These recommendations are for rubber ball clubs and do not apply to gutty era clubs.
As a glance into any golfer's basement or garage confirms acquiring clubs has never been our problem. Pulling together a playable set of period wood-shaft clubs, however, presents some novel avenues for acquisition. The hunt can be as much fun, and as consuming, as playing with them.
Look for clubs that appear sound and reasonably correct with respect to length, loft and feel. Check them over carefully. Pick them up. Waggle them. Get a sense of how they feel.
Acquiring and assembling a set is not nearly as uniform or sterile as buying a modern matched set "off the rack."Hickories have unique, individual characteristics. Much of the decision-making process boils down to that ever-elusive quality feel - to personal preference, to cost, and to our own evolving tastes and expectations.
Statistical measurements (swing weight, shaft flex), while there are certain requirements, are infinitely less important than how a club feels in your hands. You'll know when the right ones come along. Given the staggering number of choices, expect to do some tweaking over time, perhaps even over the course of a lifetime.
My recommendation for a starter set would include: a Brassie, a Mid-iron, a Mashie, a Mashie Niblick, a Niblick and a Putter.
A 2-Iron, comparable to a mid-iron, could be substituted; either club was part of standard beginner or starter sets. These six clubs would have comprised an average grouping during the early 20th century. Should you only play a round or two a year, this base set will suffice.
The more enterprising might experiment with this number, say, for 10 rounds or so, to get an idea of how the clubs perform. By comparison with your modern set, a feeling of being "underdressed" is understandable. Think of it as an expanded one-club tournament (or as merely a windfall for your back and shoulders). Steel yourself in the knowledge that the great Vardon won major championships with as few as seven. This is just a base from which to start anyway. The gaps will present themselves soon enough and you can respond accordingly.
Those who expect to play more frequently will find ample possibilities to fine-tune their sets, to the point of matching their arsenal to the demands of a particular course, or even to the conditions on a given day.
Avid hickory players will want two fairly complete sets. At the very least, all players should have a comfortable pair of Brassies, Mid-irons and Mashies in the event of a mishap. Over the course of decades, these clubs remain astonishingly durable, a credit to their craftsmen, but they can break. Having reliable spares is also a good practice for another reason, periodically alternating clubs is an excellent way of honing feel.
Between a Brassie and Mid-iron
Those searching for a club to fill the niche between a brassie and mid-iron should consider a long iron or, perhaps, a lofted wood. Among woods, look for Spoons, Bulldogs, Wood Cleeks; among irons, a 1-Iron, Driving Mashie, Sammy or from among the near infinite variety of Cleeks.
The distinctions between these clubs is much as it is today. A lofted wood is typically easier to hit and yields a higher trajectory shot with less roll, much as modern fairway woods do. The long irons, by contrast, still favored by the better player (as true then as now), will keep the ball down and run better.
Cleeks and Driving Irons
Because of its smaller head and longer shaft, the Cleek (Driving Cleek) is, for the majority of golfers, generally the most troublesome club. As hard as they may be to hit, good examples are just as difficult to come by.
More readily available and appreciably easier to hit, a driving iron or 1-Iron would be a better choice. The difference between the two is that the driving iron typically has a taller toe. Given a reasonable lie both clubs are serviceable from the fairway, comparable in difficulty, say, to hitting a modern 3-Iron. Consider the differences in the weight and balance of the heads in choosing between them.
Driving Mashies are likewise difficult to find but they will have particular appeal to those attracted to a mashie-shaped head. In The Complete Golfer, Harry Vardon professed his strong advocacy of the club, describing it as "very powerful." Interestingly, on those occasions when he lost the feel for his Driving Mashie, it was to his Driving Cleek that he returned.
Mongrels and Other Mashies
Another common gap falls between the mashie and the mid-iron. Clubs to consider here: Jiggers, 3-Irons, Mid-Mashies, Irons, Approaching Cleeks, Mongrel Mashies, and the 2-Mashie. All of these clubs will have something in the neighborhood of 30 degrees of loft.
It is a good idea to document the lofts of your clubs, all the better to know what you have - and what you need.
The accompanying chart emphasizes a related point. As is certainly still true today, lofts can differ markedly among similar clubs, even among those sharing the same name. The club you decide upon should help complete the puzzle in your bag, creating an even progression through the irons. Shaft length is another consideration to keep in mind before making a purchase, as it will obviously impact distance. So, regardless of a club's pedigree or price, always make an effort to determine its loft and length.
From Nomenclature to Numerals
Numbering, rather than naming, clubs began around 1920. Such was the proliferation of club design that beginners and novices began having difficulty relating a club's name to its purpose. In an effort to stem the confusion, many clubs from this era have both; pros on request began stamping clubs with numbers to help clarify the more easily remembered gradations in strength.
The George Nicoll Indicator irons are acknowledged as the first full numbered set. American manufacturers followed suit almost exclusively eschewing the tradition of named clubs. Most Scottish makers, however, resisted the new trend, especially those servicing the better amateur player and theprofessional. Those numbers that do appear on Scottish clubs are in most cases best ignored, as they were likely stamped solely for the original owner's convenience.
Most American clubs were primarily mass produced until 1930, a result of the effort to quickly catch up to the quantity of Scottish imports. In one respect this can make life easier for those trying to match early sets. Manufacturing standards, while they may seem crude to us by modern high technology, were quite consistent and the specs likely fluctuate very little.
Stewart Iron Primer
About 75 percent of Stewart-made irons will have been stamped with a number. It's important to remember that this was done in some cases after they left the shop.
For reasons previously mentioned numerals were routinely stamped by a club pro, or even by the owner. This is especially true with the short irons, Mashie through Niblick. Stewart did commonly stamp 1- through 4- Irons, but, for the most part, not the other irons until the last few years of the Hickory era.
Club pros would receive their order of a batch of heads. The task of assembly was then routinely left to assistants who prepared and inserted the shaft and wrapped the grip. The pro would then sell the completed club in any number of configurations. Combinations varied depending upon the desires of his clientele. Those four irons plus the short irons and mongrels could be sold as a set, or several could simply be added to enhance an existing set.
I find many more 1- and 2-Irons then 3- or 4-Iron heads with 2-Irons the most common. The logical inference is that 2-Irons were more popular, at least with the pros who placed the orders, and presumably also with their customers. Custom clubs is a phrase often batted around today but with Stewart, and other Scottish club makers as well, you could order just about anything you wanted, even to the point of submitting your own design.
Most Stewart head shapes herald the amateur or pro who designed them, or at least initiated the process by voicing his suggestions. Bobby Jones, to pick one notable example, would travel to St. Andrews and personally direct and commission Tom Stewart at the forge to his precise design ideas. Stewart-made clubs for Jones have a distinctive shape and are readily recognizable. The personal inspection dots of Stewart and some other makers, readily identify these "personal" clubs made for the better or important players. A significant portion of Stewart-made Mashies bear the design input of another notable of the period, the Ganton Greyhound, Harry Vardon.
Know that uniform standards, as we think of them today, didn't exist among the various club makers. I've known more than few hickory players who couldn't understand why, for instance, their 4-Iron wouldn't go as far as their Mashie-5. In fact, they'd tell me, the 4-Iron was appreciably shorter with the same swing. This is not uncommon. Actually, in this case, the clubs when documented were reversed in their expected strengths. It's just another lesson in the mysteries of hickory golf clubs.
It's also a reminder with these clubs not to assume anything. Check the loft and the length. I've documented an 11-degree variation among Mashies alone. Eleven degrees! In contemporary terms, most of the other models have a two-to-three club variance. It's possible, with three or four degrees of loft separating the clubs in a set, to play with four mashies and not have any duplication.
In short, names and numbers have very little direct relevance to each other and may only generally reflect the club's properties. You have been cautioned. Putting together a set based solely on what appears stamped on the club will probably lead to disappointment. Always measure the clubs specs.
During the later part of the hickory era, there were stainless steel, chrome plate and Monel Metal club heads. One benefit of these "lower maintenance" clubs is that you can rely more closely on the numbering of the clubs. After 1930, the club sets were manufactured to very similar specs from one maker to the next. The down side is that they don't feel as good contacting the ball as the forged iron does. They lack the sense of the ball holding the face.