In the days of hickory shafts

I am often asked about the old players I saw as a boy; what kind of men they were and how they swung. The most important point to get straight is that everybody was playing with hickory-shafted clubs until the first steel shafts came in in 1930. With hickory it was not just a matter of not hitting the ball so far – the whole swing had to be different.

All the old players, including my own father, used to have what I call a ‘chicken wing’ swing, with the right elbow sticking straight out behind them on the backswing. It was a dreadful way of doing it, now I look back on it, but they reckoned that it was the only way they could get the ball in the air.


Henry Cotton immediately after impact, showing the strong wrist action of a player nurtured on hickory-shafted clubs

The main difference between hickory and steel is that if you grip the shaft firmly with one hand and hold the head of the club with the other, you will find that you can twist the head of the club round quite easily with hickory; with steel you’ve got to strain hard to twist it more than a millimetre.

This extra ‘torque’ in the shaft meant that you would cut the ball out to the right if you did not have plenty of wrist action at the bottom of the swing to bring the head back in line. All the old players were very wristy.

I can still remember the trouble I had as a boy in my early ‘teens when I first tried out a steel shaft. I kept smothering the ball and could do nothing but daisy cutters. Then when I began to get it in the air I could not stop hooking it. I developed a terrible fear of a hook which dogged my early years as a playing professional.

To minimise the risk I developed a ‘power fade’ system; if I was going to hit a ball off line, it would fall away gradually to the right. I could see that I was hitting the ball much further with steel shafts and knew that I had to sort myself out; but I must have started with the same kind of swing as everyone else at that time.

Hickory shafts weighed a lot more than steel and were bigger in diameter. Consequently the grips were much fatter and, if you wanted to feel the head, you had to play with a much heavier club. Most of the old pros played with drivers which were 15 ounces or even 16 ounces in weight.

At Lytham St. Annes, during the 1963 Open Championship, I was in the pro’s shop one evening and spotted Arnold Palmer’s and Jack Nicklaus’s clubs in a corner. Out of curiosity, I pulled out both their drivers and weighed them on the scales.

I was amazed to find that they were only 13.75 ounces. It beat me how they could hit the ball so far with clubs as light as that. I used 15 ounce drivers for most of my life. But Arnold Palmer was born in 1929, so his generation was the first not to be nurtured on hickory shafts.

Another difference with the old clubs was that they had much flatter lies. This went hand in hand with the flat, wristy swing and the right elbow pulled out. With modern clubs you can get much greater accuracy on the approach shots because the plane of the swing is more in a direct line with the pin.

But upright long irons and woods are of little use to high handicap amateurs who are struggling against a slice all the time; they would benefit from clubs with much flatter lies.

The thing I like about hickory is the feel it gives, the slight wobble of the head and the torque; the ball seems to come off the face more slowly. I have toyed with the idea of putting a hickory shaft into a modern wedge so that it was just as upright. I thought it might allow greater control, provided you kept a steady rhythm. But I never got round to putting this idea into practice.

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