Once a necessity in the game of golf, the hickory-shafted club has become a nostalgia-inducing symbol of the sport's historic beginnings in America.
When spending time on the golf course, it's a rare sight to see someone using a club with a shaft made of wood rather than metal. But there are some groups around the country, including one right in Aiken, that continue to take swings with these clubs.
Other people collect these old clubs that once were held by some of golf's first big names.
Golden era of golf
John Inglis was the man who helped design the Aiken Golf Club, established in 1912, and he was also known for building a perfectly balanced hickory-shafted club.
Aiken Golf Club Owner Jim McNair Jr. said that until about the 1930s, hickory-shafted clubs were the tools of the trade. Since there really was no such thing as a sporting goods store during that time, Inglis and others, such as golf-course designer Donald Ross, handcrafted these clubs for players.
Using hickory, because it was a strong wood, forged metal and a few measurements of the player's height, clubs were made uniquely for each golfer.
“It was a real golden era of golf because you had to really connect with your clubs since they were built for you,” McNair said. “Each club was different, so you had to have a feel for each one in your bag. You had to know each club very intimately in your set to be a really good player.”
Before the United States Golf Association began to really implement regulations to the game, clubs were nonconforming.
For example, some club makers would put deep grooves in the faces to help a golfer get out of a sand trap, McNair said.
By the 1930s, the Golf Association got more strict about clubs that were used in efforts to avoid anyone having an unfair advantage, McNair added.
The 1930s were also the time that Spalding began experimenting with metal shafts, and the slow transition from hickory shaft to iron commenced.
McNair said to help with the transition – as some players were not ready to let go of their beloved hickory clubs – some iron shafts were painted to resemble wood.
Playing with hickory
McNair has a few hickory-shafted clubs in his collection, and he's played golf with them before.
“I love the feel, but the distance is not there,” McNair said. “You don't have the consistency, and it adds a whole new element to the game.”
In the early 1900s, golf was not so much a power game, but more of a finesse game, McNair said.
There's a group of local women who are quite aware of the challenges of using the hickory-shafted golf club.
The “Ladies Only” Hickory-Shafted Golf Tournament takes place each year in Aiken, and participants will get dressed in heavy, vintage clothing that was worn by female golfers from the early 1900s, which offers its own set of challenges.
Tournament participant Pat Wilson said, “There's this really good feeling about going back in the past and understanding, as well as appreciating, how they played in these clothes with hickory shafts.”
To these women, the time in which hickory-shafted golf clubs were used is important to the history of female players.
During that time, the Aiken Golf Club was one of the first courses in America to feature tees especially for women, and legendary female golfers Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Patty Berg played there.
It offered women the opportunity to get out and do something they couldn't do before, said PJ Foster, another hickory-shafted golf club player.
When playing with these clubs, it doesn't really take a full swing, but rather a more “smooth, buttery” motion, the ladies said.
The balls used in those games were a bit more fragile than the ones used today.
If the ball broke, the player had to finish the hole with the largest remaining piece, Wilson said.
These days, when these women hit the green wearing their hats, long skirts and heavy coats, they get a few looks from other players on the course.
They often are asked if they can have their photo taken, and people do get quite inquisitive.
The women also hope to encourage other ladies to join their annual tournament, which will take place in October.
“Even if you haven't played in a while, this particular game is comfortable, and easier, with these clubs,” Foster said. “There's no pressure.”
Amy Banton is the digital news editor for the Aiken Standard.
STAFF PHOTO BY AMY BANTON PJ Foster takes a swing with her hickory-shafted golf club.×
STAFF PHOTO BY AMY BANTON These women in their vintage garb hit the green using hickory-shafted golf clubs for the annual “Ladies Only” Hickory-Shafted Golf Tournament held in Aiken in October. Pictured, from left, are Kathy Adams, Pat Wilson, PJ Foster, Lawrette McCann, Mimi Wittkamp and Vicki Gibboney.×