As Thad Daber stood on his 17th tee of the day, a 400-yard par-4 at Lochmere Golf Club in Cary, N.C., he faced an unusual dilemma for a golfer, let alone a 1-handicap. To get home in two, he needed back-to-back flier lies. It was October, 1987, and Daber, then a 28-year-old marketing director for a golf equipment company, was achingly close to setting the Guinness World Record for the lowest competitive round by a one-club golfer. His weapon of choice: a Titleist 6-iron.
Foregoing a tee, Daber bent over and placed his ball in a patchy piece of inch-high grass. Hit grass first, ball second, he thought before pulling back his 6-iron low and slow, as you might a driver. The ball came out hot — a glorious knuckler — flying 180 yards and rolling 25 more. More impressive still, Daber’s shot came to rest on the first cut of right rough — flier lie! — precisely as he had intended. From there, he ripped another 6-iron to the heart of the green, where he shut the face and chip-putted into the center of the hole from 25 feet. It was Daber’s fourth birdie of the day, setting up an improbable round of 70. In the 23 years since, no one-club golfer has gone lower.
Daber is the Tiger Woods of one-club golf, a peculiar niche of impassioned players who think 14 clubs is 13 too many. This Monday, Nov. 8, players from around the country will gather in the Atlanta area for the annual One-Club Golf World Championship, an event Daber has won four times. (Sign up at Oneclubgolf.com.) The 18-hole stroke-play event at BridgeMill Athletic Club lets one-clubbers cross swords (make that middle irons and hybrids, mostly) and do battle for the first-place check. (In the past, total prize money has reached $20,000.) Dating to 1980, the event welcomes professionals and amateurs alike, who follow one simple rule: Grab any non-adjustable, USGA-approved club and play. “It’s the most fun you can have on a course,” says Daber, 51.
Believe him at your own risk — he’s not playing with a full set.
There are many benefits to playing with only one club. No caddie fees. Rounds last three hours. Club selection is cake. And bag straps don’t wear a slot in your shoulder. The biggest perk? CBS golf analyst Bobby Clampett, a veteran of the event, says it’s one of the best ways to find your feel. “I’m about to get on a plane,” Clampett said via cell phone, “and I’m traveling with only one club, a new hybrid. I’m old-school when it comes to shaping shots. You have to make the club do what you want. Practicing and playing with one club teaches you lots of shots. You can shut [the clubface] for a hook, open it for a high fade, hit it high, low. It makes you think strategy, where you want to place your next shot. It’s fun, and it pays dividends with your other clubs. Every golfer should try it.”
One-club golf predates the annual tournament. In the 1970s and ’80s, Seve Ballesteros — who learned the swing hitting irons at night — and fellow shot-bending legend Lee Trevino teamed up to put on improvised one-club mini-tournaments before the British Open. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player sing the praises of playing one-club practice rounds. Fred Couples passes range time by hitting full-swing, half-speed drivers 150 yards. Jim Thorpe has shot in the 70s with a 7-iron.
“Playing with one club does a lot of great things,” Daber says. “First, it makes you play defensively. You can’t get into trouble with your driver if you’re using a 6-iron. And it makes you manage your game. You have to play two, three shots ahead and ask, ‘What yardage do I want to leave myself to the green?'”
It’s a different game. Long carries are deadly. Bunkers? Stay out! Beware of short-siding yourself — it takes a brave soul to fan open his 6-iron and flop it from a nippy lie. And as with the 14-club game, putting may be the trickiest part of this pastime. You can either blade it or chip it, says Edwin Hansen, who had 27 putts with his 5-iron in his title-clinching round in 2006. “I blade my putts. That way, when you play with all your clubs, you have that shot if your ball ends up against the collar. But it’s all about personal preference.”
“I was playing in Louisiana one time, match play against another one-club champion,” Daber recalls. “On a short par-4, my baby-cut 6-iron approach plugged in a greenside bunker, with a hanging lie. Meanwhile, [my opponent is] on the right fringe in two. I took a wide stance — my feet were beyond shoulder-width apart, one foot in the trap, one foot on grass. I laid the blade open, took a choke-down, half-swing, chip-type swing and hit the back of the ball. It popped up five to six feet, cleared the lip, and ran about 40 feet into the hole. The look on his face! He three-putted.”
Club selection is key before the round, if not during. Clampett and Daber prefer 6- or 7-irons, which allow good distance off the tee and ample loft for most short game shots. One Club Championship veteran and Thailand native Nualchan Seidel loves her Big Bertha driver, which keeps her out of most bunkers. Hansen, 47, a mechanic who grew up in the Virgin Islands, won the 2006 event (in a cool Rasta hat to boot) with his trusty, rusty Titleist Tour Model Box Blade 5-iron, which was born before Rory McIlroy. “For me,” Hansen says, “it’s all about practicing putting and leaving yourself a good full-swing distance into the green.”
Another lover of one-club golf, Rick Griffith of Fresno, Calif., has a club — and a story — unlike anyone else’s.
Griffith, 53, took up golf seven years ago. “I’m stubborn,” he says. “Everyone told me, ‘Don’t play. It’s too hard.’ Well, when I heard that, I had to play. Golf’s one of those things you suck at and suck at, and then you suck a little less. I was determined.”
His game and his life changed one shattering July afternoon in Los Angeles, in 2005. Griffith took his wife and daughter to the beach. There, in broad daylight, a pair of men attacked him. For two minutes, they beat and kicked him until he was unconscious, then beat and kicked him some more, while his family watched in horror. The force of the trauma to his skull squeezed a portion of his brain through his sinus membrane. The blows broke his back and cracked his left hip, temporarily paralyzing him from the waist down. In the wake of these injuries, he was soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system.
Griffith had already gotten into one-club golf before the assault, though he played with a full bag, too. After he regained use of his legs through intense physical therapy (he now walks with a cane), carrying a heavy bag wasn’t an option. So it’s all one-club golf, all the time. “I love not having to worry about which club to hit,” he says. “Now, I just grab one and pop it. Boom!”
His wife Connie shares her husband with another. “I love this club,” says Griffith, a self-professed equipment junkie. “I call him ‘Lead Fred,’ because of the lead tape I use. It’s a 1936 Shotmaster, a carbon-steel blade putter. I put a driver shaft in it. It has a mirror finish; you can see your face in it. I putt with it, and my best drive is 250 yards. There are no grooves, so the ball just shoots off the face. The good news,” says Griffith suppressing a laugh, “is that before I was beat up, I had trouble keeping my left heel down in my backswing. Being paralyzed helped that. That leg ain’t movin’!”
On good days, he’ll play bogey golf. Griffith says he loves taking his Depression-era flatstick-driver hybrid to the course and reaching into the pockets of players with bags full of pricey Pings or Callaways. “Imagine being beaten by a guy with MS, a broken back, and a $6 club that came from a yard sale? That’s gotta hurt. I mean, this club looks like it came from a trashcan!”
While Griffith planned to play in next week’s championship, health problems will keep him from making the trek to Georgia. So Daber’s Guinness record is safe. Griffith is happy to settle for weekend rounds, and, he hopes, a charmed bounce on an unsuspecting par-3.
“Sunny day, hit the course, grass smells great — that’s a good day,” he says. “I’ve had my run of bad luck, so I think there’s good luck ahead of me. One of those holes out there is a hole-one-one. It’s waiting for me. I just know it. All I need is one club, and one good swing, to find out which hole it is.”
You can still sign up for Monday’s One Club World Golf Championship in Atlanta. Go to Oneclubgolf.com, or call 770-231-5558