Hickory Heaven


IRVINE, Scotland ' Here in the land where the foam on your beer clings to the side of your glass, you expect things to be a little different. Incongruities abound, silently and systematically crumbling the American ethos of everything in its place, all neat and modern.
Sitting in the bay window of the clubhouse at Irvine Bogside Golf Club on a windy Wednesday afternoon, you realize that Scotland delights in presenting incongruities of time, little arguments that history can coexist with rampant modernity, and probably should.
Case in point: To my right, on the paneled grill room wall, is a display of ancient golf clubs. A member stands before it, exclaiming to his fellows a couple tables away, The long-nose looks like a Philp!, referring to a well-known maker of old putters. His friends harrumph their assent.
At that same moment, viewed over the rim of my foamy pint glass, is the first tee at Irvine, a club that dates back to the late 19th century. In the distance is a high hill surmounted by half a dozen state-of-the-art windmills, spinning madly. Scotland is making the best of its ever-present natural resource. And out the same window to the right is the railroad line, the same one that runs by Royal Troons famed 11th hole about 10 miles south of here. Every ten minutes, the telltale BEE-ohh heralds the approach of another BritRail locomotive.
It does not seem so incongruous, then, that I, a thoroughly modern man, should be dressed in knickers, argyle socks, and a shirt and tie. I am to knock it about today with members of the British Golf Collectors Society. I will use hickory-shafted clubs made before 1930 and a replica Haskell golf ball. For today at least, I have exchanged titanium and graphite for a microscopic sweet spot and charmingly erratic performance.
So it would seem, anyway. What I found in the playing was that although it is harder to make completely satisfying contact, playing with hickories adds a new dimension to the game. Nothing said here should be taken to denigrate modern golf ' its just that the older game is different, the way the Louvre is different from the Museum of Modern Art. Theyre both art, just different approaches.
One quickly finds out with hickories that you only need about half a dozen clubs. Shot creation becomes more important as you monkey with ball position and clubface angle. It gets very challenging ' and proportionately satisfying ' when you manage to pull off a 135 mashie-niblick (call it a 7-iron) shot in one instance, then use the same club to hit a low, running, hooky pitch of about 60 yards in another.
Of course, the hard surfaces and design of Scottish courses encourages this. But absent mushy watering practices, theres no reason not to raid the discount bins and assemble a set of these clubs for fun rounds on U.S. courses. But Im getting ahead of myself.
The BGCS boys (and some girls) use their summer meeting as a chance to dress up in period costume and become committed hickory nerds. I played with Rusty Billingsly, producer of 'Whats In The Bag?,' and John Hanna, an Irishman with steel-grey, swept-back hair and little glasses. Rusty and I looked good, but Hanna was resplendent in butter-colored plus-fours and a matching linen sport coat. His socks were a marvelous sky blue/pale yellow combination, and he had the gumption to tie his own bow tie.
Lest we think he was just a pretty face, Hanna immediately stepped up to the tee and split the fairway like a butcher after knife-sharpening day. He continued this quiet campaign all around the course, putting himself in excellent position for creative irons and wedges to Irvines tricky greens.
Rusty, a 9 handicap, acquitted himself well, and I plodded along. I didnt score particularly well, but I had a great time figuring out how high, right, left, bouncy, whatever, I wanted to hit my shots. Our borrowed clubs (thanks to BGCS stalwart John Sherwood) were an eclectic lot, with different kinds of leading edges, weights, balances ' if they were guests at a dinner party, there would never be a dull moment, because each one brought something new to the mix.
Throughout the afternoon, divots flew, marram grass lofted off wedge faces as people extracted their balls from the rough, and putts clicked off old metal. Bunkers took on a new menace as I approached golf life without Sarazens flange.
But with just a few clubs in my Sunday bag, my step remained light. I was challenged and invigorated. When bad ankle tendons forced an early retirement, I was disappointed. I wanted more.
Later, having doffed my sweater vest and tossed on a sportcoat (still with the knickers), I sat in the clubhouse with my new friends, laughing over the fact that I was the one with the accent, and contemplating another foamy glass. I promised myself that Ill be looking in a lot more discount bins from now on.
Email your thoughts to Adam Barr