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Elmer Nahum on how to master the featherie swing

Elmer Nahum’s interest in golf history preceded his interest in woodworking. Both interests led him to write a remarkable and influential book, Practical Clubmaking: A Guide to Long Nose Era Golf Clubmaking. Here, he fills in more of his golf history.

“In the 1980s, I had the opportunity to play many rounds at East Lake since it was my college (Emory) golf team's home course. That sparked my interest in golf history from the Bobby Jones era. My interest gradually shifted to earlier golf, prompting multiple visits to the nearby USGA Golf Museum in the 1990s. I remember one particular day while visiting the museum when I saw a display of long-nose golf clubs and thought, "How on earth could someone have played with those clubs—so different from what we use today?" It gave me the idea to one day try to play with those clubs.

“Hand tool woodworking and building 18th-century period furniture have interested me since 2012. I had done some DIY work at home but didn't consider myself a woodworker until I made my first project that wasn't attached to my house, inspired by a PBS episode of The Woodwright's Shop where Roy Underhill built a five-sided rotating bookstand originally designed and built at Jefferson's Monticello. Since then, I have been drawn to the intricate craftsmanship of ornate early furniture, trying to figure out how the craftsmen built a particular piece. To that end, I gained further knowledge over the years of the methods of the original makers by attending annual conferences in Williamsburg called Working Wood in the 18th Century.

“Hand-tool woodworkers share a similar spirit as hickory golfers. In this digital age, some people long for the tactile feel of a tool manipulated by their own hands. A pre-1885 clubmaker's tool chest contains all the tools that a cabinetmaker owns. It was just a natural step to combine my love for traditional woodworking with golf history.

“I began building mid-19th-century wooden golf clubs in 2014, basing the original designs roughly on clubs shown in Jeff Ellis' The Clubmaker's Art. I had been making clubs for a couple of years when I learned about Bob Gowland's book, The Oldest Clubs. Had I known about his book before embarking on golf clubmaking, some of the questions and mysteries would have been answered. In a way, I am probably more fortunate to have discovered his book after first trying my hand at clubmaking; the journey of discovery is often more engaging than the final product. It was a joy to find out that the book corroborated many of my own ‘discoveries.’ Bob eventually provided me with over 100 templates for many of the oldest known clubs in existence, and that really helped me build more authentic-looking clubs. The core of my book, Practical Clubmaking, gives detailed step-by-step instructions on how to make a 19th-century wooden golf club that anyone with the desire and a small toolkit can build.

“Even though traditional cabinetmaking preceded clubmaking for me, starting with clubmaking is an excellent way to whet an appetite for larger woodworking projects. The amount of lumber needed is minimal. The entry-level list of hand tools for 19th-century golf clubmaking is reasonably short and can be purchased for less than the price of a single power tool. But finding them requires some time and patience at antique stores, flea markets, tool collector clubs, and online auctions, like the hunt for collectible golf relics. That search, along with an understanding of the tools, is part of the journey of woodworking for some."

In the following article, Elmer offers advice on how to enjoy greater success when swinging a long-nosed club.

Contemporaneous descriptions of swings were not delineated as technically as they are today. Thomas Kincaid’s diary from 1681 was relatively thorough. He seems to have described a flat swing:

…neither most you in the least turn down your left shoulder and up your right in bringing back the club thinking therby to give the club a larger swinge and so incresse its force or to raise the ball: for it is a verie unsetled motion that throw of the body whereby you turn down the left shoulder and ир the right so that therby you will verie often misse the ball and allmost never hitt it exactly.

In 1891, J. Gordon McPherson, in Golf and Golfers, Past and Present, recalled the players of decades earlier as having “full round” swings. Did this imply a flatter swing?

Given how used to the modern swing our games are, copying the swings of the feather ball era players may not be so helpful. I use a flatter swing when the ball is sitting up well. I revert to a more upright swing when the ball is nestled down in the grass.

While I am still in the learning phase, from what I can tell, the featherie, being larger and softer than a modern ball, tends to ride up the face of the club. This means there is a tendency for the club to get under the ball, especially on a lofted club like a baffing spoon or when the ball is sitting up on the grass. So, a shallower downswing propels the ball further than an upright swing, especially when the turf is firm.

On swings approaching the green with a baffing spoon, a steep downswing or cut shot can take some distance off of the ball on a half or three-quarter stroke similar to a modern sand wedge. (Elmer has created a video that shows three ways to use a baffing spoon; you can view it here.)

For modern golfers, we are used to chipping with irons. But a choked-down baffing spoon played just like a putter with the toe down and the ball played off of the toe can extricate the ball out of a cupped lie.

As for copying the grip of the ancient golfers, specifically with a strong right hand, that should depend on the flight of the ball. I already tend to hook the ball, so a weak right hand would be beneficial for me.

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