Golf Historical Society of Canada

Building a Playset

Above: Two sets of post-1900 clubs—one with replica irons and one which includes original Mills aluminum “hybrid” irons

Building a playset can be a very rewarding experience, but please consider enlisting the help of an experienced hickory player. 

Option 1 – Buy an existing set of antique clubs

The easiest way to get started is to buy an existing set that has already been restored for play. You may want to start with a basic or “short” set (a wood, four irons, and a putter) or purchase a more complete set of (two-three woods, several irons and a putter).

A little advice on choosing woods for your play set. Drivers typically had very little loft and so they are generally hard to hit. Most players prefer using a Brassie (2-wood) or Spoon (3-wood) off the tee for their versatility and playability. Some players will also add a wooden cleek or a “Bulldog” having greater lofts.

Option 2 – Build your own set by choosing clubs on an individual basis

There are many sources for clubs, the most reliable being from other hickory players and collectors within the GHSC or SOHG. Sources like EBAY can be overpriced and the clubs are not always in the best shape. Some refinishing is often required.

It is important to examine the hickory shaft carefully, as well as the condition of the head, grip and whipping. 

Any irons purchased in their raw form often require the head to be re-glued and re-pinned before use. The grip may also need to be replaced. Many of our members can do this for you at a reasonable price. It is best to examine a club before purchasing as many clubs have very light swingweights.

Special care is needed in choosing woods. Both the head and shaft need to be in good condition or they will not stand up to regular play. Many of our GHSC members are able to refinish woods for a reasonable fee. A replica wood is a good but expensive alternative.

Option 3 – Buy a matched set of replica irons and/or woods

There are a handful of approved manufacturers that build replica irons and woods for both pre-1900 and post-1900 hickory play. See our Links page to find the websites of those firms. These sets tend to be more expensive but the clubs will last longer and are beautiful to look at.

Remember, when Bobby Jones got a new set of clubs, they were new to him and were not likely to have been hit by anyone else before him.

Tips from Two Hickory Enthusiasts 

Above: A full set of post-1900 original clubs and a replica brassie

 Player #1 advises that:

  1. For those intending to play their hickories frequently, consider REPLICA CLUBS especially when considering woods. Also, a replica sand Niblick is a must as original antique clubs are rare and expensive.
  2. I love trying a variety of clubs and I find that some clubs play better than others on modern courses. Clubs that have more of a FLANGE (bounce) play better on modern courses, and are often a little easier to hit than a pure blade.
  3. For my iron sets, I favour 5-degree LOFT GAPS. My main playsets are lofted at 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55. They seem to work best for me. “Stewart” irons are highly prized by many players. I have also found “MacGregor” and “Kroyden” clubs to be highly playable, for both woods and irons. 
  4. BLADE PUTTERS were the most common during the hickory era. However there were many nice aluminum MALLET PUTTERS and my personal favourite is a “Schenectady.” Mills aluminum-headed putters are also very nice.


 Player #2 advises that:

  1. Hickory golf irons are generally HEAVIER than modern irons. This means that it is best if they are played with a more deliberate, slower swing. Swingweight, loft and grip thickness are important considerations when choosing clubs for a hickory playset. This is because hickory clubs are all about feel and control. Distance generally improves when the player uses a less aggressive golf swing. 
  2. Some players feel they can work the ball better when GRIP THICKNESS is smaller. For example, I prefer a grip thickness diameter of around 0.83 inches for hickory play (measured two inches down from the end of the club). I have large hands but shorter fingers. The type of grip is also important—some players prefer leather rough side out, others prefer smooth side out. To be considered legal for hickory play, modern golf grips must not be used. When acquiring clubs for a hickory playset, it is common to have clubs regripped before use. 
  3. For SMOOTH LEATHER GRIPS, Lexol cleaner and conditioner may be used to keep the grips in a clean and tacky state. ROUGH SIDE OUT or SUEDE leather grips are other alternatives to consider. For these, gently stroke the grips using either a wire brush or a violin rosin bar. Authentic grips for hickory play sets are wrapped around the hickory shaft. Friction or masking tape are commonly used for hickories as under-padding to adjust grip thickness, just like for modern clubs. Pre-1900 wooden clubs (originals or replicas tend to have larger grips) which may not suit all players, so be aware of this.
  4. In terms of SWING WEIGHT (SW), some players will use a SW scale to measure more accurately. Lead tape is often placed on the back of a hickory iron to increase SW and “coordinate” the irons in a playset. Some experienced players do everything by feel—they don’t use a scale. Personally, I prefer SW’s for my irons in the D0-D4 range. For a longer iron, I prefer a SW in the C8-C9 range. I find this helps me generate a bit more clubhead speed as the overall club weight is also a bit lower. I find that the lighter long iron (a mid iron, driving iron or cleek) also results in a more compact divot resulting in improved distance and a more consistent ball flight.
  5. For hickory irons, there are generally three types of club FACE PATTERNS in use. Smooth-faced irons (“smoothies”) are used for pre-1900 play. For post-1900 play, irons may have scoring using either dot patterns or lined grooves similar to modern clubs. Some players like to have a set of irons with a consistent dot-pattern. Other players prefer more of a mix. For some courses, and to change things up, I may even play my smoothies for post-1900 hickory golf. This is to get a better, more consistent roll up onto greens and to play more of a ground game.
  6. The first hickory-shafted equivalents of the modern golf club hybrids were the MILLS ALUMINUM-HEADED CLUBS, circa 1890 – 1910+. They are typically found in varying lofts of 20, 25 and 30 degrees. These are helpful to some players for getting the ball up in the air. Hickory shafts used with Mills clubs tend to be a little longer than conventional irons of comparable lofts.
  7. For HICKORY PUTTERS, most are weighted toe-down, though some mallets are face-balanced. Shaft length, overall weight and SW are important personal choices. Hickory putters tend to have more loft than modern golf putters. This is especially helpful for chipping around the green though the extra loft can cause the ball to jump on occasion when putting on the green. This can be compensated for by using a putting stroke where the hands lead a bit. Again, lead tape is often placed on the back of a metal blade putter head that feels too light.
  8. NIBLICKS” are the equivalent of wedges in the hickory playset. Original niblicks tended to have little bounce which made them more difficult to use for bunker shots. There are a few original and replica niblicks available that have more bounce. Some Niblicks have sharp edges which means that they can dig easily when used on short grass lies. In the post-1900 hickory era, some players drilled holes into the hosels or heads of their niblicks or other clubs, to reduce/redistribute weight. When you see an original hickory club drilled like this, it’s not a defect.
  9. I often write the number of the equivalent modern club on the back of the iron using a BLACK MAGIC MARKER (e.g. “4” means the hickory club has the equivalent length, lie and loft of what I would consider to be a modern 4-iron. This is useful since I tend to think in terms of modern clubs that I play when choosing a hickory club to play a shot. There is typically a 2-club difference between original hickory irons and modern iron equivalents. An original hickory might be stamped as “midiron” or  “2-iron” which would equate to a modern 4-iron. By marking the iron as a “4”, I am able to more easily make the mental conversion in terms of club selection, distance and expected ball flight.
Above: Putter, full set of smoothies, play club, transitional spoon and short spoon

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