Bowties, mashies, and hickory


LITTLE ROCK — Employing a pastel reminder about the proper stroke or pondering clubs in the sink for an overnight soak, Hardscrabble Country Club pro Jeremy Moe is into golf from another era.

In Hickory Golf, the clubs have wooden shafts, driver faces are wood instead of forgiving metal, mashies and niblicks abound, knickers and bowties are the proper attire, and most everybody shoots higher scores than they do with modern equipment.

At 43, Moe is the U.S. Hickory Open champion, winning in New Jersey in mid-July.

There are no rules about the golf ball — most participants use a low-compression sphere — and Moe prefers a pink-decorated ball that Titleist produced to honor breast cancer awareness.

He tells himself, “It’s a pink ball, now swing like a lady.”

Swing hard and fast with wooden clubs and there’s no telling. “My gosh, the ball will curve,” he said. “You have to be more creative, more careful, you have to plan. It’s unpredictable, but 70 percent of your scores come from 100 yards in so if you can chip and putt …”

During the first round of the Hickory Open, he hit such a wild hook that his playing partner suggested the ball might come full circle and strike him in the behind. He put the driver away and played the back nine with a driving iron. Something like the 1-iron that was popular 30 years ago, it propels the ball about as far as a 3-iron. During the second round, he played without any woods and hit 17 of 18 greens. “I’m not sure I’ve ever done that with modern equipment,” he said.

Moe shot 71-70 at Seaview, where Sam Snead won his first major — the 1942 PGA — and Moe revels in the fact that the wooden shafts mean participants can’t take shortcuts and must approach an old course as it was designed to be played. Seaview measured 6,200 yards — a few dozen yards short of the max. By comparison, The Alotian Club was set up at least 1,000 yards longer for the long-knocking youngsters in the Western Amateur.

Hit perfectly, a persimmon driver with a wooden shaft — affected by such things as temperature and humidity — might go 250-260 yards. If not, the tee shot might be 100 yards less.

Moe was first exposed to the throwback golf when the Arkansas State Golf Association scheduled a Hickory Open at Hardscrabble in Fort Smith in 2007. He sorted through the dozen set of clubs available, determined how far each mashie and niblick would go, shot 74-68 and won by several. Former U.S. Open champion Jack Fleck was among the pros who participated. Moe won the event three more times and registered for the national tournament, but backed out when his father passed away.

This year, there were more than 70 players in the field — about half of them competitive. Some love the collector side of the gathering; others are into the history. On-site vendors sell old-timey bowties and plus-fours, including yellow ones with polka dots. Moe dressed appropriately, but passed on the outlandish. “That’s not how they dressed back then,” he said.

For $395, anybody can participate in the national tournament, Moe said. One of his low-handicap locals gave hickory a try and told Moe that the experience rejuvenated his desire to play golf.

Ralph Livingston III, a Michigan man who died last year at 54, is credited with the hickory revival. He became interested in the subject in the 1990s and his authentic clubs were prominent in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

The equipment does come with nuances. Like the day that Moe was trying to deal with a bit of a rattle in the clubheads. “Fill the sink up with water and soak the clubs,” a hickory expert told him. “The wood will swell and tighten them right up.”

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.