There have been 48,841 different players in the 34-year history of the Myrtle Beach World Amateur Handicap Championship, so at this point it’s difficult to be the only player to do anything in the tournament.
But Mitch Laurance of Conway has managed to record a first in the event, which this year features 3,010 players.
Laurance is believed to be the first golfer in tournament history to play with hickory-shafted golf clubs.
He’s playing with the hickory sticks in the tournament for the same reason he switched to the old clubs about six years ago – for the enjoyment of it. Laurance, 67, credits hickories for saving his interest in the game.
“I was so frustrated with getting older, losing distance, new technology every six months, that whole side of it is really what had been frustrating me enough to think about giving up the game almost,” Laurance said. “I really wasn’t enjoying it. Once I started playing these I let go of all those expectations. You don’t really expect to hit great shots like you do with a forgiving club, or hitting it a certain distance.
“It gave me back the game.”
What also makes Laurance an anomaly in the tournament is he is not playing to win, and there can be no suspicions of him sandbagging.
The hickories are already a disadvantage. He’s also playing in a flight that is way above his skill level. A good friend from Michigan, who is about a 6 handicap, is also playing in the event and Laurance decided he would play in a flight with him. Laurance keeps a Society of Hickory Golfers handicap of 18.6.
He said he hasn’t been as low as a 6 handicap since about 1992. “I didn’t want to care about the score, and there’s no way I’m caring about the score now,” Laurance said. “If I can go out and play bogey golf essentially with these clubs, I’m a happy camper.”
Laurance is second to last in his 44-player flight with rounds of 98 at The Pearl Golf Links East and 95 at Wild Wing Plantation’s Avocet Course.
Laurance, a New York native, is a retired actor who had recurring roles in television shows including Dawson’s Creek, and he also announced professional billiards tournaments.
He’s still involved in media as a co-host of a Talking Golf Getaways podcast on thegolfnewsnet.com with partner Darin Bunch. He recently completed the 75th episode.
He has had a working responsibility at the World Am for about the past 25 years, including about the past 10 as an emcee at the World’s Largest 19th Hole party at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, and several years shooting footage for On The Green TV.
But On The Green no longer has a television component, and Golf Channel personalities Charlie Rymer and Damon Hack are handling emcee duties. So Laurance was freed up to play.
“I’ve always kind of flirted with it because to me it’s so interesting and I love what it has represented for Myrtle Beach,” Laurance said. “It’ll be fun to talk to people I play with from around the world and see the competitive side of it. I want to be around them to see how they deal with that aspect.
“I really just wanted to play and experience the event, which I had never done, and then I realized I probably was going to be the first person in the 34 years of the event to do this. So that was a nice little bonus because I wanted to try to bring some awareness to playing with hickories.”
Laurance has exclusively played hickory-shafted clubs for about the past six years, and estimates he averages about 50 rounds a year. “I have no desire to play regular clubs anymore. I haven’t since I started playing with these,” he said. “You’re almost in a way forced to go back to what I think of as the real game, which is being creative with shots.
“The sweet spots are pretty small on these clubs, but when you hit the sweet spot with a hickory-shafted club, the shot you want to pull off, the enjoyment of it is magnified times 10. It just feels amazing.”
The hickories that Laurance is using this week are all vintage clubs that he estimates are between 80 and 100 years old. They are not new replica versions that would likely be a bit more forgiving, though he owns some of those as well. “Once I started getting into the vintage stuff and the history of it, that’s pretty much all I play,” Laurance said. “Three-quarters of them have original shafts, so they last. They’re eminently playable. People have an idea I think that they’re the clubs from your grandpa’s attic and they’re going to snap and you can’t really hit them. But it’s not true.”
Laurance has become a connoisseur of hickory clubmakers and has a mixed bag. He has irons from Tom Stewart, who made irons used by Bobby Jones, a wood by Jack White, who made a driver used by Bobby Jones, and distinct William Gibson clubs.
He acquires some from collectors, including Brad Gregory of Myrtle Beach, who collects and restores clubs, and some on eBay from people around the world. “I love the history of the game,” Laurance said. “I love that part of it. So the search for the clubs is incredibly interesting to me.”
The clubheads are forged steel, and Laurance also uses replica balls made of modern materials but with dimple patterns from the 1920s made by the McIntyre Golf Company.
He plays with less than 14 clubs – he’s using less than 10 this week – and his drives are generally between 200 and 220 yards. “A 375-yard par-4 is a big hole for me because I’m coming in with a 100-year-old 1-iron,” Laurance said.
He said a lot of times he doesn’t keep an aggregate score when he plays. He and his wife, world billiards champion Ewa Mataya Laurance, generally play a match play format in their rounds.
“Part of the joy of playing the hickories to me is just going out and playing, just kind of hitting shots,” Laurance said. “Obviously I try to do well and hit good shots, but I kind of gave up on the expectation of scoring, which had become kind of a source of frustration as I got older.”
There are hickory societies around the world that sponsor tournaments. There is an annual World Hickory Open Championship – the 2016 winner was former Masters champion Sandy Lyle – and a U.S. Hickory Open, as well as regional and state events.
Laurance might not be alone in the World Am next year.
“One of my hopes is there will be a hickory division at the World Am next year,” Laurance said. “Easily there could be 50 to 100 people playing hickories here next year. I think they’re definitely open to it.”
Tournament director Jeff Monday said the hickory division will be discussed, and “if there’s an audience for it, we’ll pursue it.”