Hooked on Hickory - Golf in its Purest Form

The world of golf has been characterised in the last 20 years by a golf equipment ‘’arms race’’ being waged between the equipment companies over the performance of their products. Shafts of golf clubs have lengthened by up to 5 inches, driver heads have quadrupled in volume and the golf ball flies further each season. The manufacturers aim seems to be “bigger, faster and longer.” The promise of longer drives is seductive, and the equipment companies are not to blame. They are meeting the market for ever-increasing performance.

The collateral casualties of the trend are some of the classic golf courses such as Prestwick, Merion and potentially, even the Old Course at St Andrews. These courses are now defenceless against technology. If equipment enhancements continue in the same direction new golf courses may need to stretch to over 8,000 yards. It does seem the R&A and USGA may act soon to limit the ball and even shrink driver sweet spots.

In the meantime, a small, dedicated group of golfing enthusiasts are heading in precisely the opposite direction. They are limiting the performance of their clubs – and loving it!

In their world the ball, even when struck perfectly, flies a much shorter distance. Virtually every course in the world can provide a challenge to these golfers - who are arming themselves with the tools of 100 years ago.

Hickory golf is starting to take a toehold in New Zealand and those that play it have become ‘’hooked on hickory’’. The pioneers of the hickory game in New Zealand seem to be centred mainly at older clubs in the main four centres.

This year The Christchurch Golf Club celebrates 150 years since its formation in 1873. On 12th March, the course will host The New Zealand Hickory Open for the second year. Trying hard to capture yet another national title at the age of 86, will be Sir Bob Charles. (He turns 87 two days later) The club he joined 67 years ago is a perfect fit for this vintage form of the game. After a redesign process taking approximately 25 years, the Shirley links have been restored to their former glory, accompanied by a more traditional links character. Part of this has been due to the club board’s steadfast adherence to a Peter Thomson master plan commenced in 1997, and regularly updated (as recently as 2015) by the five times Open champion.

After the pine trees were cleared and the last of the eucalyptus trees removed, a wonderful landscape of rolling sandy soil was unveiled. What better place to go back to ‘’the way golf was meant to be played.’’

Hickory wood was imported from America during the 1860s for golf shafts and remained popular right through until the 1930s when it was gradually replaced by steel. Hickory enthusiasts seek the satisfying feel of the ball coming off a club made entirely from wood and the pureness of a perfect strike. The pure strike from the middle of the small clubhead delivers a soft satisfying sensation through the hands. Hickory golf is a world away from the current huge-headed space aged driver where even an unskilled player’s mishits fly just as far, and just as straight, as drives struck from the centre of the clubface.

Are hickory golfers a lunatic fringe out of touch with the rest of the world? In mixing with them, playing with them and chatting to them it is clear they are a rather different bunch. It may be tempting for mainstream golfers to dismiss them as lunatics and Luddites – but they just seem to have so much fun!

Most of the Christchurch group are recent hickory converts and their enthusiasm is infectious. This golfer/writer paid a visit in January to the epicentre of hickory golf in Christchurch - The Hickory Sticks Golf Emporium. This is the domain of the eccentric Doctor of Hickory (his doctorate is self-conferred!) Peter van Eekelen. PVE, as he is also known, has set up a very well-equipped workshop and showroom in Ferrymead near the Port Hills. It is fortunate that Peter has a “day job” as a successful owner of a construction and property development company in the city. His part-time hickory job involves sourcing, importing and refurbishing and rebuilding clubs for play. His cabinet-making background is useful in dealing with broken shafts and club repairs in his hickory “hospital”. During a visit, Sir Bob was so drawn to the Emporium and its club making and repairs, he enquired of The Doctor if there was a position available for an 86-year-old apprentice.

Peter caught the hickory bug from his friend and fellow golfer at the Christchurch Golf Club, Mark Lawson. Mark has been the superintendent at the club for over 20 years and during that time has had an important role in the restoration of the links character of New Zealand’s second oldest golf club.

While chatting to Mark and Peter at the Emporium, the heady odours of glue, shellac, linseed and gun oil blend nicely with their enthusiasm. Commitment is one thing that this pair do not lack. Van Eekelen has imported and sourced, locally and overseas, hundreds of hickory clubs of all makes, origins and price ranges. There are 200 sets of hickory clubs under construction or renovation in the Emporium and 50 or 60 sets waiting to go out. Classic brands with names like Tom Stewart, George Nichol and Robert Forgan line the racks mixed with more well-known brands such as Wilson, Slazenger, McGregor and Spalding.” For those that choose the upper range of clubs, the hickory obsession can come at a price. Half sets cost approximately $1500-$1800, a full set $3500-$4000 and according to Peter “specialist sets that can go up to $10,000.” However, there is nothing wrong with taking grandad’s old clubs down from the attic and playing with those.

Peter Van Eekelen’s obsession with hickory only started in March 2022 and has taken a firm hold on him. He notes he has moved on from the stage of trying to “be the longest or the best and using the latest or the greatest clubs” to “playing for the joy of playing.” 

A regular group plays hickory on Thursday evenings during summer at Christchurch. I joined them for a few holes in December and the banter and competition is much the same as in regular golf. With tiny clubheads and hickory shafts some of the misses can be rather dramatic, and bunker shots require a higher skill level with a niblick head resembling a butter knife, rather than a modern sand wedge. One thing I did learn is that it is essential to finish the back swing and ‘’feel” the clubhead at the top of the backswing. Both Van Eekelen and Lawson have taken hickory golf to another level by turning up to regular club matches at Christchurch on Wednesday and Saturday with a set of entirely hickory clubs. They make quite a statement in their period dress, plus fours and flat caps, but somehow, they still seem to fit happily into a field of club members armed with the latest technology.

Mark Lawson possesses a swing made for hickory and can propel the ball vast distances off the tee with his vintage driver. He admits to having caught an extreme form of the hickory disease and now plays exclusively with hickory clubs in both social and competition play. His handicap has only slipped out from 5 to about 6.6 after the change to his vintage clubs. To quote him -” the fascination for me is that for people who may have become bored with golf will find their love for the game can be rekindled with hickory.”

I have succumbed to the sales pitch from the Doctor and have purchased a full set of George Nichol irons from his Emporium. The only area in which I have managed to economise is by the re-commissioning of my 100-year-old putter; a Rollins and Parker putting cleek that I started playing the game with at the age of 8. (Carefully restored and re-gripped for me by another enthusiast – Stu Upton)

For me, the true joy of hickory golf is wandering out by myself for a few holes with five clubs in a canvas pencil bag over my shoulder and no scorecard. The perfect time to play is in the evening, on a deserted course, with the wind gently swaying the fescue and the rolling contours of the course highlighted by the setting sun.

All is at peace with the world of golf and the game seems simple again.