Playing with Hickory

Beginning in the 1860s, golf club manufacturers in Great Britain began importing hickory from the United States, making it the standard material for shafts. Expert clubmakers found American hickory to be light in actual weight and supple. Yet it wasn’t wobbly and it had a fine steely spring without being too stiff.

My uncle Dick Grout (1903-1982) said, “The hickory shaft was a great-feeling club to hit. You know, I would buy hickory shafts by the gross and then I’d have first pick of them. Out of the crate there were probably a dozen or so that were really top-notch. I first learned how to test them from my mentor Sandy Baxter. He showed me how to spot the right spring, the right flex. After a while I could tell what shafts had the proper yield just by handling them. When I found a grade-A, it would be marked and carefully laid aside.”

Uncle Dick continued, “The truth was, I couldn’t make hickory shafts with the different flexes that are found in steel – nobody could. To get a really stiff hickory shaft you’d have to leave it as thick as a post. If you took it down as slim as you dare, then you’d better have a grade-A piece of hickory in order for it to withstand the shock of impact. In the hands of an expert some of those hickories would last for years. It was something.”

“Of course, it was the amateur who allowed the professional to make a fine living repairing and replacing those shafts.” Grout explained, “After a busy weekend, we’d always seem to have a lot of broken shafts. So, it was on Monday morning when I did the majority of the club repairs for my membership. Most of them were broken accidentally by the mediocre golfer, but some were shattered in a fit of rage. My assistant and I, who sometimes was my brother Jack, would spend all Monday replacing shafts. It was tough work, but the shafts cost me fifty cents and I’d charge $3, so that was a tidy profit in those days.”

Hickory shafts, while generally durable, were still prone to breakage, particularly over time. And, by the mid-1930s, the added resiliency and increased consistency of steel spelled the end of hickory shafts; which, ultimately closed the doors of a veritable gold mine in repairs for the club pro.

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