Old-style golf returns to Philly

Sporting their knickers, ties and floppy caps, and holding their old-fashioned hickory shaft drivers, are competitors (from left) Craig Stroud, 47, Thomasville, NC; Mark Hollinsworth, 57, Pinehurst, NC; Sir Lionel Freedman, 80, Musselburgh, Scotland, who is the honorary starter for the World Hickory Match Play Championship at the Philadelphia Cricket Club; Paolo Quirici, 46, Switzerland, who is the 2013 World Hickory Open Champion; and Eric Hjortness (cq), 52, Menasha, WI. Photo taken June 17, 2014. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

Even in a sport that clutches tradition as tightly as a beginner grips a driver, golf's fashions, rules, and equipment have constantly evolved.

So heads no doubt are turning this week on the Philadelphia Cricket Club's St. Martin's Course, which has been taken over by 32 Bobby Jones clones.

The World Hickory Match-Play Championship, a throwback tournament, began Monday and will conclude Wednesday on the 116-year-old course that in 1907 and 1910 hosted U.S. Opens.

Competitors wear knickers, ties, and a variety of outdated hats. The links Luddites swing hickory-shafted clubs. They play pre-1930 balls and are governed by rules that no longer exist, meaning, among other things, they can't mark their balls on greens.

"It's mostly about having fun, said Ari Flaisher, an Ardmore resident and a competitor. "Equipment today is so perfect. The balls go further. The sweet spots on the clubs are bigger. The clubmakers think if the game gets easier, more people will play, and they'll sell more clubs.

"But in hickory golf you put the skill element back. Plus you feel a connection to the game's roots. When I hit a good shot and hear that perfect click, I'm 13 again and just learning the game."

With several thousand loosely confederated devotees internationally, this nostalgic version of golf took hold first in the 1970s among wood-club collectors. It's since gained followers among the curious and those unhappy with the game's unending progression toward mistake-proof equipment.

Some play with pre-1900 rules and equipment. Others use 1930 as a cutoff. Many play hickory golf exclusively while those like Flaisher switch eras and equipment as the spirit moves them.

In this week's event, clubs must be either pre-1930 or approved replicas. Same with the balls. The 1928 Rules of Golf dictate play. And the attire must be "hickory-era appropriate."

"Plus fours, dress slacks, or kilts only," the entry form notes.

Flaisher discovered hickory golf in 2012 shortly after another discovery - a rotting wooden club in a neighbor's backyard.

"I'd always wanted to try a wooden-shafted club, so I started looking into how you get clubs, who used them, what kind of tournaments there were," he said.

He visited George Izette and purchased some of the famed Ardmore clubmaker's collectibles.

"It's not cheap," Flaisher said. "Even a modern-made wood set can start at anywhere from $600 to $800."

To meet the growing demand, there are niche manufacturers who make not just hickory-shafted replica clubs but gutta-percha and later-generation balls.

"I can hit a drive with a wood club and a [modern] Pro V-1 maybe 250, 270 yards," said Flaisher. "The difference is really the balls, not the clubs.

"A PGA pro using modern-made hickory clubs and a modern ball could keep it around par," he said. "The guy who won the U.S. Hickory Open at Seaview [CC in Atlantic City] last year shot a 141 for two rounds using them."

There are two divisions to the Cricket Club tourney, which is considered one of the sport's majors.

One 16-man group consists of those who won approved hickory-club events the last two years. The other is made up of invited players like Flaisher.

Players participated in an informal four-ball Monday. On Tuesday, each competed in three 9-hole matches. The match-play results and a point format determined the two to advance to Wednesday's 18-hole final.

Spectators are welcome and undoubtedly will enjoy seeing vanished, 1920s-golf staples such as the "stymie."

With ball-marking disallowed, a putter might find another player's ball in his line. In that era's match-play, golfers often employed the stymie as a strategy to thwart opponents.

"That," Flaisher said, "should be interesting."