I’m standing on the 1st tee at one of Scotland’s great courses and for the first time in my life I’m grasping a hickory golf club in my trembling hands preparing to embark on a life-changing round.
We know golf is hard enough, but I’m on the wondrous West Links at North Berwick, holding a golf club that’s not only significantly older than I am, but has a tiny sweet-spot and I’m about to embark on a journey I’ve been looking forward to for months.
With the 150th Open taking place across the water in St Andrews, it felt like a fitting time to pay homage to first Open Championship at Prestwick by using the hickory golf clubs our forefathers would have played with. My journey would culminate on the iconic West Links of North Berwick Golf Club, but it began at the epicentre of the hickory revival in Gullane, East Lothian.
I had set off for Scotland to fill a major gap in my experience: to learn the way of hickory golf clubs. A resurgence has taken place here in one of Scotland’s richest golf heartlands perhaps in reaction to professional golf’s growing obsession with technology, speed and distance, as well as the increasingly slow pace of play that has become all too common at clubs the world over.
I’m walking along the High Street in the village of Gullane, where golf is wonderfully unavoidable, towards one of the most interesting golf shops on the planet. ‘Jack White’ is a museum of a shop, which exists to turn your hickory dreams into a reality. It’s named after an East Lothian legend and the 1904 Open Champion. Jack was a club pro and, of course, a renowned maker of golf clubs and Boris Lietzow, the owner of and inspiration behind Jack White, is there to greet me, resplendent in his plus-fours and button down shirt. Walking through the door of his shop, I’m immediately hit by the intoxicating aroma of wood, glue and leather. I’ve come to see his world before we play a round together on the links, using only the finest hickory golf clubs – naturally.
Clubs are strewn about one wall, while opposite there’s a mixture of complete and partial sets in leather pencil golf bags. At the back of the shop there are clubs under renovation and amid the hum of chatter of golfers from far and wide, everything seems to be right where it belongs. It’s hard to describe the magic of this place but Boris keeps it alive by collecting, constructing, repairing, and, of course, playing Jack White made hickory golf clubs. Between tending to customers from South Africa and Australia, he invites me to choose a putting cleek and to gather a handful of soft golf balls suitable for our hickory golf clubs and our round that evening.
Jack White is just one element of the hickory revival. Since 2005 The World Hickory Open has been another gathering place for those who celebrate the way the game was once played. For a modest fee, it is open to all. My participation in that event will have to wait for now, but when Boris and I meet again we’re standing on the 1st tee at North Berwick. There is no time for warm-ups or practice shots. I have no previous experience to call upon, no wonderful shots I can go back to in my mind – this is it. Both Boris and the starter give me the same tip: swing slow and easy. And that’s it. It’s time. We wish each other well, pull our jiggers (the equivalent of a modern 4-iron) from our bags and prepare to tackle the 1st – a shortish par-4. Boris hits a pin-point stinger down the left side that rolls on the hard turf for longer than it carries – a good angle into the green awaits.
It’s my turn and I’m certainly feeling the nerves. My opening shot carves one of the longest divots I’ve ever seen, my ball pops up and barely stays in bounds down the right-hand side, no roll out for me. I proceed to try and swing easy with my mashie-niblick then my niblick before reaching the green, which Boris has found in regulation. “It’s a bit different,” he acknowledges with a chuckle. I find a little solace that putting seems similar, at least that’s what I think at the 1st. After a steep learning curve, I land my first proper strike of the ball on the 3rd after a slow, easy swing. I allow myself to briefly think that maybe I’m finally figuring out the game of golf.
Often during a round of golf, your mind becomes cluttered with too many swing thoughts and affect your shot. Playing with hickory golf clubs felt like some kind of swing medicine with all preconceived notions about how to execute my shot gone. The only things that really matter are to swing slow and true, watch the club face strike the ball and lean in a variety of directions to guide the flight path. Midway through the round these lessons were sinking in and my golf swing as I had known it, was fading away. As we approached the turn there was signs of tangible improvement. Some exaggerated showmanship with my arms somehow allowed me to draw a tee shot up the par-5 9th, with unfamiliar control. Then on my approach I performed a top spin forehand putt which Boris had taught me a little earlier. It’s particularly useful when approaching elevated greens and a shot that requires much more pizzazz than a conventional putting stroke.
The other lesson I’m learning? Keep up. After an hour and a half, we are on the back 9 and headed for home. I’m not sure if it is just Boris’s style, to play quickly or if that’s the nature of playing with hickory golf clubs but it is certainly a refreshing change of pace, after a few too many rounds that had run beyond the 4 hour mark.
What are the main differences? Unlike previous rounds on links, it feels like nearly every bunker is in play with my hickory golf clubs. The idea that you can take trouble out of the equation with a bomb and gauge strategy was no more for me. And yet, with a solid strike hickories will deliver lots of distance and a feeling of touch and connection, incomparable to a carbon head. That said, at times, it felt like my ball had a magnetic relationship to the fairway bunkers. It might sound like hyperbole, but even Boris – who only uses hickory golf clubs – acknowledged the journey from tee to green, often means navigating around, rather than over bunkers.
The 13th at North Berwick’s West Links is one of the great holes in golf. Known as ‘Pit’, the green sits behind an ancient wall, which must be flown from the fairway to reach the putting surface. Boris’s club recommendations were hugely helpful, as gauging consistent distances with these clubs is truly an art rather than a science. After avoiding the wall and putting out we continue the epic crescendo of the West Links that stretches back to the, modest yet elegant, clubhouse, which has an aura that hangs over the 18th green.
On the 14th, known as “Perfection” we both hit our Jiggers to prime position. A nod between us is enough of an acknowledgement on how far I’ve come from that divot on the 1st tee. The blind second shot brings me over a hill that reveals Bass Rock and its record Gannet population out in the Firth of Forth, an unsettling and stunning hole that will live long in the memory. Next, “Redan” one of the most templated holes in the world, on this day requires a driving cleek, or 1-iron and the right to left kicker is everything it’s advertised to be.
The fun continues on the 16th hole with its dramatic Biarritz green that you could spend hours putting on and find yourself endlessly entertained. Length, a gradual incline, and a deceptive snake bunker that makes the green seems closer than reality provide plenty of challenge on the 17th before a more benign finish. “Home”, much like the 18th on the Old Course, features a road along the right-hand side with cars parked dangerously within range, a clubhouse behind the green and all the room you could need left. Feeling a mixture of relief and dismay that we’ve come to the end of our round we unsheathe our driving woods and go for one more shot at glory on the drivable par-4. It’s an unforgettable walk down the 18th of the West Links. Like St Andrews, it’s a walk back into town, the prominent hill named “The Law” watching over all and the golden hour light lasting long into the summer night. I try to soak in the setting, it is a privilege just to be there. There are still shots to play, however. Boris and I reach our tee shots and wrap up with a ‘chipping contest,’ I attempt another top spin uphill putt and he uses a lofter as a Texas wedge. No winners or losers here as we par out and clear the green.
And that is that. A sense of bliss and accomplishment wash over me. I would have basked in that feeling for many more hours had I not noticed that the clubhouse lights are off and the doors closed. My keys, wallet and everything else is in the locker room. The North Berwick Golf Club graciously entitles all visitors to temporary membership while playing, an honour I was eager to take up before my round, so I made myself at home and left my things in a locker. Boris offered me a lift to my hotel, which gave us time to share a few stories and reminisce on the shots played and lost. The way I saw it, I now had an excuse to return to the course at first light. It would be a new day and I would go into it with an entirely new appreciation for the game I love.