By John Coyne
Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
GROWING UP WORKING AT MIDLOTHIAN COUNTRY CLUB, south of Chicago, I was mostly a caddie and caddie master.
In my years at Midlothian, I cleaned clubs, worked in the pro shop, and handled the caddies, but I never fixed clubs. My two older brothers were shop boys in their years at Midlothian, and I hung around with them and with the pros and their assistants so I knew what it meant to replace grips, repair club heads, wrap hosels of woods and add weight to wedges. I watched our pros, Jimmy Walkup, Tony Holquin, Joe Jimenez, Zeke Browning, all from Texas, work their club skills on woods and irons at the bench in the back of the shop.
It was pretty much accepted that all golf professionals in the mid 20th century knew how to repair clubs. That was part of being a home pro.
The Age of Hickory
In earlier years, in the era of the hickory shafts, what golf professionals did on bad weather days and over the long, cold winter months was make golf clubs, one at a time, to be sold in the spring to members. Pros were craftsmen first, next players.
For example, Walter Hagen played most of his career with hickory-shafted clubs, not ash or lemonwood, but hickory from Tennessee. He played hickory shafts because they were lighter and had the right degree of springiness. Some club makers favored brown hickory, others white hickory, but "Haig" only wanted what was called ring hickory, cut from the center of the hickory trees. One could see the rings on the shafts itself. The hickory he used from Tennessee also had to be from trees that grew on hillsides facing the north. Those trees grew the straightest and were unbreakable.
The days of the handmade clubs and hickory shafts, however, were numbered. By 1929 steel-shafted woods were being used by most professionals and in 1930, the year of Bobby Jones's Grand Slam, hickory-shafted clubs finally faded from the tour. However, some pros kept their hickory-shafted putters well into the next decade. Bobby Locke and Bobby Jones played with hickory putters for most of their lives.
Birth of Modern Club Makers
With the passing of the hickory shafts, club making in the pro shops, for the most part, became a lost art. New mass-production methods came into use, and no longer were individual clubs created over the winter months on back benches of pro shops across the country.
After his playing years, Hagen went on to creating his own line of clubs, but these were made with steel shafts. As Herb Graffis says in his history of the PGA, "Hagen had a touch and eyes that made a club a precision instrument."
Gene Sarazen was another early U.S. professional club maker.
Sarazan, as a designer, had two great ideas. One was about the flattened small area on the grip of a club that was known as the "reminder grip." It was his idea to get the ordinary player's hands over a trifle more to the right side of the grip; and that worked to improve any hacker's (and pro's) game.
The story of how Gene created the modern sand wedge is a bit of a myth. Graffis points out that "The flanged sole club was an old, old idea, as exhibits of irons fabricated by Scottish blacksmiths show in museums." Sarazen, however, saw that the wedge, with alteration of the angle of the sole, would cut in under the sand instead of burying into it and would bump the ball out with a cushion of sand.
Hagen had the same basic idea for the leading edge and the flange of the wedge head that he designed for his Hagen Irons Company, a division of the Wilson Company, but according to Graffis, Wilson wouldn't develop his sand wedge because they already had a wedge in their line of clubs.
Graffis goes on to say that with the passing of hickory clubs, the supply of skilled club makers for winter work in old golf club factories also vanished and they were replaced by men and women workers with little training in the manufacturing techniques. No longer was every set of clubs a custom job.
Pros for Hire
To solve this problem, in the early 1930s, the Spalding Company began to invite pros to their factories to get ideas on club design and construction. I remember in the 1950s, when caddying for Midlothian pro Jimmy Walkup in Monday pro-member events at other country clubs throughout the Chicagoland area, how we'd always swing by the Wilson factory downtown in the city for Jimmy to pick up or drop off a member's club and to spend time talking shop with the management.
Also at Midlothian, Tony Holquin was signed to play Burke clubs. Burke would send a representative to Midlothian as Tony hit balls on the range, trying out the clubs to see how they fit his swing and game.
Other pros as well were hired by golf companies. Tommy Armour went to MacGregor to approve clubs made by the design staff. Bobby Jones, who had an engineering degree from college, worked with Spalding. Snead represented Wilson.
We have moved a long way away from those days, as our clubs have moved from hickory to shafts of steel and then fiberglass, aluminum, graphite, and beyond. But in some ways we haven't moved that far at all.
Graffis points out that in the days of hickory a pro would watch a player make a few shots with various clubs, then go into the pro shop and adjust the clubs to get the perfect fit for the player. Today, at PGA Tour events, club manufacturers have traveling vans equipped to adjust their playing pros' clubs before or after a tournament round, on the practice tee or off.
And what about the rest of us?
Well, they sell "woods" today with adjustable heads and give us a set of tools to tweak our clubs for hooks and slices, then tell us to fix our own clubs to fit our game out on the course. What next?
John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.