Michigan Golfer Plays Old Hickories All The Way
By Peter Georgiady
Some guys drive vintage cars, some like working with antique tools or firing black powder muskets. Ralph Livingston III plays golf at every opportunity with 80-year-old, wood-shafted golf clubs. The Grand Rapids professional photographer and principle of Livingston Photography, is more than just an armchair devotee of golf history and old golf equipment. He relishes playing time-honored antique clubs over historic old courses, and newer ones, too.
Livingston stopped using modern golf clubs five or six years ago and has played exclusively with antique clubs ever since. Over that time his handicap has dropped from nine to five, in large part because the balance of the clubs improved his swing tempo. He's now back around nine though, because of a lack of practice. Last May he won the Scottish Hickory Championship in Gullane, east of Edinburgh, and placed eighth in the National Hickory Championship in West Virginia. This year, in addition to those two events, he'll play in a major tournament in Dallas in the spring and in the Golf Collectors Society Championship, the wood-shaft tournament with the largest starting field, where he finished second in 1999, as well as five or six smaller events.
From the beginning it wasn't as simple as stopping off at his home course's pro shop at The Highlands, and ordering a set of old clubs. Livingston acquired his first old club sometime in the early 1990s and soon after was accumulating antique clubs as a hobby. When he casually hit a few balls with a 1920s vintage MacGregor Tomahawk mashie, he made a remarkable discovery. Shots made with it were flying as far as those from his Wilson Staff 7-iron. Impressed by the straightness of the ball flight and the feel of the club, Livingston fixed up his mashie for regular play. Tightening its loose head and restoring the shaft and grip to a usable state launched him on a path toward perfecting his club reconditioning techniques. He is now an authority on restoring antique clubs for use and regularly sought out for advice by other collectors.
Today, Livingston's regular playing set of clubs is comprised exclusively of irons made by Tom Stewart of St. Andrews. Stewart was the dean of iron club makers in the period of 1910-1930 and major champions, including Bobby Jones, Chick Evans and Harry Vardon, all played with Stewart's clubs. To fully understand how each type of club was used, Livingston carefully analyzed weights, lofts and lies of hundreds of Stewart clubs. Golfers in the first quarter of the 20th century bought clubs one at a time based on need and the feel of each individual piece. Livingston outfits his customers in a similar way, with a single club or a set, and he tries to match clubs to the swing characteristics and needs of the purchaser.
He has two completely different playing sets of clubs. His regular set includes two woods, eight irons and a putter. The irons are a 1-iron, 2-iron, mongrel mashie, mashie, spade mashie, mashie niblick and two different niblicks. Livingston's second set is primarily for use in the National Hickory Championship, the premier tournament for players with old clubs, where only 19th-century equipment is allowed. Irons from this "guttie ball era" set have no lines on the face and were produced in the 1880s by Robert White, also of St. Andrews and the teacher of Tom Stewart. His woods are replica McEwan's and his antique wooden putter from Morris because neither Stewart nor White made wooden clubs.
The steps Livingston follows to restore a typical club usually include removing, re-gluing and resetting the club's wood shaft in the steel hosel of the club head. If necessary, he straightens a warped shaft then, just as in the old days, replaces the grip with a leather strip. Shafts are cleaned, oiled and sealed. Iron club heads are de-rusted and oiled. Full-sized leather hides from a local company are carefully cut into long strips for spiral-wound grips.
In the span of just a few years, Livingston has become the source for golfers seeking the finest quality in playable old golf clubs. He supplied hickory shaft equipment for a Golf Digest comparison test of clubs from different eras. The forthcoming film, based on the book The Legend of Bagger Vance, used Livingston's clubs in many of its golf scenes. Most of his other customers are golfers like he--those that enjoy playing wood-shaft golf. In the past six years he estimates he has restored 500-800 clubs for dozens of customers, but the pressures of business, along with aggressive travel and play schedules, have caused him to curtail much of his club restoration work.
Golfers interested in learning more about Livingston or playing golf with antique clubs can visit his web site at www.hickorygolf.com.
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