its 1884 condition. At an old-fashioned 2,235 yards, it's the only course that actually has a ban on steel-shafted clubs and modern golf balls, and it is home to the NHC. Rentals available; 304-536-1884, oakhurstlinks.com.
Wawashkamo Golf Club on Mackinac Island, Michigan, is an 1898 nine-hole course that has hickories for rent; 906-847-3871, wawashkamo.com.
TOURNAMENTS TO ENTER
There are about thirty hickory tournaments put on every year, and they are not just for the Randy Jensens of the world but open to all golfers. Here are the seven most popular:
Adirondack Hickory Open, July 3031, at Bluff Point Golf Resort in Plattsburgh, New York. Thirty-six holes, individual or team stroke play; 802-879-4933, hickorygolfer.com. Entry fee: $200$750.
Barry Williamson Memorial Hickory Tournament, St. Johns County Golf Course, Elkton, Florida, March 12. Twenty-seven holes; nine each of best-ball, scramble and alternate-shot play with partners; 904-810-1901. Entry fee: $70.
The Golf Historical Society of Canada hosts trade shows and tournaments, including the C.B. Macdonald Memorial at Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club in Ontario (September 2325; entry fee: about $150). Call 416-493-3049 or visit www3.sympatico.ca/bill.macdonald for details.
Hickory Open, the Kingsley Club, Kingsley, Michigan, June 2425. Private course open to the public just for the Hickory Open. Thirty-six holes, stroke play; 231-263-3000, kingsleyclub.com. Entry fee: $225.
Mid Pines Hickory Open Championship, Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club, Southern Pines, North Carolina, November 56. Thirty-six holes, individual medal play; 910-692-2114, pineneedles-midpines.com. Entry fee: $335.
The National Hickory Championship, Oakhurst Links, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, August 56. Thirty-six holes, stroke play. The field is limited to the first sixty-five applicants. To enter, write to tournament director Pete Georgiady at Box 981, Kernersville, NC, 27285, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Entry fee: $260.
Southern Hickory 4 Ball Championship, the Fields at Rosemont, LaGrange, Georgia, April 12. Thirty-six holes, team best-ball. Call 706-884-6113 to apply. Entry fee: $450 per two-person team.
The Golf Collectors' Society often hosts outings around the country for members and their guests. Annual membership fee: $50. Call 904-825-2191 or visit golfcollectors.com for information on how to join.
To put on your own hickory tournament or old-fashioned corporate outing anywhere in the United States, contact Old Hickory Golf Company in Portsmouth, Ohio; 800-349-2286, oldhickorygolf.com.
In Kendal, England, you can rent hickory-shafted clubs from Past Masters Old Links Golf Events. Call 011-44/015395-67574 or visit oldlinksgolf.com for details.
In Scotland, golf historian Alfie Ward arranges hickory play at several courses, including Mearns Castle Golf Academy, near Glasgow, and Musselburgh Links, near Edinburgh. The price, from $50$200, includes club and gutta rental, food, and Ward's company. Call 011-44/7977-385-034 or e-mail email@example.com.