My father, Gus Faulkner, began his career at the age of 17 in 1910, when be became 7th assistant to the great James Braid at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey. Although he would find some time for golf, and was soon going round the course in the low 70s, his days were spent in the shop. Dad went on to win several regional tournaments in the 1920s and very nearly made the 1929 Ryder Cup team.
You could always tell a pro of the old school: they had the most enormous hands. I did my share of clubmaking in my teens and my hands are quite strong, but the pros of my father’s era were in a different leagure altogether. If you shook hands with them, your hand would be engulfed and you had to hope that they would not squeeze too hard.
I took my elder son to St Andrews in 1959, when he was 18 and the same height as me, to play a round and we bumped in to Laurie Auchterlonie, the professional and wonderful clubmaker. The look on my son’s face was a picture when I introduced them and they shook hands. Laurie’s hands were even bigger than my Dad’s.
No matched sets
My Dad spent his time making James Braid clubs for sale in the shop and elsewhere. You have to remember that all the clubs had wooden shafts made from hickory and there was not such a thing as a matched set. Each club was individual and had its own name. Members would purchase new clubs one at a time.
Dad was taught how to sandpaper hickory shafts and get the correct taper. He would carve wooden heads out of blocks of persimmon, using a series of rasps graded from rough to smooth.
He and the other assistants would buff the heads to a smooth finish using sandpaper before fixing the ivory front plate with brass screws, fixing a steel bottom plate, drilling holes at the back to fill with molten lead to give the head its weight, and then applying a coat of varnish.
There would be a socket in the head for the shaft, which they would glue in. They would apply cord whipping to hold the shaft in place and add strength to the connection, and finally attach the leather grips at the top. These would be wound tightly round in a spiral with no gaps and tacked at the top and bottom to hold them in place. More whipping would be applied to the bottom of the grip.
In those days irons were literally ‘irons.’ Members would bring their clubs in overnight for the rust to be sandpapered off.
I did my share of this in the 1930s; you would finish up by sandpapering a circle in the centre of the face. Caddies used to keep a piece of sandpaper in their pockets to clean the irons.
Work such as this, done day after day, required enormous finger strength. Modern tournament pros never go near a work bench and as a result have hands like concert pianists.
Complex club names
From the start of tournament golf up to the second world war and beyond, golfers referred to their clubs using individual names.
The set would consist of a ‘driver’, ‘brassie’ (2 wood), ‘spoon’ (3 wood) and perhaps also a ‘baffie’ (4 wood). Then you had a deep-faced ‘driving iron’ (1 iron) and a shallow-faced, thick-soled ‘cleek’ of around 2 iron loft which was good for keeping the ball low against the wind.
Then there was a ‘mid-iron’ of 2-3 iron loft, a ‘mashie’ (5 iron), a ‘spade mashie’ with a very deep face, of around 6 iron loft, a ‘mashie niblick’ (7 iron) and a ‘niblick,’ a narrow-soled pitching and bunker iron.
In addition to the ‘putter’, you might have a ‘water iron’, which had big holes in the face (and might have been of use to Jean van der Velde at the Open in 1999), and a narrow-headed ‘rutter’ for getting the ball out of cart tracks.
Courses much rougher, worm casts on greens
It goes without saying that the courses were much rougher in those days. For example, one of the course rules at St Andrews is (or used to be) that loose impediments in bunkers can be removed without penalty and it specified rabbit bones, hare bones and …. human bones.
Bunkers never used to have so much sand in them. Often in tournaments there would be brown earth at the bottom and you would have no chance of getting it out with modern wide-soled clubs.
This was why the niblick had a narrow sole with a razor sharp edge. You could lay the face open and nick the ball off the hard ground. On the other hand these clubs were very difficult to use on links courses where there would be a lot of sand.
You had to be straight in the old days because the rough was ferocious. For tournaments nowadays it is chopped down and flattened where the crowds walk, but in the old days if you looked across the course you would see that most of the matches were busy searching for lost balls.
Semi-rough was much longer; you could almost lose your ball in it and would have to use a 7 iron to get out. You had no chance with a wooden club.
Greens could be covered in worm casts and you were allowed to brush these away with your putter, but worms could be pushing up while you putted. Greenkeepers used to use a long bamboo pole to swish off the casts.
On the fairways the worm casts would stop the run of the ball so in winter or when it was wet you had to get your length through the air.
One positive difference is that the greens were better cut in the old days. The greens would look beautiful after push mowing. They were cut so fine that there would be no nap; the ball would go where you hit it. I am not a fan of the modern motorised mowers which tend to ruin the edges of greens.
Longer and heavier wooden clubs
Very old woods were much longer than modern clubs; the drivers would reach up to your chest. The shafts were thicker and heavier and the heads were also much heavier, with drivers weighing more than one pound.
You also have to remember that there were no tees. You had to take sand out of the sandboxes and make a pile of it on the grass. You could only get the ball about half an inch off the ground and so drivers used to have loft to ensure that you could get the ball in the air.
I am not necessarily trying to make out that the old days were better, but they were certainly different. I used to get fed up as a youngster when the old pros would rabbit on about the good old days.
But I look at golf on the television and see Augusta and all the new courses which are in fact Augusta copies. They look like Alice-in-Wonderland to me; they are so articial with incredible manicuring. While Augusta itself is natural, these others are imposed on the landscape rather than growing out of what is already there. $.