LocalGolfer.com writer, Jack Seybold, explores golf’s metamorphosis into different forms around the globe.
Sports evolve, as cultures do, and we can witness tendrils from the stem of our beloved game of golf growing in a range of adaptations.
The sport we call soccer has its antecedents two or three centuries before Christ. Games in ancient Greece and China involved kicking a ball into an opponent’s goal, and there were indigenous games in pre-Columbian Latin America with similarities to modern soccer (or football, as it is known elsewhere the world). In the early 19th Century the idea developed (perhaps inevitably) of “football” (soccer) players at England’s Rugby College running with the ball, resulting in the sport of rugby – which on our shores eventually morphed into “American football.” Similarly, golf offshoots are developing, gaining devotees ranging from casual to professional.
First, consider the back-to-the-future phenomenon of Hickory Golf. Participants are likely purists who harken back to a supposed Golden Age of pre-1935 golf, or even to the modern game’s 15th-Century roots, when clubs were made with wooden shafts and heads. The Society of Hickory Golfers, founded in 2001, developed from the golf championships in the 1990’s of the Golf Collectors Society, whose members had accumulated enough dated equipment to have a go the old-fashioned way – although not risking their rare valuable specimens.
In those early days there were perhaps two dozen “hickory golfers.” Today their worldwide number has swelled into the thousands. They usually dress in period attire, and you expect them to adhere to strict standards, such as scrupulously playing their ball as it lies, observing proper golf etiquette, and repairing divots and pitch marks with zen-like dedication.
Rob Ahlschwede of Olympia, Washington has used only hickory clubs for a dozen years. The difference between them and modern clubs, he says, is that “the driver just does not go as far, although I still hit the hickory driver 220 more or less. But then, when I hit a modern driver–when someone lets me–I hit it about 250-70.”
Fellow Northwesterner Bill Keeler’s modern clubs are also gathering dust in the garage. “When I started playing with the hickories, my expectations were low and I found that a slower tempo was key to better shot making. I can’t describe the wonderful feeling of the shaft flexing on the ‘pure’ shot!”
They are echoed by Ray Tokareff of Ashland, Oregon. “Forget distance,” he declares, and adds that playing with hickory clubs improves his modern golf game as well. “It makes me really focus, and sharpens my short game.”
The Society of Hickory Golfers seeks to “promote the experience of golf in a manner consistent with how the ‘royal and ancient game’ was played in the hickory era,” and “develop and maintain equipment standards for authentic hickory play.” The organization hosts tournaments, provides a hickory golf handicapping service, and publishes a newsletter, The Wee Nip.
Several manufacturers, such as Louisville Golf, Tad Moore Golf, St. Andrews Golf Co., and Play Hickory Golf, now create replica wooden-shafted clubs for use in events such as the U.S. Hickory Open (since 2008). Louisville advertizes a “starter set” of five clubs for $760, and a “tournament set” of ten clubs for $1,500. Some golf courses have hickory clubs available for rental, and manufacturers make rental sets available at tournament venues. In 2011, the first Professional Hickory Golfers Association championship was held at Temple Terrace, Florida, with a purse of $5,000.
Quite elsewhere on the golf spectrum you find Flogton. That’s “not golf” spelled backwards. Neither royal nor ancient, it is otherwise known as the Alternative Golf Association, a group of Silicon Valley executives who advocate a relaxed attitude toward the rules and equipment of golf. Those for whom executive courses, pitch-and-putt courses, or even miniature golf do not sufficiently reduce the challenge of the game might take refuge in Flogton. Improve your lie, take mulligans and “gimmes,” tee the ball up anywhere on the course, use non-conforming clubs or balls, score no higher than double-bogey. Recognizing the game’s considerable challenge, Flogton’s advocates hope to stimulate participation in golf, as snowboarding boosted the sport of skiing. Less frustration, more fun.
Speaking of skiing: This year marked the 31st annual snow golf tournament at Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows ski resort. Participants (wearing skis) tee off on a series of nine white downhill “fairways,” hitting green tennis balls that won’t sink into the snow, shussing down for follow-up shots, ending in flagged circles spray-painted on the greens (well, whites). Although they keep their scores, winners are determined by a raffle drawing of the scorecards, and major emphasis is on the post-round party.
There is, however, a sport of snow (and ice) golf that is both old and new. In fact, Medieval Dutch artists created paintings that showed what might be the antecedent of both golf and hockey, known in Dutch as kolf. In his celebrated short story “Winter Dreams” F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions playing golf with colored balls, which would be more easily spotted in snow. And in the last decade or so Canadian Tina Blomme, the “inventor” of snow golf, designed the first snow golf course next to the Ice Hotel in Quebec, and has attempted to “officialize” the sport. There are snow golf events (using colored golf balls) from Greenland to Argentina, and a World Championship was played in 2008 in Austria.
Vacationing in Netherlands a couple of years ago I was charmed to see a curious event in a pasture along the Maas River. Several groups of five young men were
swatting what looked like a volleyball, using a Dutch wooden shoe fixed on the end of a pole. It was my introduction to Boerengolf (Farmers Golf). Invented by a Dutch dairy farmer, Peter Weenink, the game was his response to frustrations such as the expense of golf and the requirement in Netherlands of earning a golf certificate to be allowed on a course.
The game of Farmers Golf is very simple: “The course is a pasture, and a hole is quickly made by digging a milk bucket in the ground with a large flag next to it,” says Weenink. The team that completes the hole in the fewest hits is the winner. Hazards include cows, and their droppings. There are usually ten holes to a course, averaging perhaps two hundred yards. Green fees are usually from $7.50 to $12 at more than a hundred courses in Europe, mostly in Netherlands. Farmers thus make additional profit from their land, and the public has an enjoyable, inexpensive, family-friendly alternative to golf – no experience necessary. The Boerengolf website claims it is the fastest growing outdoor sport in the world.
The first boerengolf club was invented by Peter Weenink’s neighbor as they were organizing for the first boerengolf tournament, a neighborhood event, on Easter of 1999. Now the clubs are made in the nearby village of Beltrum, exclusively for Farmersgolf Int. by Nijhuis, the largest manufacturer of wooden shoes in the world. The ball is about eight inches in diameter and is manufactured in Pakistan. Club and ball can be purchased for about $48. No other equipment is required, although boots are recommended.
Golf played on farmland has been happening in the USA for decades now. The town of Wisdom, Montana (population about 100) has hosted the quirky Cow Pasture Open on a course created on all-but-unimproved farmland once annually for nearly twenty years. Part charity fundraiser, part country fair, the event is a two-person scramble through unforgiving rough to offbeat hole locations – sheds, hay bales, a cattle skull. Beginners welcome.
The just-for-fun aspect of some pasture golf events is evident from the list of rules for the Second annual Cow Pasture Golf Classic in Brownwood, Texas (2010), which include: “Leave wildlife alone. Critters should not be bothered except for rattlesnakes and copperheads. Feel free to use your clubs on these (at your own risk). Bring your own ride (pickup, golf cart, mule, horse, or whatever).”
A list of “fun and affordable” pasture golf courses can be found at pasturegolf.com. The site is much less tongue-in-cheek about the pasture golf experience. “Golf as it was meant to be,” it claims, the courses are “the true link to the game’s grass roots.” Pasture golf shares elements of hickory golf’s philosophy of reverence for the game, but boasts a more blue-collar approach. Pasture golf courses might have normal-looking greens and tee boxes, but few other features of modern golf courses. Often players use old or thrift-store clubs due to the rough nature of the rough – and fairways. As pasturegolf.com quotes, “the fairways aren’t always fair, the greens aren’t always green, but the game is golf.”
And then there’s golf without clubs. Less than a decade old, a merging of golf and soccer materialized in various parts of the world. The game is played in parks and also on golf courses, using soccer balls propelled by nimble feet (without cleats!), generally following the rules of golf. The hole is a 21-inch cup, not located on regular golf greens, thus preserving the quality of the course. The American FootGolf League lists hundreds of courses in the USA (48 in California!). The sport’s enthusiasts point out that some participants are induced to take up golf after footgolf introduces them to the pleasures of golf courses.
A Federation for International FootGolf, now with 22 member nations, was organized in 2012, when the first FootGolf World Cup was held in Hungary.
A further iteration of golf sans clubs is disc golf. I get the idea you shouldn’t call it Frisbee Golf. Frisbee is a trademarked name for the original throwing disc, manufactured by Wham-O (also the manufacturer of the hula hoop). Of course, the object is to hurl or zip a plastic disc in as few throws as possible until a target, usually a chain basket, is struck. The origin of the game predates by decades the invention of the plastic disc, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association. Yes, there are professionals of the sport! Professional disc golfers use a bagful of discs, just as golfers have an array of clubs for different distances and challenges.
There is a disc golf hall of fame, national collegiate championships, national and world pro championships, with purses as high as $15,000.
Disc golf courses number in the thousands throughout the world, usually located in public parks, although care must be taken to ensure safety and tranquility for non-participants. Not a problem at the isolated and formidable Shale City/Frog Creek course, located on a forested mountainside near Ashland, Oregon. It is difficult to find, let alone navigate, and lost discs are common.
The PDGA maintains lists of courses, world and national player rankings, events, rules and standards, and publishes the quarterly DiscGolfer magazine.
Moongolf is a form of golf that is out of this world. As of yet, has been only one participant… astronaut Alan Shepard.
Jack Seybold, a teacher with an M.A. in linguistics, played college basketball, ran three marathons, and has published a novel, articles, and poems. In retirement he has appeared in over 25 theatrical productions at Talent’s Camelot Theater.