By Jim Sutherland
As a late-to-the-game amateur playing alongside a pro, I’m only too familiar with the routine. One of us steps up to the back tee, the other to the white. We hit our drives, then watch as the balls land around the same place.
Ho hum. Except here at San Diego’s classic Rancho Bernardo Inn, there’s something both very classic and not so classic going on. On the back tee stands the herky-jerky club flailer — me. On the white is smooth-swinging Jason Egnatz, Rancho Bernardo’s director of golf operations. And yet, sure enough, here on the difficult par-4 seventh, our balls end up not far from each other, on the correct side of the bunkers lining the right edge of the fairway.
As one might assume, the pro is playing with some sort of impediment — though that’s not the way Egnatz looks at it. A convert to hickory golf, he restricts himself to clubs made prior to the widespread introduction of steel shafts in the 1930s. In his view, playing the vintage clubs returns an element of grace and finesse to a game that has become far too dependent on power and equipment. Now, with his length restricted to 230 yards or so off the tee, and with only six clubs in his bag, every shot has to count.
After our drives, each of us has a decision to make. Sitting about 190 yards from the back pin, mine is to choose among three fool-resistant hybrids. After crushing his drive, Egnatz is closer and has to decide between a niblick and a mashie niblick — maybe his “Zebra,” so named because of the strips of black tape that circle the shaft, necessary due to the crack the wood developed at some point in the past 90 years. With whichever club he chooses, he will need that fluid, powerful swing of his, because there’s little room for error. The clubfaces lack what we’d call grooves, and the shafts twist and flex. Even the reproduction ball he’s using has a kind of basket weave instead of the dimples that help modern balls fly so straight.
Decision reached, Egnatz reaches for a mashie niblick — roughly a 7- or 8-iron — producing a tidy draw that lands on the front fringe and sticks there. Two putts later, he has another par. “That’s a birdie with hickory,” he says.
There was a time when pars would not have been birdies for the 41-year-old. In college, the Chicago-area native played as a walk-on with the University of Arizona — not a star, but rather “the 11th man on a seven-man team.” Egnatz’s game didn’t reach its zenith until after graduation, when as an assistant pro he got his handicap to plus-2.5. But as so often happens with people who make their living at the game, Egnatz soon found himself playing fewer rounds and enjoying them less. Then, in 2002, fate intervened in the form of Chris McIntyre, a Rancho Bernardo resident and hickory golf collector and player. Initially skeptical of the primitive-looking clubs he saw McIntyre toting, Egnatz gave them a try and was hooked instantly.
During that time he’s become one of the leading hickory golfers on the planet, competing on three occasions with “the Tiger Woods of hickory golf,” Omaha resident Randy Jensen, in an annual Ryder Cup-format competition between the U.S. and Canada (sheepishly, Egnatz allows that the Canadians have won all three events). In 2009, Egnatz helped organize a hickory tournament that attracted 60 golfers, all clad in dapper, period-appropriate clothes like the plus-fours, wool jersey, white shirt and tie he is wearing today. And earlier this year, Egnatz and McIntyre launched a weekly Tuesday evening, nine-hole tournament at Rancho Bernardo, a 1962 design that looks and plays a lot like the Golden Age courses that defined the 1920s.
Despite the recent activity at Rancho Bernardo, California is a little behind the curve when it comes to hickory golf — a curiosity that’s on the verge of becoming a movement. Farther east and north, there are growing chapters of the Hickory Golf Association and the Society of Hickory Golfers, each with busy schedules of tournaments and gatherings. And some hickory enthusiasts take their sport ultra-seriously.
Take, for example, West Virginia’s nine-hole Oakhurst Links (currently closed to public play), where contemporary clubs aren’t even allowed on the premises. And then there are some, the hardest of hardcores, who look upon the 1920s-era clubs Egnatz plays with suspicion — these hickory hard-liners prefer clubs and balls from the 1890s, before wound and covered balls replaced rubber gutta perchas, or “gutties.”
Surprisingly for this type of vintage equipment, hickory clubs aren’t particularly hard to find or expensive to buy for those interested in testing their mettle old-school style. Egnatz paid $20 to $40 each for his, some purchased from McIntyre, whose playhickory.com Web site also supplies rentals for tournaments and events. In 2009, McIntyre also launched a hickory experience at Old Bandon Golf Links, a rehabilitated executive-length course conveniently located near Bandon Dunes in southern Oregon.
After 17 holes with Egnatz, I find myself wondering if hickory golf is about to gain another convert — in me. Due to a balky short game, the pro hasn’t been scoring as well as he’s been hitting, but he’s still beating me by several strokes, and he’s sure looked a lot more elegant doing it. But could someone as inconsistent as I even play with those things? With their ultra-flex shafts and tiny sweet spots, aren’t they for diamond cutters? “Not as much as you’d think,” says Egnatz, handing me a wood on the 18th tee, where I’ve wisely moved up to the whites, 508 yards away from the center of an elevated green that’s beyond and above a small creek.
He’s already teed off, landing his trademark draw 220 yards away in the middle of the fairway. I give the club a few exploratory swings. Feels good. All day I’ve been having a hard time keeping my swing path from wandering outside, so I’ve bashed out a lot of slices and pulls. Suddenly conscious of the need to find some sort of rhythm, to channel Egnatz’s ease and grace, to feel the club in my hand, I swing with a motion that feels much more promising.
Stepping up to one of those funny white things (supplied, incidentally, by McIntyre, who has them modified from contemporary low-compression balls), I swing easy and watch the strike go surprisingly far. The ball follows the same path as Egnatz’s, although it lacks the stylish draw and lands 15 yards behind it.
Now Egnatz the competitor has been replaced by Egnatz the hickory evangelist. He’s determined to get me home in five. It’s time to play safe and hit a mashie niblick, he tells me, and sure enough the ball flies true, landing about 145 yards away, just off the right edge of the fairway. With another 140 or so to an uphill pin, the question is, what to hit next? I’m worried the same club won’t get me there, but he assures me it will. After examining the crude-looking sticks that passed for longer irons in those days, I agree that the mashie niblick seems my best chance and swing away. Sure enough, it was plenty of club — too much, in fact, as it lands me on the second tier of the green, facing a nasty downhill putt to a pin that clings to the front.
Egnatz has left himself with a birdie chance a few feet right of the pin, while I’m 35 feet above it and with 6 feet of break. Having a putter in my hand that looks like a tiny hockey stick doesn’t test my confidence, since even modern putters leave a lot to be desired — but the putt itself sure tests me. Yet I judge the speed perfectly, stopping my ball hole-high. The problem is, there was no break whatsoever, so I’m still 6 feet away. Egnatz lips out for the fourth or fifth time of the day, leaving me to try for my par. But land sakes — as I’d like to think a polite golfer would have said back in the ’20s — it trickles by the right edge.
Well, that’s golf. And that’s hickory golf, too. Shaking hands, I think Egnatz is more disappointed than I am. Please let him know he needn’t be. Some day soon I’ll be moving up to the whites. And like him, I might just stay there.