I’M not old enough to write a ‘kids these days' article but it shocked me recently when I took a few old clubs to a Pennant practice at my club and some of the younger guys said they’d never hit a wooden club before.
“What never?” I said incredulously. “Yep… never even held one”.
I guess I was lucky to have grown up at the start of what you could call the technological boom.
When I started playing, wooden clubs were still used by all the leading golfers. Even as late as 1992 and 1993, majors were being won with persimmon (Freddy Couples at Augusta in ‘92, Tom Kite at the ‘92 US Open, Nick Faldo at the ‘92 British Open and Bernhard Langer at the '93 Masters).
But after 70 years or so of relative inactivity, it erupted. First came metal heads, then graphite and composite shafts.
Graphite heads made a brief appearance as did even plastic - remember the Cobra ‘Ultramid’ John Daly used at Crooked Stick?
Soon after we had titanium and big-headed drivers. Then of course there was the ball, which has been refined and improved to the point where they go further than ever before – perhaps 10 or 20% further than they did in the 80’s, without sacrificing control or spin.
And it’s not just the advances in technology but how quickly they bring out new models that frustrate me.
Golf clubs nowadays are basically disposable. Certainly the woods are anyway.
Tour players are lucky to go a few months before changing to the latest model, and most major companies bring out as many as 4 different models each year.
It’s a long way from Nicklaus using a pair of woods with a combined age of over 70 years to win the 1975 Masters.
In the past, great wooden drivers were like works of art and their makers were true craftsmen.
Men like Toney Penna, who made woods for Macgregor for many years before going out on his own.
People would seek out these club makers for their skill in shaping a block of wood that fit their eye.
Sure there was variation from club to club but searching through a handful to find the one that you liked was part of the fun. It also meant that yours was unique.
There was also something about keeping a club long enough that it became like an old friend.
There was something about sanding back your driver and re-staining it hoping to bring on some new life… or good shots.
I still like to use wooden clubs from time to time. As a bit of a golfing romantic, I love the noise and feel of a wooden driver. Hitting it out of the screws.
You can shape the ball better than with any modern driver and it’s a brilliant indicator of good technique.
You can’t hide from a persimmon driver as you can with a modern club where too frequently a bad shot still flies straight and long.
Tiger Woods understood this, too, and had Mike Just from Louisville Golf make him a persimmon driver to practise with many years ago.
For those with an interest, go back further in time and try some hickories. It’s something every golfer should try at least once.
Not because it’s a useful way to practice, just because it’s fun.
Hit some balls and appreciate how good Bobby Jones really was. The level of ball striking he attained with such rudimentary clubs and a gutta percha ball is phenomenal.
Marvel at his ‘perfect’ 66 at Sunningdale in 1926 on a course which measured almost 6000 metres. 33 in and 33 out…33 hits and 33 putts. Nice numbers.
I have a set of hickories that I like to use from time to time – a couple of sets actually.
One is made up of original individual irons and woods which I’ve collected over the years and another ‘new made’ set which I bought from a specialty company in America (Louisville Golf).
To the traditionalist, these aren’t seen as the real deal but I like them just the same.
As a course designer I enjoy playing with the hickories, especially on great old courses, as many of the holes become more relevant again.
Long drives are scaled back so that once again long and mid irons are needed to play into most par fours instead of a pitching wedge.
And the strategy of the holes also becomes magnified. Without the ability to play a high lofted, spinning approach, it’s imperative to be on the correct side of the fairway playing into the green.
Anything on the ‘wrong’ side is virtually impossible to keep on the putting surface with the hickories typically generating a lower ball flight with little spin.
Of course, above all, using clubs from another era is fun. Fun to try hitting different shots with little regard for score.
As I write this, a friend of mine is visiting the Honma factory in Japan – makers of some of the greatest persimmon clubs of all time.
Let’s hope he brings back a bag full!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website
Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.
After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.
Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship. Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses.
His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer. Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.
Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website.