MOSCOW — Colin Criss McNamara doesn’t back down from a challenge on the golf course.
He’s good, which helps. The man from Moscow plays with a handicap rating of 4.8, which means he is better than around 97% of all golfers in the United States.
It also has a built-in excuse if it doesn’t win a game. All of its clubs are over 100 years old.
Criss McNamara is a hickory golfer, a small subset of the global golfing population dedicated to playing the sport with hickory shafts and the finest clubheads individually forged by expert craftsmen.
The hickory period of golf, according to Criss McNamara, lasted from the 1850s through the 1930s, when wooden shafts were replaced by hollow steel shafts, which were produced more quickly and provided greater consistency and durability.
On a recent Sunday night, Criss McNamara joined the head club pro at the University of Idaho golf course in Moscow for a rather casually concocted nine-man showdown, with the winner taking $5 from the loser.
The pro had about $2,500 worth of clubs in his bag, the kind of high-end, cutting-edge, high-tech equipment that suits someone who that night drove balls so far that they almost disappeared in the smoky Palouse evening.
Criss McNamara, meanwhile, had a handful of clubs in a small cloth golf bag, the kind of bag you might find in a dusty corner of your grandfather’s garage if you dug long and deep enough. The clubs all had hickory shafts, some broken in previous battles, now glued or wrapped with all sorts of adhesive; all found at antique stores and estate sales for a few hundred dollars at most.
Criss McNamara knew each club well. When asked, he could name the manufacturer of the club, where it was likely assembled, what region of the world it was used in, even golfers of old who likely played a similar version.
That night, Criss McNamara played those clubs almost perfectly. What he lacked in raw distance he made up for in precision and finesse, taking on the golf pro for eight holes before losing the match and his $5 on the final hole when the pro birdie putt.
Criss McNamara, 27, has a day job. He also boasts a rich and varied past for someone about half the age of most others who have caught the hickory golf bug.
He’s an adjunct professor in the Department of English at Washington State University, where he teaches a lot of creative writing, literature, and some poetry.
Originally from Old Forge, NY (a hamlet of “756 people and 200 jet skis”, according to Wikipedia), Criss McNamara completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard University before earning a master’s degree in poetry from the University from Washington to St. Louis.
He considers himself a “modestly published” poet, speaks three languages (English, Spanish and French) and a fourth if you count the chatter on the golf course, of which he seems quite adept.
In his teens and early twenties, he was a store clerk and laborer at an Adirondack furniture store in Old Forge, where he helped design and build “heirloom quality” furniture.
He played competitive golf in high school, but only casually in college.
Criss McNamara said he frequents antique stores wherever he travels. He would often call ahead when driving through a new town, asking antique shop owners if they might have any hickory clubs on hand.
He is married and has no children, apart from the approximately 70 hickory golf clubs he keeps in the small two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, Anna. As an interesting aside, Colin and Anna met while hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain; two wanderers who started their pilgrimage alone, but at the end of the journey were on the road to marriage.
“My wife likes to say (hickory golf) combines a lot of my interests,” Criss McNamara said. “History, cabinetmaking, antiquities. Everything is involved.
When dressed in his handcrafted breeches, drawstring tie and long dark socks, Criss McNamara is a curious sight on the Palouse golf courses. Yet he is far from alone in his pursuit and dedication to hickory golf.
Surprisingly perhaps, there are two international ‘societies’ that claim to love clubs and their role in the game of golf and its long history. The sport has its roots in the 15th century, although golf as we know it today originated from the version first played in Scotland in the 18th century.
The hickory period of golf, according to Criss McNamara, originated with the increased availability of hickory timber in Scotland, much of which was exported from the United States. Prior to this, Scottish club makers used ash or lemon wood or “any wood they could find”, he said.
Criss McNamara said the hickory shafts provided a “steel spring” previously unseen in the golf world. They quickly became the essential raw material for club manufacturers and players.
Today’s hickory players strive to recreate the game as it was played in the early 1900s. They use the clubs of the era and dress as golfers of the era dressed . There are regional and national tournaments. There are websites and social media accounts dedicated to the game, gear, and story.
Criss McNamara said one group, the Golf Heritage Society, is dedicated to collecting and preserving hickory clubs, treating the clubs more like museum pieces than tools to be used.
Criss McNamara is an active member of another hickory-loving crew, the Society of Hickory Golfers, who finds clubs to swing clubs — not just display them on the wall or inside a display case.
Several years ago, Criss McNamara gifted his modern set of clubs to his brother-in-law. He only hits hickory clubs now; afternoons after work, on weekends with buddies and in tournaments when hickory is needed or not.
He even pulls out the panties and long socks when inspiration strikes.
“I’ve never been a big Halloween costume kid,” Criss McNamara said. “But there’s definitely joy in that.”
About three weeks ago, at a tournament on the UI Golf Course to raise money for course improvements, Criss McNamara waited patiently on the par-3 14th hole for the foursomes to hit the tee box.
Once there, players could hit their shots from around 200 yards or pay a few dollars to hit from around 150 yards using walnut clubs provided by Criss McNamara.
Most bands—either because of the novelty or in an attempt to appease the persistent, engaging man in breeches—tried hickory clubs with mixed success.
If the foursomes couldn’t make it to the green, Criss McNamara would calmly walk to the tee box, grab his favorite hickory club and toss the ball onto the putting surface on almost every swing.
Bringing hickory to the masses, or at least a few more people, is something Criss McNamara wants to make happen here on the Palouse.
“I’m trying to incubate hickory golf here,” he said. “My lifelong dream is to host a hickory golf tournament here, and I would love for the UI golf team to compete.”
Editor’s Note: Interested in learning more about hickory golf? Criss McNamara would like to share what he knows and welcome emails at [email protected]
Staszkow is the Opinion and Slice of Life editor of the Daily News. He can be contacted at [email protected]