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Golf History in Action: Antique Clubs Highlight Peninsula State Park Golf Course’s Centennial

A remarkable number of golf-history purists using authentic, 1920s-30s wood-shafted clubs joined modern-day golfers last weekend during an outing that kicked off Peninsula State Park Golf Course’s centennial. But if you think 20 “hickory golfers” was a huge number, there are a lot more where they came from and a lot more who showed up in Wisconsin that weekend.

Jim “Wally” Koss, a Green Bay–area member of the Wisconsin Hickory Golfers (WHG), did not join Peninsula State Park manager Matt Ernst and Ernst’s dad, WHG member Bill “Ernie” Ernst, at Peninsula this time. That’s because Koss ran the Thornberry Creek Pay It Forward Hickory Challenge on the nine-hole Iroquois course the next day. That Green Bay event lured Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa WHG members to northeastern Wisconsin in time for the event at Peninsula, and it also attracted wood-club enthusiasts and members of the international Society of Hickory Golfers (SoHG).

Koss said the WHG and the SoHG have both seen increases in the number of golfers who decide to make the switch to antique or reproduction wooden-shafted clubs.

“It’s growing beyond leaps and bounds,” Koss said. “The first time I played hickory was 10 years ago, and I’d played golf my whole life. I got a replica set from Louisville Golf, and once I played and did some practicing and played the first Wisconsin event, I have not touched a modern tech club since. Zero. 

“There are a number of guys who play the modern game. If you go into the world of hickory, it’s characterized in two categories: somewhere around 1900-35 – the Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen era – and then there are pre-1900 clubs.

“The golf clubs that I use have no grooves. They’re all smooth-faced – 1860-1900. When we say post-1900, that would be the birth of golf clubs that we know today, but they were all wood. There were other woods, but predominantly hickory.”

Koss said Thornberry groundskeepers moved tees to distances that were appropriate for both the 1930s and pre-1900 eras of golf, and they made some temporary greens in closely mown fairways to replicate the speed of greens during the era of Ben Hogan and Walter Hagen. 

Koss said he wishes he could have attended the Peninsula event because of its holes that date back to 1922 and a circa-1930 redesign.

“The centennial at Peninsula is particularly special because many of those holes were built back in the 1920s and later, and the number of golf courses that still exist from the 1920s have continued to decline,” he said, pointing to maintenance difficulties, lack of irrigation, DNR regulations, wetlands rules and developers converting them for housing.

True antique hickory clubs are both expensive and fragile. Hickory golfers avoid using high-compression balls.

“An authentic club, pre-1900, could be $2,000. How many people can afford that?” Koss asked, but noted that some members – like owners racing classic sports cars – take the risk and hit those pricey clubs.

He said some seek out somewhat reasonably priced replica sets from manufacturers such as Louisville that everyday golfers would have played in the 1920s. Others have sets with modern specifications other than the hickory shafts, but he doesn’t go for that. 

Koss said that antique clubs have come down in price from a high point during the 1980s, and also since Michael Bosman – formerly of Oak Park and now of Kenosha – bought the collection of Max Hill of Dallas, who had 16,000 clubs. The price of some clubs decreased because Bosman increased their availability.

“If you find a golf club on eBay that might cost $100, Mike might sell that to you face to face for $40,” Koss said.

But when it comes to rare clubs – 1920s large-headed drivers or unusual “bullcock” clubs, which were the predecessors of the modern-day rescue wood – the prices go high. 

Regarding those old clubs that have been reinvented in recent years, Koss said, “Every time you say, ‘What will they think of next in golf?,’ guess what: It’s already been done.”