HISTORY OF HICKORY GOLF IN NEBRASKA

by Randy Jensen

To better understand the history of Nebraska hickory golf, let's get an overview of the history of golf and modern hickory golf.

Golf's beginnings are lost in the mists of time. We know golf was being played in Scotland in 1450. The Dutch played a similar game called Pall Mall from 1300 to 1725, when the game faded out. The two oldest golf courses on the planet are the Old Musselburgh Links, generally considered the oldest, and the Old Course at St. Andrews, both in Scotland. The Old Course at St. Andrews shortened their golf course from 22 holes to the current 18 in the year 1754. At about this same time, shipping records from the port of Leith in Scotland show that a large shipment of golf clubs and golf balls was sent to Charleston, South Carolina.

Later in the 1700s, golf was also being played in New York City during the Revolutionary War. The first recorded golf course in North America was not until 1875 in Canada. The first recorded golf course in the U.S. did not come about until the early 1880s when Oakhurst Links was established near White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia; this course is still in existence and hosts the National Hickory Championship each year.

The oldest continuously run golf club in the U.S. is the St. Andrews Club which was started by John Reid in 1888 in Yonkers, New York. Like many old clubs, the golf course has been updated many times over the years, the latest a Jack Nicklaus redesign, that it is vastly changed from the original course.

The 1920s were the Golden Age of hickory golf. With a booming economy and no wars, affluent America took strongly to the game and Walter Hagen was joined by the imported Scot Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen, and the young prodigy Bobby Jones as the premier players in the world.

Hagen would travel the world, winning tournaments and promoting the game; Armour would win all the major championships and eventually gain the reputation as the world's finest golf instructor; Sarazen would win all the major championships and introduce the modern sand wedge; and Bobby Jones, with his all-American good looks, would go on to do the impossible and win four major championships in one year in 1930 at the age of 28!

With the Great Depression, the coming of the steel shafts and finally war in Europe, the end of a very fascinating era had come to a close. The millions and millions of wood shafted clubs produced during these early eras were largely forgotten about. Some were cut down for junior golfers or used as starter sets. Many just collected dust in a closet or garage. Others were simply thrown away.

It wasn't until 1970 when Bob Kuntz and Joe Murdoch formed the Golf Collectors Society as a means of getting together with fellow collectors to buy, sell and trade old golf items, that interest in these old wood shaft golf clubs would start to be rekindled.

In 1970, Frank Hardison, a scratch golfer from California, his brother Dick, and Chet Lynch started playing occasionally with hickory shafted clubs that they had picked up at thrift shops. Frank was a member of Santa Ana Country Club in Orange County, California, and in a discussion with the golf professional, Gerald Hall, they came up with the idea of holding a tournament for members and a few invited guests to play with hickory shafted clubs.

Their first tournament was held in 1971. In preparing the details for the next year's tournament, they came up with the name "Hickory Hackers". Their first "Hickory Hackers" tournament was held in 1972 with 13 entrants. It was then held in subsequent years for about a decade. The rules of play limited a player to seven clubs, all wood shafts made prior to 1930. A 1916 golf rulebook governed play and all balls were to be teed up only on sand tees. Early contestants included Roger Cleveland, the club designer and founder of Cleveland Golf.

In 1973, Dick Hardison and Chet Lynch, who were members of the Golf Collectors Society, approached Joe Murdoch and offered to put together a hickory tournament for the members of the GCS. They gladly bequeathed the name "Hickory Hackers" to the GCS. At first, the tournament was not held at the site of the annual meeting as it is today, but each member, playing with a fellow member at his own club (or some other mutually agreed upon golf club), submitted course ratings and other details to Hardison and Lynch for equalizing of handicaps. Then on tournament day, each player submitted his scorecard attested by his fellow player or players.

The very first Golf Collectors Society Hickory Hacker Tournament was thus held in 1973 with this unique format and the winner was Jim Monaghan who shot a 72 at his home course with a hole-in-one on the second hole. All in all, 12 players turned in scorecards from around the country in this first event.

The next year in the 1974 tournament, brothers Frank and Dick Hardison played the Old Course at St. Andrews with Frank shooting a 78 and Dick a 72, remarkable considering that they shared a five club set, picked up during their travels in Scotland, that consisted of an Anderson semi-long nose spoon, a mid-iron, a mashie, a niblick, and a long nose Forgan putter.

The following year saw the name of the tournament change to the "1975 World's Open Hickory Hacker Championship". Today the tournament is held in conjunction with the annual GCS meeting and draws over 100 players from around the world.

HICKORY GOLF IN NEBRASKA

Warren Olson from Denison, Iowa started the "Heart of America Hickory Championship" in 1978 as a regional Golf Collectors Society tournament. Today this is the longest, continuously running hickory tournament in the world, having been contested every year since 1978.

Randy Jensen first played in the "Heart of America Hickory Championship" in 1989 and the next year he would start a streak of winning 19 of the next 20 annual tournaments with his only loss being in a 3-hole sudden-death play-off to Mike Stolarskyj in Denison, Iowa.

During that period, the tournament was contested at a number of excellent courses including Ben Crenshaw's Sand Hills Club in Mullen, Nebraska with contestants from across the country.

The early Heart of America Hickory Championships were generally rotated between the Omaha, NE area and Kansas City area (the headquarters of the GCS in its early years) even though this GCS "Region 7" included 10 States: Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Nebraska has a long history of golf with the first course being a three-hole layout near Wahoo, Nebraska at the Murchison Ranch in 1887. A. H. Findlay, a 21-year old Scottish emigrant, laid out this course and in 1893, he laid out the first golf course in Omaha, Nebraska, a nine-hole course on the grounds where Memorial Park is now located on Dodge St. & Happy Hollow Blvd.

Findlay ended up designing hundreds of US golf courses and producing a line of clubs for Wright & Ditson that first appeared about 1899.

This nine-hole Memorial Park golf course was in place before the 1st 18-hole golf course opened in the USA, the Chicago Golf Club. Only the 12-hole course of Shinnecock Hills in New York was longer than the Omaha course.

The Memorial Park golf course became the original Happy Hollow Golf Club and when Happy Hollow moved to its present location in the 1920s, the course became the Dundee Golf Club, operating until the course was closed after World War II and made into "Memorial" Park.

Omaha Field Club was another early golf club in Omaha, opening in 1898. The course hosted the U. S. Amatuer in 1942 when the property included what is now Veteran's Hospital and had a 600 yard par 5. Hole #15 was a 400-yard par 4 that currently plays as a short par 4 and you can still see the original tee box formation on the Veteran's Hospital property. Maps of the two earlier course designs hang in the clubhouse.

Many people don't realize that there was a nine-hole par 3 golf course just South of the Field Club as well.

Omaha Country Club also started early with an 1899 start-up. The first course was bounded by about 52nd St. to 56th St. and about Maple St. to the Radial Highway (Saddle Creek). OCC also moved to its present location in the 1920s. The original clubhouse on the still brick-surfaced 56th St. is now a residential home on the West side of the street a few blocks South of the Radial Highway.

Miller Park on North 30th was a busy nine-hole public golf course and so the city decided to create Elmwood Park GC in 1915. The layout was quite different from today with the original clubhouse still standing next to the city swimming pool.

Elmwood's first hole was the current #5, a 160-yard par 3 now but a par 4 from back at the original clubhouse then. The 17th hole played in reverse and the 18th hole was a 200-yard par 3 over Elmwood Creek. Elmwood opened in 1916 and was touted as a "Championship" course.

Spring Lake golf course (nine-holes) is another notable, early Omaha golf course where Gary Wiren, Randy Jensen, and Bob Astleford all played their first rounds of golf.

Seymour Lakes was another championship course in the area. Johnny Goodman, the hickory era US Open and Amateur champion from Omaha, actually played more of his golf at Seymour Lakes than Field Club. Seymour Lakes was located on land from 72nd to 78th St. and from L St. to Q St. The now defunct Lakeview Golf Course did not share any holes with this earlier design.

Omahan Johnny Goodman beat Bobby Jones in the first round of the 1929 US Amateur, a shocking upset, and this provided the window of opportunity for Bobby Jones to contact Alister MacKenzie, who would design Augusta National, home of the Masters Golf Tournament, one of the four current major championships.

Omaha also had a championship 18-hole golf course on 88th and Dodge: Indian Hills Golf Course. The course was bordered by Dodge St. on the North and 90th St. on the West. The Omaha World-Herald Publinks Golf Tournament, started in 1929, held some of their championships there until the Davis family sold the land in 1958 and moved further West to create Miracle Hills Golf Course in 1960.

Dodge Park in Council Buffs is another hickory-era golf course dating to 1927. With the addition of riverfront casinos, the clubhouse is now relocated and you tee off on the old #12 for your first hole.

There are also records of an early 1890s golf course on North 16th St., but little is known about it.

Both Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones played exhibitions in Omaha during the primes of their career and few people realize that the fence that surrounds the Omaha Field Club was put in place for a 1940s golf exhibition by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

With the growth in popularity of hickory golf competitions, a core of hickory golf enthusiasts brought the Society of Hickory Golfers into being in 2002. The original core group consisted of: Randy Jensen, Ralph Livingston III, John Sherwood, Roger Hill, Tad Moore, Chuck McMullin, Winfield Padgett, Brian Siplo, Philip Truett, and John Crow Miller.

Today Omaha is perhaps the leading hotspot for hickory golf worldwide:

1) it is home of its most famous player, Randy Jensen, who also founded Classic Golf and wrote the iconic book "Playing Hickory Golf" (2008);

2) it is a renowned area for hickory golf club repairs with Tony Tubrick who has over 25 years experience as a hickory club restoration expert at Classic Golf;

3) it is home of McIntyre Golf where Dr. Dave Brown produces the World's finest reproduction hickory-era golf balls;

4) the World's only completely hand made putters & irons are forged in Omaha just as they there done by Tom Stewart in St. Andrews---but now this masterful forging is done by Ray Scheuneman;

5) it is home to Ron Luster who is producing some of the finest hickory golf shafts for today's players;

6) and it is home to the very first modern golf club to hold a hickory golf club championship---Happy Hollow Golf Club, a club that can trace its roots back to 1893, through the efforts of Dr. Kevin Cawley.