The following is an interview with Randy Jensen, author of “Playing Hickory Golf.”
How did you get introduced to hickory golf? What year did you start playing hickories?
I bought a hickory golf club at the Goodwill when I was 17 for 50 cents; I thought the old clubs were interesting! I took that old club out and hit it—and thought it was surprising good!
I ordered a set of Ping golf clubs when I was in my mid-20s, selling my Haig-Ultra set to pay for them. While waiting for the Pings to arrive, I took out my brother’s set of 1930s Bobby Jones Kro-Flites with coated steel shafts—and shot 67! The Ping clubs arrived the next day and I didn’t break 80 with those!
I played my first hickory golf tournament in 1989 and was immediately hooked; I had taken a number of hickory clubs to the driving range and selected the good ones to play in the tournament—only problem, I didn’t know how far they went and I was constantly misjudging the distance in my first event!
I owned a golf repair shop, and I resolved to set myself up with a nicely restored set of playable hickory clubs—this at a time when nobody did such a thing.
I met Ralph Livingston III in 1994 at a GCS event, and he had restored his clubs as well; we immediately hit it off. Ralph told me he thought the Tom Stewart clubs were the best playing hickory clubs; I replied that my Tom Stewart spade mashie was, by far, my favorite club. We both began to acquire Stewart clubs.
Ralph and I traveled to Scotland to meet David Hamilton and play in the Scottish Hickory Championship; we finished the tournament with the two lowest scores and there were complaints that we had restored our clubs! I thought to myself: Bobby Jones didn’t play with loose shafts and unraveling grips—why should we? Play in a hickory tournament today and the situation has reversed itself!
Ralph went on to write the book on Tom Stewart clubs and I wrote “Playing Hickory Golf.”
What is your fascination with Hickory Golf? Why do you think golfers should try playing hickories?
I’ve always been attracted to antiques and history. And I have always been turned off by the unwarranted hype surrounding new golf clubs; if it was all true—we would all shoot great scores with modern clubs. People are often very surprised that they make such great shots with hickory clubs—but low scores in golf are all about the swing, not the equipment.
I have found that about one golfer in 10 will be attracted enough by hickory golf to play regularly. That means we are only scratching the surface of potential hickory players. The future looks bright for hickory golf.
What advice would you give to a new hickory golfer? Or a new hickory golfer looking to put together a playing set?
I would recommend that you try a lot of clubs and have the clubs customized and fit just like a modern set; if you do this, you may shoot the same scores that you do with modern clubs.
The average handicap is about 50% higher with hickory, i.e. a 10-handicapper is a 15—but a 2-handicapper is only a 3. I know two 10-handicappers who shoot the same scores, modern vs. hickory.
I just move up to a shorter set of tees; I play hickory clubs nearly exclusively, though I do like the 1950 persimmon MacGregor woods and some of the great putters and wedges from this era as well.
What clubs make up your current playing hickory set?
I have the following in my bag:
* Jack White deep-face driver (9*);
* Forgan brassie (12*);
* Ben Sayers patented “Masta” spoon (16*);
* Stewart driving iron (18*);
* Stewart driving mashie (23*);
* Stewart iron (26*);
* tewart mashie iron (30)—with a tournament hole-in-one;
* Stewart mashie (35*);
* Condie jigger (35*)—great around the greens;
* Stewart spade mashie (40*)—stamped for Gene Sarazen (personal club);
* Stewart mashie niblick (44*);
* Stewart Young Benny (48*);
* Stewart/Tom Morris niblick (52*);
* Hagen Own model convex-faced flanged niblick ( loft varies from 54* low on the face to 58* at the top)—personal prototype made by Gibson for Walter Hagen: six known to exist;
* a very large-headed George Nicoll niblick with 60* loft;
* and a Nicoll blade putter WITH FACE BULGE stamped for Tommy Armour (personal club)—better hit it in the center!
What is your favorite club in the bag and why?
Love the Jack White driver; Hagen convex sand wedge; Stewart/Tom Morris niblick; and the Armour putter!
What golf ball do you traditionally play with hickory clubs?
Of course, I was the first player to win an event with one of Chris McIntyre’s prototype golf balls. Now Dr. Dave Brown makes the McIntyre balls here in Omaha. I love the look of the mesh pattern ball.
Low compression or soft cover golf balls are best for the longevity of your hickory shafts and wooden clubheads. I like testing different golf balls (and clubs).
What is your most prized hickory club, hickory era memorabilia or most interesting find?
There is almost too many to list—many are now in private collections! I love my two playable hickory clubs that belonged to Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour who were great friends!
What is your most proudest accomplishment on/off the golf course?
Winning eight National Hickory Championships and over 70 hickory golf tournaments ranks high; I was a founding member of the Society of Hickory Golfers and I wrote “Playing Hickory Golf.”
The most memorable thing is really all the great friends I’ve made in the hickory golf world.
What is your favorite hickory golf course?
The West Links of North Berwick in Scotland.
Of course, the Old Course is great; I like the ruggedness of Cruden Bay a lot, too.
In the USA, Oakhurst Links (#1 with gutties), Myopia Hunt Club, Merion, Cypress Point, Yale GC, Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, and Sand Hills stand out for me.
What is your most recent addition to your hickory golf bag? Why?
My Ben Sayers “Masta” spoon that I got from Chris McIntyre. I almost never hit a bad shot with it—what’s not to like!
Dream foursome? (living)
Rob Ahlschwede, Roger Hill, and Tad Moore—this would be a lively group.
You want to play with interesting people—you never know who might be great to play with; I like to play with new people.
Ralph Livingston III was great to play with—highly entertaining; John Sherwood, too.
If you could go back and play a round of golf in the hickory era, who would round out your dream foursome?
I would pick Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, and Walter Hagen—with Old Tom following our group as a referee!
Do you have a golf course, trip or adventure on your hickory bucket list?
I want to play the great courses in Ireland.
What golf associations do you belong to?
Nebraska Hickory Golf Association; founding member of the SOHG; long-time member of the GCS.
What is your must have 19th hole drink/dish?
Someplace with a lot of great food!
18 Rapid Fire Questions
Caddie or no caddie?
I’ll take a caddie; Tom Hughes was the best I ever had.
Your last round played, did you play modern or hickory clubs?
Hickory, of course! What a question!
The last course played with hickory clubs?
Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, Nebraska; great membership of hickory golfers there including Dr. Kevin Cawley & Dr. Dave Brown.
What percentage of your rounds are played with hickory golf clubs?
99.9%. Occasionally I’ll play a 1950s/1960s round.
Long Par 3 or Long Par 5?
I would definitely pick the long par 5!
Are you more of a Hickory golf collector or Hickory golf player?
Shorts, Knickers or Trousers?
I like to switch off; plus fours for a 1920s tournament; shorts for a very hot day; and trousers for cooler weather and to keep the mosquitoes at bay for early mornings.
St. Andrews or Pebble Beach? (or somewhere else?)
Both are crowded and quite commercialized which does not enhance the experience; try North Berwick and Pacific Dunes as alternatives.
I love Pebble Beach, but would choose the Old Course first!
Just off the green. Jigger, Niblick or Putter?
I limit myself to jigger or Stewart/Morris niblick—at least until I can get my practice time up to about eight hours a day so I am effective with other clubs…
With hickories, round of life or hole in one?
Round of my life. I have seven hole-in-ones—two with hickory, one in a tournament.
Play for fun or play for something?
Play for fun.
Early morning or twilight?
Early morning, for sure!
Favorite hickory-era golfer? (Jones, Sarazen, Hagen, ???)
Tommy Armour; but I like Vardon, Jones, Hagen, and others! Bobby Jones wrote many great articles on golf and Vardon’s instruction book from 1905 is great reading today!
Drive for show or putt for dough?
Putt for dough; I would practice the short putts a lot—you want to make all those!
Canvas bag or leather bag?
Leather for sure—classic & water resistant for those dewy early morning rounds.
Leather grip color/style preference?
Rough side out buffalo leather treated with Tiger Stick
Patina or polished clubs?
I like the dark patina; the polished clubs can glare in your eyes from the sun’s reflection.
Broken shaft. Fix it myself or call an expert?
I owned a golf repair shop for 25 years; I like to work on clubs. I recommend working on your own clubs if you have any inclination for that; the skills can be learned fairly easily—work on lesser clubs first to develop a base skill level.
Be sure to check your iron’s lie angles and match them to your specs; and you can improve some poorer playing clubs that feature a dig sole by adding loft.