Scottish golf’s hickory history a winner with tourists
By Kristy Dorsey
The co-founder of what began as a “part-time gig” during lockdown has said he is considering giving up his day job following a surge of overseas interest in his fledgling business.
Edinburgh-based Stuart Fraser of Hickory Smoked Golf, which buys and restores clubs from pre-1935, said the company is in discussions with various tourist and venue operators following a shift in focus after last year’s Open Championship at St Andrews. Interest is “far exceeding” expectations with nearly a dozen confirmed bookings for group workshops in the coming season, as well as partnerships to support hotel conference activity.
Mr Fraser, who comes from an extended family of enthusiastic amateur golfers, initially set up the business with his cousin Doug Mitchell to rent out five-piece sets of hickory clubs to local golfers looking for “something a bit different”.
“So the original idea was very much a domestic market aimed at Scottish golfers to be used on Scottish courses,” he said. “It was only through the end of last year – probably since the Open, where we did a few events predominantly for American clients – when the interest from overseas, and North America specifically, took off.
“From there it has developed into what it is now. We still hire out clubs, but the real interest level in the business is from the experience side.”
Hickory Smoked Golf’s workshops take clients through the refurbishment process, which includes restored grips made from different colours of suede, leather, denim, or even faux snakeskin. Those who wish to buy their club and take it home can have it personalised with laser engraving on the shaft.
“That element of hands-on really captures the imagination, especially of tourists,” Mr Fraser said. “Golf tourists come to Scotland for the history, so being able to add that element of history to their trip is really taking off for us.”
Though the commercial side of the business is still in its relative infancy, Mr Fraser and his cousin are already exploring the possibilities for creating an educational arm that would work with schools and youth groups to get more people involved in the game. They are in preliminary discussions with the Stephen Gallacher Foundation to test out these non-commercial workshops, which would in part explore the historical roots of some of the less flattering elitist and sexist aspects of the game.
“It will be about what we can learn from golf and golf history, and a massive part of that is the treatment of women, and the treatment of people of colour and ethnic minorities, and how golf’s attitude has changed in those areas,” he said.
“The treatment of women specifically doesn’t paint golf in a good light, but we shouldn’t shy away from that. Muirfield, Royal Burgess, et cetera only allowing women members in the last few years whilst there are women golfers winning hundreds of thousands of pounds on the tour is such a bizarre contrast.
“We should look at it, and we should talk about it and see why those kinds of divisions arose, and you can go way back through golf history and see how that came about.”
In keeping with its sustainability aspirations, Hickory Smoked Golf only restores existing clubs, rather then producing new wooden equipment. These are purchased from private sellers in a bid to keep down costs.
About 95 per cent of stock dates from between 1910 and 1935, the cut-off date set by the Society of Hickory Golfers for “authentic” hickory clubs.
“We have definitely got a couple of clubs kicking about that are pre-1900,” Mr Fraser said. “It’s difficult to age, but the grooves are a good indicator.
“The more modern clubs have machine grooves and are very uniform, similar to what you see these days. From 1915 to [about] 1925 you tend to see hand-scratched grooves that someone has done with a tool, and they’re not uniform.
“And then pre-1900 and early 1900s, that’s when you see clubs with no grooves. It’s not an exact science, it varies, but that’s your general guide on how old the club is, and then you go and do more research on each one.”
Sign me up! Sounds great. I’d love a hands on walk through of hickory club restoration.