By Paul Ingrassia
EPSOM, England (Reuters) - Before titanium, before graphite, before composites and before steel, golf clubs had shafts of wood, ideally hickory. That era ended 80 years ago for most golfers.
But it lives on today among a coterie of enthusiasts who revel in their anachronism, spurning modern clubs that promise maximum "moment of inertia," minimum "cross-sectional deformation," and other attributes from that twilight zone between technology and marketing.
"Some people think steel shafts will catch on, but I don't want to rush into it," says Philip Truett, president of the British Golf Collectors Society. Many golfers felt likewise a century ago, when steel shafts first appeared, painted brown to look like wood.
But by the mid-1930s, steel had vanquished wood, except among hardcore holdouts.
Truett only plays with hickory-shaft clubs. That is extreme, even among hickory golfers.
Most have modern clubs with steel or graphite shafts for regular rounds. They reserve their wooden shafts for special events.
Among them: the annual Scottish Hickory Championship, the Transylvanian Hickory Open in Romania, the Open de France Hickory and a biennial America v Europe event known, reverently, as the Hickory Grail.
The next one is in October at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, which has hosted several professional major tournaments (played with modern clubs).
Just what inspires devotion to yester-tech equipment is not obvious. Typical golfers shell out hundreds of dollars for cavity-backed, face-balanced, nano-alloy carbon fiber creations, hoping for longer and straighter shots. Annual golf-equipment sales total about $12.5 billion worldwide, industry studies show.
But to wood-shaft enthusiasts, it is more satisfying to hit a hickory "mongrel mashie" than its modern equivalent, a five iron.
"It brought back the memory of why I played the game to begin with," explains former American professional Mark Carnevale, now a radio golf analyst, who played his first hickory round last summer and hopes to play in October's World Hickory Open at Carnoustie in Scotland.
"I could go out there and be an artist, so to speak."
Neil Millar, a London university professor and hickory enthusiast, added: "There's a tactile aspect, the feel of the ball on the clubhead."
Millar "stumbled into" hickory golf five years ago at a club-collectors meeting, and was surprised to see collectors playing with their clubs.
Indeed, collectors started hickory-golf events to do something with their clubs besides look at them. Members of America's Golf Collectors Society, founded in 1970, staged "hickory hacker" tournaments before founding the Society of Hickory Golfers in 2000. It has 800 members and a twice-yearly magazine, the Wee Nip.
The British Golf Collectors Society, founded in 1987, is about the same size. It has a formula for converting golfers' regular scoring handicaps (the number of strokes allowed above par) to hickory handicaps. Golfers with regular handicaps between nine and 14, for example, get an extra five strokes when playing with hickory clubs -- for good reason.
While modern golf clubs have extra-large sweet spots that propel a ball further and minimize the errant ball-flight from mishits, hickory clubs have smaller heads and are not forgiving. The ball does not go as far and slightly off-center hits fly far afield.
"In hickory golf you remember your good shots," says Tony Hunt from Sevenoaks, England, winner of the English Seniors Hickory Championship two years ago.
"In modern golf you remember your bad shots."
And while modern clubs emit a metallic 'ping' sound when striking a golf ball, he adds, hickory clubs resonate with a satisfying 'woosh'.
Hunt discovered hickory golf six years ago, when he spotted old clubs at a furniture auction, bought them and tried them. Later, the retiree turned his hickory hobby into a part-time business.
Today he owns more than 60 sets of hickory clubs, which he restored himself. His business, South of England Hickory Golf, hires out the sets for "vintage golf" outings at courses celebrating special events, such as centennial anniversaries.
Players don period dress, such as plus-fours and argyle socks. Hunt staged 20 events last year, and did one recently at the Royal Automobile Club's Old Course in Epsom (where this writer was an eager, though often hapless, participant).
Some rare collectible hickory clubs cost more than $5,000. But most restored hickories sell for $60 to $150. A set with five to seven clubs suitable for play can be had for $500 to $600 -- not much more than a new graphite-composite driver.
"I carry just five clubs -- a driver, a putter and three irons," says Truett, far less than a modern set's 14 clubs. The temptation to splurge on new equipment every year, he adds, is "out of the equation".
(Editing by Ed Osmond)