Sporting life: Hickory golf on the South Downs, complete with plus fours and bow-ties

The Goodwood Revival isn't just limited to the motor racing circuit these days – each year, a group of golfers takes to the fairways of the estate's beautiful Downs Course to try their luck using vintage golf equipement. Toby Keel went along to try it out.

‘Golf,’ wrote Winston Churchill, ‘is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.’

Normally I’d never dare question the wit and wisdom of the Great Man, but this particular bon mot always struck me as a little bit of sour grapes from a man who’d tried and failed to master the game. Golf clubs have always seemed perfectly decent implements, especially in the form of the modern titanium driver, with a head only slightly smaller than a cantaloupe melon.

Today, however, I see what the old boy was going on about. That’s because I’m standing on the first tee of the Downs Course at Goodwood wielding a long, thin piece of wood with a butter knife glued to the end.

Hickory golf at Goodwood

It’s not actually a butter knife, of course. It’s an original 1930s golf club – a ‘hickory’, as they’re now universally known, named after the wood used to make the shafts. I’ve got a ‘full’ set of them which takes in about half as many clubs as I’d use today, and most with names lifted straight from the pages of PG Wodehouse: there’s a brassie, a mid-iron, a niblick, a mashie-niblick, a niblick and a putter. Forget the driver, the rescue clubs, numbers 3-9 irons and a wedges for every eventuality.

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This is how golf used to be played. This, to aficionados, is how golf still should be played. And this, to me, is the moment that I realise Churchill was on to something.

The reason I’m about to have a go with this ‘ill-designed instrument’? This is Goodwood’s annual Revival Golf Challenge, a golf day scheduled for the Friday morning during of Goodwood Revival week, based half a mile or so away on the Duke of Richmond’s 12,000-acre estate. 11 years ago, with the motor racing festival well-established, the estate’s golf club decided to get in on the act by holding an equivalent golf day. A specialist company – South East Hickory Golf – were brought in to provide hire sets and bags, and the eager golfers who poured in to take part brought their own tweeds, bow-ties and plus fours.

Hickory golf at Goodwood

While I haven’t managed to rustle up a pair of plus fours for the day – despite trawling at least half a dozen charity shops for the purpose – I have at least dug out a period jacket and a bow-tie, neither of which make swinging this absurdly small-headed and straight-faced golf club at the ball seem any easier.

Yet here I am on the first tee. Swing I must. Swing I do and – a miracle! – the ball flies into the air as if launched by 21st century, rather than 19th century, technology.

True, it flies into a large tree, and ricochets into a bunker. But considering how daunted I’d been feeling a few seconds before, I’m instantly grinning from ear-to-ear.

Hickory golf at Goodwood

Even the golf buggies at Goodwood are revival themed.

Why do people do this? Well, there are the obvious elements: it’s a bit of fun, a chance to dress up in silly clothes, and enjoy a fine day out on a beautiful spot on the South Downs. But there’s more to it than that.

For decades almost every golf club on the planet was made using a hickory shaft, but around 1935 a revolution kicked in when steel was introduced. Steel was lighter, cheaper and stronger – the latter two particularly important considerations, given that hickory golf club shafts break fairly regularly (two of the sixty-odd taking part in this golf day will suffer that fate).

Hickory golf at Goodwood

But there is another consideration which makes this day all the more intriguing: as a hickory golf club is swung, the wooden shaft twists under the weight of the metal clubhead. Steel shafts twist too – it’s called torque – but far, far less. The result is that hitting a good shot with a hickory club requires a slow, wristy action which would get you into all sorts of trouble using modern clubs. The reverse is true too: one of my fourball, a professional golfer, is almost completely unable to hit the ball at all for the first nine holes.

For the less skilled golfer – a group which, dear reader, I sadly admit to being in myself – this proves something of a leveller. The first few holes don’t exactly go brilliantly, but then they seldom do when playing ‘real’ golf either, and I’m delighted with my progress, even with the ‘brassie’ which is roughly an eighth of the size by volume of my normal driver. The only real trouble I have is that the putter and the mid-iron (equivalent to a modern four or five-iron) are almost indistinguishable from each other, meaning that it takes me a few seconds longer than I’d expect to fish either one out of the bag.

As the round progresses I suffer the usual ups and downs of golf, but my playing partners show the way with a succession of excellent shots. Finally things click, and I hit a fine shot to a par-3 that leaves me with a birdie putt.

(I end up taking three, for a bogey. There’s no excuse. The putter is the least different of all the clubs, in both look and feel.)

Hickory golf at Goodwood

But truth be told, I actually begin to forget that this is hickory golf – it’s just golf, with all its usual pleasures and pains. Tony Hunt, who runs South East Hickory Golf, tells me that regular players (of which he is one) find it perfectly easy to play to their normal handicap with antique clubs.

By the 18th hole I’m convinced he’s right as a couple of decent swings see me find first the fairway and then the heart of the green with a towering iron shot, despite using the club that a few hours beforehand I could scarcely believe would make contact. And the score of the winning team? 40 points, or four better than handicap.

Sorry Winston, but you got it dead wrong. These clubs are perfectly well designed for their purpose, even after the best part of a century. And just as they did a century ago, they’ll still let you enjoy a damn good day out.

The Goodwood Revival Golf Challenge will take place on September 13 next year (though date officially still TBC), and will be open to both members and non-members of Goodwood Golf Club. For more details see

Hickory golf at Goodwood

There was even a period-themed bar on the 1st tee for a pre-round stiffener…