Friday, February 16, 2018

Scotland and Hickories, the Essence of Golf

My borrowed “set” of hickories for playing Musselburgh Links.

The first few shots I hit with hickory-shafted clubs, I was afraid I might break them. Plus, the grips, what was left of them, were slippery. So I eased off my normal swing.

On the first hole, for comparison, I hit a modern ball, as well as the circa-19th century gutta percha the pro shop had provided me with. Not much difference in feel actually.

I nearly lost the gutty on the first shot at Musselburgh Links ( – aka Old Musselburgh, the oldest golf course in the world (Mary, Queen of Scots, is reputed to have played the layout in 1567). My half-swing with a somewhat-battered brassie started low and caught the high rough preceding the fairway. I didn’t realize how high the grass was until I started looking, and I was in a panic over losing the antique ball. I couldn’t bear the humiliation of going back and asking for another … not after only one swing. With relief, after 3-4 minutes, I found the ball and proceeded up the fairway, picking up my “provisional” Titleist along the way.

It was a cool, damp morning, as were most during the month we spent in Scotland. I hadn’t been out in the week since playing the Old Course at St. Andrews, and I was excited when I learned Old Musselburgh offered a hickory option. I love the history of the game, and I’m also one of those who thinks today’s equipment is destroying the classic courses (while still appreciating that, as a senior, I can still hit a drive as far as I did when a teenager). At 2,971 yards, from the tips, it would seem sacrilegious to overpower Musselburgh with modern clubs.

Old Musselburgh hosted The Open Championship six times between 1873 and 1889 in rotation with Prestwick and St. Andrews. Musselburgh native Willie Park Jr. won the ’89 version in a 36-hole playoff with Andrew Kirkaldy, and Park still holds the record for the nine-hole layout with a 2-under-par 32.

The course is situated mostly within the oval of the Musselburgh Racecourse, and on days when the horses are running golfers must let the steeds and riders pass before playing the 1st, 4th and 6th holes which cross the track.

When I arrived around sunrise on an early October morning, there was no one else on the course. But by the time I reached the second tee, a local gent, also a senior, caught up and asked if he could join me. I was delighted.

As I gained confidence with the hickories, I started using my usual swing – though still holding tight to the grips. I moved the ball back in my stance a bit to catch it early, as I’d learned from St. Andrews’ hard-packed, sand-based fairways. I managed to hit quite a few good shots, and even figured out what distances I was getting with the three clubs: brassie, niblick and mashie niblick. No birdies – almost on the shortish (479 yards) par-5 7th hole – but enough pars to satisfy. And no more nearly lost balls; I hit most tee shots in the fairway.

I was hooked. I had noticed some news about the World Hickory Open, held the week before at Kilspindie golf course in nearby Aberlady. I found the Society of Hickory Golfers website ( and discovered that there are hickory aficionados not only in Scotland and the US but in Switzerland and France, the two places where we live.

I’ve always been a competitive player, but have not entered a tournament since moving to Europe five years ago. Hickory, to me, seems an opportunity to satisfy my competitive urge while reveling in my passion for golf history and travel.

I’m now searching for a set of clubs and any events I can reasonably get to. Hope to see some of you soon.

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