Photo courtesy Rob Matre
I am fortunate enough to get invitations to play in many great golf events. I am unfortunate enough that I rarely get to accept these invitations. I've never had a bad invite; never seen a tournament or event that didn't appear to be a great time or for a great cause - and I'd love to play in each of them. We all know, there is no better day than a day on the golf course. But to be honest, I'm probably able to play in one out of every ten events that come up. The other nine that I miss, I spend pouting all day wishing I was out there.
But at the last minute this week, I received an invite that I KNEW I had to accept and make whatever adjustments to my schedule I could. No, it wasn't to go to Augusta or Cypress (though if you send me one of those invites, I'll make more adjustments, I promise) - it was to Ansley Golf Club's Hickory Sticks Classic.
Ansley Golf Club is one of the country's hidden gems. Located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, it is actually a nine-hole facility that uses different tee complexes as a front and back nine differentiator, giving players a true 18-hole experience. The layout is championship, the conditions are always tremendous and the staff is as impressive as you'll find at any course in the country. The club is private, prestigious and to the locals who are lucky enough to secure an invite, it is memorable. Ansley can boast a number of prominent Atlantans - past and present - as members; including a number of Tour players and high-profile names in business, media and sports. It is more than an Atlanta landmark, it is a vital part of Atlanta history.
This weekend, Ansley celebrates it's 100 year anniversary. As part of the celebration, the club put on a "Hickory Sticks Classic" tournament, hiring Stirling Hickory Golf (out of Nashville, TN) to supply the club a number of bags and balls - exact replicas of the equipment used a century ago.
How many times have you wondered how the best of yesteryear would fare with today's equipment - or how today's top players would do with equipment from a few generations ago. Well today, a group of us learned how we'd do trying to play the sticks like the ones Bobby Jones had to use.
Brandon Clay, the owner of Stirling Hickory Golf, did give every group a quick tutorial on using the clubs - explaining that there was a little different technique in hitting the clubs (they are designed to dig down more than today's clubs - so be sure to hit the ball first) and a little more body shift and wrist hinge are helpful (think of old films of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen).
The names of the clubs were both entertaining and confusing. Mashie? Mashie Niblick? Spade Mashie? Brassie? You are constantly looking at a little chart to figure out what you should hit - with the distance spreads of most of the clubs being 30 yards or so as to what most golfers of today have in their clubs (typically 10 yards.) The club heads are smaller, the hickory shafts obviously do not flex as much (and have only one standard flex). The ball is also different, a modern day replica (using current materials that look and react as the same gutta percha balls from the early 1900s.) The balls will not go as far and will react a bit differently than today's high-tech golf balls. So the weight of the club, the feel at impact, the sound of the metal and the spin of the ball were going to be different - but other than that...
This might seem like it would lead to a day of frustration and bewilderment. No way. It was one of the most fun days on the golf course I've ever had.
Playing with a group that included a +1 handicap and a 20-something handicap, we all had more laughs, more great shots (and poor shots), and more camaraderie than you'd find in most current golf settings. There was constant talk, strategy and encouragement. Many of the players dressed up in ties, knickers and dress shirts. My partner and I walked (I let him caddie as we shared a bag). It was a throwback day in the best way.
It took us a couple of holes to acclimate ourselves to the clubs and distances, but the poor shots seemed just as fun as the good ones. And once we became comfortable, we actually started playing really well. To make a long story short, collectively, our team missed a half dozen short putts (play your own ball, best two net scores per hole) and we ended up losing by one shot! (Actually, had the lead and made two bogeys on 17th hole!). But in reality, there were no losers on the day - everyone learned, had fun and remarked how much they'd like to do this again.
And as a student of golf history, to play with those clubs was not only a great education in golf equipment and the advantages of today's technology - but it enhanced my appreciation of the skill and talent that the greats of yesterday possessed. Nothing against Tiger, Rory or even Jack and Arnie - I don't see how they could put up the numbers that Bobby Jones and company could put up using the same set of equipment.
At the end of the day, it was like any other golf outing. Food and drinks were enjoyed, stories were shared about putts that should have gone in and promises were made to get together again soon. But every golfer walked away with a little more passion and love for the game. If you're looking for a different perspective and a great way to love golf even more - going "old school" will give you a whole new appreciation for the greatest game we know.
Photo courtesy Rob Matre