Growing interest in golf, the way it was played a century ago

Doug Ruge (left) putts while Hap Pocras (right) watches, during the hickory golf interclub event at Champions Run in Omaha (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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December 30, 2015 - 8:45am

A new, old way of playing golf is gaining players and business in Omaha. The game is called hickory golf.

Dave Brown rips a drive from the first tee at the Champions Run golf course in Omaha. The trappings of modern golf are here; the golf cart Brown rides in as he heads down the first fairway of a meticulously manicured suburban course. But there’s nothing modern about the way he looks, nattily dressed in Plus Fours knickers, a dress shirt and tie, and newsboy cap. There’s also nothing modern about what he’s swinging, clubs with wooden shafts and names like spoon, mashie and niblick. It’s called hickory golf.

VIDEO: CLICK HERE to watch our segment on hickory golf from the 2016 season of NET's "Nebraska Stories."


Kevin Cawley drives during the hickory golf interclub event at Champions Run in Omaha. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Dave Brown (Image by John Beck, NET Television)


Hickory clubs (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Joe Manley finishes trimming a replica ball at McIntyre Golf. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


A finished McIntyre gutta percha ball. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)



Society of Hickory Golfers

Hickory Golf Association

“Hickory golf kind of brings us back to our roots of the way that golf was back in the 1800s, early 1900s,” said Brown, an orthopaedic surgeon and avid golfer who found this different way of playing the sport a few years ago, and was quickly hooked.

“Part of fascination is just the idea of golf history and what the previous great players were, Bob Jones, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon,” Brown continued. “So many of us started out as golf collectors. We’d collect clubs. We’d collect old golf balls, and then one thing led to another and pretty soon we’re trying to play these sticks.”

“Sticks” are something they talk about a lot on the course. Clubs that could be described as crude, low-tech versions of modern equipment. On this afternoon Brown is using his in a small, low key hickory golf competition between teams from two Omaha courses. The eight players share similar stories of being passionate golfers looking to the past for a new challenge.

“Golf just kind of got a little stale for me here the last few years,” said Hap Pocras, who once wore a college golf uniform; on this day his outfit included a bow tie. “I was discouraged because I wasn't able to compete like I wanted to. I was introduced to hickory golf, and at first I turned my nose to it like most until I finally tried it and I was hooked pretty much immediately.”

“Probably just the history of the game how good it feels to hit in a hickory shot playing with your buddies,” said Brian Frevert, who swung his first hickory club three years ago. “Sharing clubs, trading clubs, finding the clubs.”

It’s not a drastic change in the way people play golf. Hickory players are a very small fraction of the 25 million who play the sport in the U.S. But while the overall number is said to be declining, those around hickory golf say interest in their version is growing.

Brown is president of the national Society of Hickory Golfers. He said their membership increases 10 to 15 percent a year.

“Ten years ago no one was playing hickory. Now we’ll have 10 or 12 guys, and that’s pretty common in many of the private clubs around town where guys, typically more mature guys like myself, will play these old sticks,” Brown added.

That interest has created a small growth industry in Omaha. There’s a shop in Benson that forges the metal heads of classic clubs.

In Millard, retired music teacher Joe Manley scoops beads of a material called gutta percha from a large drum and drops them into boiling water. “I start by making a little pancake,” he said, describing the first steps in molding the type of golf ball that would have been played prior to 1905. Dave Brown owns this company, McIntyre Golf, where Manley hand-makes a growing number of balls for hickory fans and players.

“There are people who collect them,” Manley said. "There are people who play with them, and there are people who play with modern clubs that just think it's cool to have a mesh pattern ball, rather than just a boring old modern ball.”

Playing with the old equipment can be challenging. After Brown mishit a drive, his playing partners remarked from the edge of the tee box that “this stuff happens with hickory.”

“I think it happens in golf, even without hickories,” Frevert said. “But you don’t make a good swing and the bad shots are a lot worse.”

“Magnified a hundred times,” Kevin Cawley added. “You just have to accept it and move on and forget about it.”

All the players in the interclub competition this day at Champions also play rounds with modern clubs. The difference, they said, is just a few strokes and some distance, especially with woods off the tee.

In an era plentiful with swing experts and hi-tech analysis, Pocras said hickory golf is more about keeping things simple. “With hickory golf, the shafts are built in a way that it's really very much feel,” he said, “and what I mean by that is, you know, closing your eyes and swinging a club and just getting a sense of where the club is at all times. That feel there is what's most important.”

Pocras said it’s also about how they feel when using century-old equipment and clothing. “To be able to bring these old clubs and this old equipment into play, it absolutely draws that connection to where the game began and why we're here enjoying it today.”

“It feels a lot different,” said Brown, who as a player captained the U.S team that won the first Hickory International Cup competition last year in Scotland. “It's great, actually. I come out here and if I have bad hickory days it’s still a really, really good golf day.”

And a good walk “unspoiled,” by taking a few steps back in time.

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2015" Signature Story report.  The story originally aired and was published in October 2015.



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