Golf is a very old sport. In fact, while the modern sport refined by the Scottish is more than 500 years old, there are references in Dutch literature that seem to be talking about golf as early as the year 1261. More known for tradition than for cutting-edge technological advancements, the picture in your mind’s eye of a “typical golfer” most likely isn’t a young technophile. However, the sport of golf has seen a lot of science and technology infiltrate the game infiltrate the game in the last several decades, making gear, play style, and even courses obsolete. This series, Technology in Golf, looks to the advancements made or still to come in individual areas of the sport, from gear to courses to wearable tech. Stay tuned to DougAlbers.net for more installments!
The earliest days of golf club technology primarily consisted of players carving their own clubs out of whatever wood was handy. In 1502, King James IV of Scotland commissioned a bow-maker to fashion a “set” of clubs, which is the first reference to specially made clubs by a craftsman, and also to having multiple clubs in a set. Early recorded club sets usually consist of several play clubs (longnoses) for driving, fairway clubs (or grassed drivers) for medium-range shots, spoons for short-range, niblicks, which are similar in design and use to today’s wedges, and a putting cleek.
The club heads were wooden, and usually made from the denser, stronger woods for longevity. (Think beechwood or holly.) Heads were splinted onto shafts (which seem to have been mostly made from ash or hazel woods) with leather straps. Clubs were prone to breakage, and the effort it took to make clubs paired with the fact that you could expect to go through them fairly quickly meant that equipment was too expensive for the average person to afford.
With the exception of experimentation of bone and metal on the club face to make them last longer, not much changed in golf clubs until the mid-1800’s when several things happened: a club maker in Scotland began using hickory for the wood shafts, which caught on quickly and became something of an industry standard. Longnose heads were rendered obsolete with new ball technology, and replaced by “bulgers” which are pretty similar in shape to modern woods. Persimmon was found to be a sturdier wood than beech, and became the wood of choice for club heads, making both the preferred woods for heads and shafts wood imported from America, which kept the costs associated with the sport and it’s equipment high.
In 1900, we started to see aluminum heads, and there is some experimentation with steel shafts, although they aren’t allowed in the game until the Prince of Wales used them in 1929. Billy Burke becomes the first golfer to win the U.S. Open with steel-shafted clubs (painted to look like wood) in 1931. As technology grew and old traditional clubs remained popular, the R&A introduced a 14 club rule in 1939 to limit golfers, who could ostensibly have used an inordinate amount of clubs in competitive play. The standard recipe for clubs would be “wooden head, steel shaft, rubber grip” for several more decades, and handmade clubs were preferred over machined clubs for equally as long.
In 1973 the graphite shaft came into being, which made clubs just as rigid, but much lighter and less likely to bend or break than steel. In 1979 TaylorMade came out with a stainless steel club head, which allowed for the use of bigger heads. Bigger head = bigger sweet spot. “It was a big stir, like ‘Oh man, this guy’s using a metal wood,’ “ said Chandler Carr, a product manager in TaylorMade’s Product Creations Department. “They didn’t even know what to call it at the time. Was it a wood? Was it not a wood? They called it the Pittsburgh Persimmon, kind of blending steel and wood together and using that name was something that people could kind of relate to.” It took a while to catch on, and it wasn’t until Callaway’s giant steel-headed Big Bertha, released in 1991, that persimmon went more or less by the wayside.
It seems like the timeline of progress has sped along pretty quickly from there, with pros using clubs like the “44.75-inch TaylorMade Burner SuperFast 2.0 TP driver that features a 10.5-degree angle and Matrix Ozik TP7HD graphite shaft”. The best news about the advancements lately, is that in the vein of performance and cost, this is the most level playing field between pro equipment and Average Joe off-the-rack equipment since the invention of the sport.
“There’s no limit as to what we can use on a golf club,” Carr said, citing combinations of titanium, steel, aluminum, tungsten and graphite used in clubs. “When we came out with the first metal wood in ’79 with Gary Adams being the CEO at the time, basically he said, ‘Hey, we’re here to try something new, try something different, and here’s the performance gains because of that,'” Carr said. “So at the end of the day, if it’s not measurably better we’re not going to bring something to market. That’s kind of our mantra.”