Non-Conforming Hickories

An issue explored by Michael Sheret and Perry Somers

One of the co-authors of this article, Perry, found himself in the middle of controversy1 in October last year when he wanted to play with his hickory clubs in the Australian PGA Seniors Championship, held over three rounds at Killara Golf Club in Sydney. As readers of TTG will know, Perry plays frequently with his hickories and using them he is capable of turning in scores of around par. 2011 was the centenary year of the PGA of Australia. Perry’s reason for wanting to play in the tournament with his hickories and dressed in plus fours and jacket was to contribute to the PGA’s celebration of its 100th year.

The organisers of the event had some doubt as to whether Perry’s hickories would be considered as conforming clubs. From the PGA the matter was put to Golf Australia, the governing body of golf in Australia with responsibility for administering the rules of golf. For whatever reason Golf Australia felt it necessary to get a decision from the R&A, and photographs of Perry’s clubs were duly sent to St. Andrews. Somehow Perry’s notes, which should have accompanied the photographs, did not reach the R&A. The notes would have explained his reasons for wishing to play with hickories in the tournament and described how they gave no advantage over other players.

The Decision

The reply came back from the R&A Rules Ltd (Equipment Standards) with regard to the submitted photographs of the iron clubfaces. These clubs ‘would not conform to the modern rules’ because the grooves ‘are nor parallel – they are slightly radiating’ and ‘Appendix II, 5a (sic) states that the grooves must be straight and parallel’2. As one can see from the photograph of Perry’s mashie, this is a perfectly correct ruling from the R&A. It is indeed the only answer to the question: Is this club conforming or non-conforming under the current rules of golf?

However, the ruling by the R&A brings up three issues:

  • Was there some way that Perry could have competed with his hickories?
  • Are the modern clubs currently in use that are non-conforming under the same Rule?
  • What are the implications for hickory golfers?
Competing with Non-Conforming Clubs

This is a difficult issue. The conditions of play for the Australian PGA Seniors Championship stated clearly that the competition was to be played under the Rules of Golf and any local rules in force on the day. It is interesting that the R&A did not specifically say that Perry’s hickories could not be used in the Championship. So what could the Championship Committee done to allow Perry to compete with his non-conforming hickories?

A simple solution would have been for the Committee and the sponsors to set up a competition within a competition, Under such an arrangement Perry would play with his hickories alongside the other players but would not be competing for the Australian PGA Seniors Championship. He would be competing for a separate prize pool, say a prize of the same value (with perhaps an upper limit) as his score would have won in the main event. this is a simple solution, but an unsatisfactory one on several counts.

The Committee might have considered an exception for Perry under ‘equity’ or a ‘local rule’ or the ‘condition of the competition’ and allowed him to compete in the main event. These terms, however, appear in the Rules of Golf, which make it clear that their use must not override a Rule of Golf. Suppose the Committee, as an addendum to the conditions of the competition, stated that: ‘As a special exception for this tournament, a player may use wooden shafted clubs manufactured before 1935, provided that the Committee is satisfied that they give no advantage to the player over modern clubs as specified in Appendix II of the Rules of Golf’. We are quite confident that there would have been no protest from other players in the field. but we wonder how the ruling bodies in golf would view such a statement.

Modern Clubs

The Rules of Golf are written to be unambiguous. Therefore they can be interpreted literally, as in the case of the radiating grooves. We believe that at the present time there are new clubs on sale and modern clubs being used by thousands of golfers that are non-conforming under the Rule: ‘Grooves must be straight and parallel’.

Perry’s Mashie


Modern non-conforming


The photograph shows a popular modern iron by a major manufacturer. Most of the grooves are parallel from heel to toe, but the two white grooves run from crown to sole. The club face has two sets of grooves, one at right angles to the other, the very antithesis of parallel. The clubface clearly does not meet the criterion: ‘Grooves must be straight and parallel’.

It might be argued that the two crown-to-sole grooves are permitted under Appendix II, 5 Club Face; d. Decorative Markings ‘. . . . Decorative markings are permitted outside the impact area.’ This argument is, however, invalid on two counts. Firstly, the two grooves are not decorative, they are put there as an alignment aid. Secondly, they are not outside the impact area. The term ‘impact area’, although used in different parts parts of the Rules, is not defined with any great precision.We note that impact area and point of impact are two different things. The point of impact may be a little off centre but, as the ball flattens under compression, the impact geometry changes from a point to a roughly area with a diameter getting on for 1.68 inches. A little off-centre initial impact would at maximum compression easily include the two crown-to-sole grooves.

We are conscious that the above reasoning concerning modern clubs will strike some readers as somewhat pedantic. We would argue that it is no more pedantic than pointing out that some old clubs have grooves that radiate slightly. To quote Richard Tufts: ‘Golf is a complex game and we must anticipate that the Rules will reflect this fact.3 We might add that interpretation of the Rules is an equally complex affair.

Implications for Hickory Golfers

We see no problem for purely hickory events where players may be using clubs that are non-conforming under the strict interpretation of the current rules. BGCS stipulates that clubs must be from the hickory era, up to and including 1935.4 It might be wise to add a clause that they should be clubs that were conforming to the standards applicable in the year of manufacture. In purely hickory events it is unlikely that scores will be used for national handicap returns and unlikely that appeals regarding the Rules will be made to the R&A Rules Committee.

There are likely to be problems for players who use their hickories for all their golf, both at club and higher levels. Radiating grooves are fairly common in hickories, as are criss-cross grooves and other imaginative patterns. At club level it is likely that the match committee would, we believe, regard the lone hickory player as rather eccentric and would not get in a tizzy about whether his or her clubs were conforming or not. For hickory players who play at higher levels, where the rest of the field is using modern clubs and is bound strictly by the current Rules of Golf, there are definite problems.

There is, however, a fairly simple solution. Between 2011 and 2012 things changed with the new edition of the Rules of Golf, 2012-2015. Note 1 has been added to Appendix II 5c: ‘The groove and punch mark specifications above indicated by an asterisk (*) apply only to new models of clubs manufactured on or after 1 January 2010 . . .’. Unfortunately, an asterisk does not appear next to ‘Grooves must be straight and parallel’, but it would be reasonable for the R&A Rules Committee to put one there. That would, at a stroke, remove the principle reason why so many hickory clubs are considered non-conforming under the current Rules. As for water irons, rake irons and niblicks with concave faces . . . well, that is another matter.


  1. 1. Users of Facebook can view a short news segment made by the Australian Channel 10 Television about the controversy. Key in ‘Hickory Golf Passion’ to bring up Perry’s Facebook page. The video is titled ‘It’s a crazy world!’ and was posted on March 9, 2012. Bear in mind that there was a great deal of editing of the total material recorded. Viewers will see a good example of a common reaction to the R&A ruling, namely to castigate the R&A. That was not the action of the authors of this article. Once the R&A was put in a position of having to give a ruling they had no choice but to give a correct ruling according to the Rules. our reaction was that there was something of an anomaly in the situation. the rules regarding club design were made sure that clubs are not ‘substantially different from the traditional customary form and make’,. The rules with regard to grooves are clearlt intended to prevent excessive backspin on iron shots to the green. We do not think the current club specification are intended to prevent players from using old-fashioned hickories with rather ineffective groove patterns. We were concerned about ways in which Perry could have been allowed to use his hickories in the Australian PGA Seniors Championship. We were also concerned at how the R&A ruling would affect hickory play in general, especially given that the ‘hickory movement’ is a growing one.
  2. 2. The Rule is in fact Appendix II, 5 Club Face; c Impact Area Markings; (i) Grooves, dot point 2 in the 2008-2011 edition and dot point 1 in the 2012-2015 edition. The Rule is clear: ‘Grooves must be straight and parallel’.
  3. 3. Tufts, RS. The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf. Pinehurst Publications, 1961, p7
  4. 4. Through the Green. BCGS. June 2009. p5

(This article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of ‘Through the Green’, the journal of the British Golf Collectors Society, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Society, and the authors).