By Tod Leonard
Photos by Don Kohlbauer
On the Old Course at St Andrews in 2004, the townies and the tourists standing in front of Old Tom Morris golf shop must have thought they were seeing ghosts.
Two men, dressed in knickers and wearing ties and wool caps, played their approaches to the home hole at the Home of Golf. And from the odd “thwack” their shots made, it was understood that they weren’t using graphite shafts and high-tech balls.
When Chris McIntyre, one of the golfers, reached the green, the observers were delighted to discover that he was playing with hickory-shafted sticks that could have been purchased from Old Tom a century earlier.
It was the perfect ending to an utterly wondrous day for McIntyre. Earlier, he had smacked a drive down St Andrews’ sixth fairway, and as he walked down a narrow path through the heavy gorse, tears welled up in his eyes.
“At that moment it hit me,” McIntyre recalled. “My God, I’m here at the home of golf, playing it like it was meant to be. For a second, I couldn’t believe where I was or what I was doing. It was a genuine golden moment.”
There have been many of those moments since for McIntyre, a San Diegan who is among a small but growing band of golfers around the country who have come to love hickory golf clubs and all the nostalgia they conjure.
McIntyre, 55, has turned the passion into a business. A couple of years ago, he took a buyout from Hewlett-Packard, where he’d worked for 33 years in manufacturing, and began collecting clubs and restoring them to be used in tournaments.
He has refurbished more than 600 clubs, which he rents out for events across the country. He has also been busy producing thousands of golf balls with old-time molds he bought from collectors.
Hickory competitors around the world use replicas of the 19th-century, hardened-putty gutta-percha balls that McIntyre painstakingly produces, one by one, in the workshop of his Rancho Bernardo home. “Just like young Tommy Morris would have been making in his shop in 1865,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre and another hickory-loving golfer, Del Mar art dealer Scott White, took the business to another level. Together they formed White McIntyre Authentic Golf, which offers clubs, balls, clothing, hats and accessories to hickory enthusiasts.
“It was such a classy, golden era for golf,” said White, 50. “Hickory golf is about history in so many ways.”
Just a few years ago, there were but a handful of hickory events in which to play. Now there are dozens.
Sweden, Scotland, England, Canada and Australia have all established national hickory championships. France and Germany will stage their first this year. In the United States, there are tournaments all over the country in the summer, including the granddaddy National Hickory Championship, during which golfers in the garb of the era carve their gutties around live sheep at the 125-year-old Oakhurst Links in West Virginia.
The Oakhurst tournament is hickory golf’s U.S. Open and Masters rolled into one. Watching it is said to be like attending a Civil War re-enactment at Gettysburg. The clubs must be pre-1900, and the balls are gutties. There are no golf bags or tees; just as the golfers did back then, there are buckets of sand and water from which to fashion a “tee.”
“Hickory is snowballing. You can just see it,” said Randy Jensen, an Omaha, Nebraska, golf shop owner who has been dubbed the “Hickory Tiger” because of his dominance in national events.
“When you miss the sweet spot on a hickory club by a quarter of an inch, you feel it,” Jensen said. “With a modern driver, you can miss by three-quarters and it’s pretty hard to tell. If a guy wants to be a really good golfer and loves a challenge, hickory will make you a better golfer.”
Ten years ago, McIntyre didn’t know a niblick from a mashie. But he was bored at his home country club playing the same old games, and he wanted something more out of the game.
He found what he was looking for in an 85-year-old golf club he bought out of a friend’s garage for $15. The hickory-shafted club, a shovel-like niblick, was so ugly it was beautiful. The blade was pock-marked with round indents for traction, because grooves were for mad scientists, in 1915. The grip was paper-thin leather.
It had been a beauty in its day, though, forged by one of the great Scottish golf club makers of the early 20th century, George Nicoll.
The first time McIntyre struck a ball with his niblick in 2000, the sound was “clunk!” The vibration sent a shock up his arms, and the buzz reached his brain.
“That first shot flew high into the sky, came down soft and straight,” McIntyre said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not sure what just happened here, but it worked!’ It was amazing. There was a big smile on my face. It was elation and satisfaction.”
Modern golf died for McIntyre that day. He’d gone hickory, and he wasn’t turning back.
Hickory players will proudly tell you that when Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930, he was still using hickory clubs, even though steel shafts had been made legal by the USGA six years earlier. Those are the kind of factoids that spill from golfers who are equal parts athlete, actor and museum curator. One has to be a little nutty, too, to make golf harder than it already is.
McIntyre describes himself as having been a self-loathing, perfectionist golfer before hickory. But the very nature of the old clubs—torquing shaft, small heads, smooth hitting surfaces—makes it nearly impossible to have lofty expectations. You never know exactly where the ball will go.
McIntyre heeds the words of the great Harry Vardon, the golfer he has come to admire the most: “Do not despair.”
“I find myself much less worried about mistakes, because I realize the game is about pushing it forward down the course,” he said. “You’re not hitting the ball as far, so you’ve got to figure out different ways to get it around the course. You focus more on the short game, and back then, as it is now, that was the most important part of the game.”
McIntyre, who looks the part all the more because of his wire-rim glasses and gray mustache, said he drew curious stares a couple of months ago when he played at the golf Mecca Bandon Dunes in Oregon. He wore his three-piece wool suit and tie for golf and dinner in town.
Just like that morning at St Andrews, he got a lot of attention.
“I acted the part,” he said with a smile. “That’s sort of the fun that goes along with it.”