They are men behind their time. While most of the golf world is looking for the newest equipment to help hit the ball 300 yards, these guys are looking for the oldest equipment to help them play like it's 1899.
They are the members of the Florida Hickory Golfers, a group in the Tampa Bay area that likes things the way they used to be. The members' clubs are made with hickory shafts, which were all the rage in the 1880s. The balls are low compression and soft, like those used in the early 1900s. Their golfing outfits are circa 1910.
"People should play golf any way that makes them happy,'' said Mike Stevens, a teaching pro at MacDill Air Force Base's Bay Palms Golf Complex in Tampa and a group organizer. "But I just find that hickory makes it more enjoyable to me.''
Stevens, 59, is a longtime golfer who grew up playing persimmon clubs with wooden heads. He has tried the newest equipment but feels somewhat guilty hitting the ball farther than he knows he actually can.
The only sets of clubs Stevens owns are hickory-shafted. He started playing in national hickory tournaments and last month he won his second national hickory championship with 80-78—158 at Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
"All I play are hickory clubs,'' Stevens said. "I find it to be a much more pleasurable game than the modern game, which is just bang it as hard as you can. …If I hit a drive 240-250 yards with a persimmon club and then make the same swing and hit it 290 with a titanium club, then I know it wasn't me. It was the club. That's not as satisfying.''
Kody Kirchhoff, 31, also believes hickory golfers must rely more on talent than equipment. He started playing golf seven years ago in Omaha, Neb., a hotbed for hickory golf. Randy Jensen, an eight-time national hickory championship winner, introduced him to the hickory game.
When Kirchhoff moved to Tampa a little more than four years ago, he was told to get in touch with Stevens. They started playing together.
"I'm one of the weird younger guys who has given up the modern game of golf because I love the history and pureness,'' said Kirchhoff, who heads a student ministry at Sunset Bay Chapel in Lithia. "In Omaha, it was common to play this kind of golf. When I got down here, I wanted to organize some outings and get the interest going.''
As does Stevens, Kirchhoff likes that hickory clubs bring out a player's talent. It also makes the shorter courses built in the 1920s or earlier seem like monsters.
"I really love history, and I love sports,'' Kirchhoff said. "I fell in love with the way golf is supposed to be.''
Hickory-shafted clubs were used from the mid 1800s to about 1931. Hickory was used because of the wood's durability. Most of the clubs had shafts that range from 42 to 44 inches, and the wooden driver heads had lofts of about 7 to 13 degrees. Some drivers had more loft, such as the Brassie, the Spoon, the Wooden Cleek and the Bulldog.
The irons were straight blades with little forgiveness.
"You hit it even an eighth of an inch off center and you'll notice a big difference,'' Kirchhoff said.
Clubs included driving irons and 1-irons. There were low irons such as the Mashie, the Push Iron and the Sammy. There were also lofted clubs such as Jiggers, Bennys and Niblicks.
The first "modern'' ball to hit the market was the gutta percha. First believed to appear in 1848, gutta percha is the evaporated milky juice, or latex, produced from a tree of the same name commonly found in Malaysia. It is hard and nonbrittle, and becomes soft and impressible at the temperature of boiling water. Gutta percha balls were more durable than the previously used feather balls, and because they cost less to make and were water resistant, they replaced feather balls.
Golf balls then evolved into the rubber ball in 1898 and the standard ball in 1932. During national hickory tournaments, players use gutta percha balls; in local events, they often use Wilson 50/50 compression balls.
The equipment can be hard to find. Prime places are eBay and in the Omaha and Des Moines, Iowa, areas, where hickory golf is more popular. It's about 30 percent less distance than regular clubs, and in national tournaments it's about 50 percent because of the gutta percha balls,'' Stevens said.
"We try to play at the length that was common at the time. We'll play anywhere from 5,900 to 6,300 yards.''
Kirchhoff sees the Florida Hickory Golfers group's tournaments as more like gatherings. The group played a June tournament at Clearwater Country Club, which was built in the 1920s. It will play July 17 at Tampa's Babe Zaharias Golf Course, also built in the 1920s. An outing at Dunedin Country Club is planned for August.
Stevens said about 20 players have tried the group. The number is fewer than that of groups in North and South Carolina, northern Michigan, Omaha and Des Moines, but Stevens hopes more people, women as well as men, will give it a try.
"If you can get somebody to try it, they like it and want to come back,'' Stevens said. "It's just getting them to try it. A lot of people say, 'Well, I have a hard enough time hitting my modern equipment.'
" We're getting more and more people interested in it.''
There is one modern concession. During the summer, the group uses carts. But they still wear knickers and ties.
"If it's really hot, we'll take a cart,'' Stevens said. "But we'll dress the part. It adds to the camaraderie.''