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Hickory golfers go back to the future

By Sam Sheringham for CNN
  • Hickory golf is enjoying a revival in all corners of the world
  • Companies in the UK are paying up to $934 to hire hickory clubs for corporate team-building days
  • The U.S. Hickory Open draws entrants from Europe and Asia with ages ranging from 20 to 70
  • Last year, a Chinese businessman paid $193,500 for 7,000 hickory clubs
  • Golf
  • Auctions
  • U.S. Open - Golf

London, England (CNN) -- It may run contrary to the conventional image of a sport obsessed with the latest technological improvement but, from Stockholm to Shanghai, players are turning back the clock to take part in the latest craze -- hickory golf.

The game, which involves using 19th century wooden-shafted clubs, has proved a hit as national championships in the United States, Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Sweden and Finland have blossomed.

Companies too have been attracted to the format as a way of motivating staff. "Golfers love a challenge," says Gavin Bottrell, who runs hickory golf days in Britain.

"There's a saying about modern golf clubs that you can buy any shot out of the shop. Playing with hickory makes people think more about their swing and be clever about their shots."

Hickory clubs were used widely until the 1930s, when manufacturers turned to more modern materials for construction.

However, despite their lesser performance, the attraction of dressing up in old-fashioned golfing garb and hacking around 18 holes with mashies, niblicks and cleeks -- the evocative names given to the clubs used by Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Henry Cotton -- has endured.

The format has a huge following in the U.S. where devotees gather at historic courses to play an "authentic" round of golf.

People feel a certain level of pride at being able to play with the old clubs and do well with them
--Hampton Munsey

Hampton Munsey, who organizes the U.S. Hickory Open in Morganton, North Carolina, says the size of the field has almost doubled since the event was first held in 2008. This year's tournament already has entrants from Sweden and Germany, with players' ages ranging from 20 to 70.

"The camaraderie is almost as important as the game itself," says Munsey, a member of the Society of Hickory Golfers. "People feel a certain level of pride at being able to play with the old clubs and do well with them."

Bottrell, a university researcher, has been buying and selling hickory clubs since 1995. He now has 60 full sets, which he rents out to companies as a package for $934.

Recently, he has noticed an increase in interest from abroad, with amateur golfers from Germany, South Korea and Australia all wanting their own slice of hickory history.

But Bottrell's profit margins are nothing compared to one Scottish collector.

In April last year, Edinburgh antiques dealer John Dixon sold 7,000 clubs to a Chinese entrepreneur for $193,500. The load has since been shipped to China in bundles of 20.

"I think he is tapping into a growing market over there. New golf courses are opening in China all the time," says Dixon. "If they are building so many courses they need the merchandise and the memorabilia to go with it."

At Bottrell's hickory golf days, participants try to enter the spirit of the era by dressing up in knickerbockers, neckties, flat caps and braces.

"They usually raid local charity shops and come up with some kind of outfit," he said. "They sometimes look like they've stepped out of a pantomime. There's quite a lot of confusion as to what golfers were wearing in the early 1900s."