Although Pinehurst’s oldest courses have persevered for more than a century, the resort’s new hickory club rental program allows golfers to experience a round as it was played in a bygone era
Stepping onto the first tee box of the No. 3 course at Pinehurst Resort and glancing down the fairway, I see an opening par 4 that would ordinarily prompt expectations of circling a three on my scorecard. At 283 yards, the hole plays straight out, with a moderately sized native area and waste bunker narrowing the fairway on the right side and coming into play about 170 yards from the tee.
Under normal circumstances, I would pull a hybrid from my bag and aim to hit a tee shot that starts on line with the left-hand portion of that waste bunker and draws back to the middle of the fairway. From there, I’d be left with only a flip of a wedge to a wide, albeit significantly contoured green about 50 yards away.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. There are no hybrids in my bag. In fact, the lightweight Original Jones bag that’s slung over my shoulder holds only eight clubs, all of them Tad Moore Hickory Classics, which Pinehurst offers through a hickory club rental program that the resort unveiled at the end of the summer in 2019. Mashies. Jiggers. Niblicks. These are some of the tools at my disposal during this round.
So, as I set up with a 12-degree Pall Mall hickory in my hands — a club patterned after a popular driver made by Scotsman William Gibson during the early 20th century — my expectations have shifted. I’m no longer thinking of birdies. Instead, I’m simply hoping to hit a solid shot that stays in play.
“Swing easy,” Matt Barksdale, Pinehurst’s head golf pro, told me just before my round. “The shafts get so much bend and create so much spin on the golf ball … the moment you try to get after it, the ball gets very spinney. It will hook or slice dramatically.”
Keeping that advice in mind, I take a smooth swing and hit one on the screws — literally. The center of the driver’s clubface is marked by four screws set in a diamond pattern. It’s a sweet spot no bigger than a 25-cent piece. Given the straight, piercing ball flight of my tee shot, I know that I must have hit it dead center on the face. In no uncertain terms, this first shot is a remarkable achievement.
When my ball comes to rest in the left side of the fairway only about 30 yards short of the green, I find myself thinking about carding an opening-hole birdie after all. This, I soon learn, is my first mistake. It’s compounded only minutes later by my second blunder. After a short walk down the first fairway, I pull the 48-degree mashie niblick from my bag and attempt to hit a short pitch shot that will land just on the edge of the putting surface.
I hit the shot as intended, but the ball doesn’t react as anticipated. As I slowly learn throughout my round, these irons don’t have any bounce on them (as all modern-day wedges do), so shots that are hit around the green will not impart much, if any, backspin. Needless to say, my approach on this opening hole bounces up to the flagstick, rolls past the hole, and trundles off the back of the green.
One moderately better chip shot and two putts later, I find myself walking off the first green not with a birdie — not even a par — but with a bogey. Needless to say, golf feels like a much different game when it’s played with a set of hickory clubs; and it takes only one hole to make that abundantly clear.
“It’s a fun experience for individuals who have never done it and also for people who might play hickories once or twice a year,” Barksdale said of renting a set and playing the No. 1 course, the No. 3 course, or The Cradle, Pinehurst’s nine-hole short course. (Although the hickory clubs can be rented for play on any of Pinehurst’s course — even the resort’s revered No. 2 layout — it’s on the resort’s aforementioned shorter courses that Barksdale and his team encourage their use.) “They go out there with no expectations whatsoever and simply enjoy the game. It really does give you an appreciation for the early years of golf and how talented those individuals really were.”
Renting a set of hickory clubs for a round at Pinehurst, which costs $50, can impact more than just a singular round of golf. The simple act of carrying those clubs to the driving range can pave the way for noteworthy introductions and interactions.
“How long have you been playing those?” longtime Pinehurst member Tony Smarrelli asked me after he caught a glimpse of the antiquated irons and persimmon woods in my bag.
“I’m just about to start,” I tell him, setting the bag down behind a pyramid of practice balls at an open spot on the range.
Pinehurst’s driving range is teeming with golfers this afternoon, but only Smarrelli notices the clubs in my bag. That they only catch his eye is not a surprise. As Smarrelli tells me, he first played a round with hickory clubs about a decade ago and subsequently spent the next five years playing in major hickory club championships at the senior level, winning many of them. In fact, during that five-year period, Smarrelli strung together 10 consecutive victories, most impressively winning all four majors (the Belvedere Hickory Open, the Southern Hickory Fourball, the Mid Pines Hickory Open, and the U.S. Hickory Open) in 2014.
As Smarrelli’s introduction and his interest in my experiences with the clubs attests, golfers who routinely tee it up with hickories, especially those who do so at a competitive level, form a welcoming sub-category of golfing enthusiasts. “It’s a great little golf community,” Smarrelli acknowledges, “and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Yes, playing a round with hickory clubs may open doors to a new social circle of golfing compatriots, but it will definitely open newcomers’ eyes to the challenges that the sport’s greatest players faced a century ago.
“They’re just fascinating to hit,” Smarrelli said of the clubs. “You get so much satisfaction when you hit the ball solid with those things. When you hit a good shot, you say, ‘Wow! This is how they played golf way back.’”
As Barksdale eloquently and astutely describes it, a round of golf on one of Pinehurst’s early courses played with hickory clubs allows guests to “take a step back in time,” he said. It encourages those players to adopt an old-school mentality and it requires them to think creatively about the shots that they will hit each step along the way.
“It’s just a really neat thing to do that you can’t necessarily do everywhere,” he said, “because they don’t have them everywhere.”
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