I think we can all agree that the game of golf has changed immensely over time. From the days of mashie niblicks and featheries to adjustable drivers with graphite shafts, the game we now play bears little resemblance to the game of Scotland of yore. Most of the changes have been fairly recent and hugely innovative.
With new scientific discoveries made daily, not one among us would dare to predict where the game might be in 25 years, or even 10 years from now. So I thought it might be fun to think about some of the inventions that have most radically changed our game. Here’s my list of the 15 best innovations in golf history, and I invite your thoughts on the ones you think I missed.
I did not go into any depth with these, as they can all be explored elsewhere. The list is not in any particular order, but we will start in antiquity.
The Molded Golf Ball
From hard wooden balls, followed by Featheries, followed by the Haskell ball, then the Balata era and finally the solid core, multi-layer urethane, the modern golf ball hardly resembles its ancestors. The biggest impact here was clearly cost. While no one could argue that their aerodynamic performance was seriously enhanced with each passing era, the mass production of the molded golf ball made the game more affordable for everyone. A Featherie could cost as much as the modern day equivalent of $20 per ball… Of course, if we keep going we may be headed back there.
Clumps of dirt and later sand were used to tee the ball for some 500 years before the first peg actually designed to stick in the ground was invented in the late 19th century. Imagine how dirty a golfer’s hands used to get by the back nine.
The Lawn Mower
Grazing sheep can nip grass down pretty tightly, but mowers can do it a LOT more quickly and over much greater areas. It is interesting that the game was played for hundreds of years before greens keepers and their staff started riding mowers. By the 1980s, the whole course was being mowed by riding mowers and we had better lies everywhere.
The first golf clubs were rather primitive looking things made mostly from hickory wood. Go into any collectors golf shop and you see them displayed conspicuously in the “unplayable classics” section. Golf clubmaking was an artful and tedious task in which some of the early golf professionals specialized, but because of this clubs were expensive and the game remained an elite affair.
The invention of mass produced steel-shafted clubs brought golf to more people because they could afford them, but steel had another effect — they played much differently than hickory shafts. It was said that one could hold the shaft of a hickory club in one hand and the head in the other hand and twist it almost halfway around. Compare that to the low torque graphite shafts of today, and the picture is quite clear: The same swing for both clubs is simply not going to work.
An interesting note: Bobby Jones retired from competitive golf when he was 28, allegedly to escape some of the pressures he faced and pursue his myriad other interests. It is also said that his golf swing never quite adjusted to the steel era, which was well under way by the mid 1930s (steel shafts were patented in 1910). Personally, I think he would have figured it out.
Mother nature in the form of precipitation watered golf courses for hundreds of years. The first fairway irrigation system was developed in Dallas, Texas, in 1925. The impact? Golf courses could be built where they previously could not. Irrigation and the roaring 20s saw a proliferation of golf courses like never before. Thus began the “greening of American golf,” an era from which we are only now beginning to recover. Courses in America and across the pond were so distinctly different, the first time Sam Snead saw the Old Course he asked what it was! Impact? American golf became an airborne affair, and yet another expense was added to our pastime.
Being blocked by an opponent’s ball, or being “stymied,” was outlawed in 1952. Match play, the oldest form of play, was never the same. I would love to see one tournament a year played with stymies still in effect.
The 14-Club Rule
It wasn’t really an “invention,” but it shaped a lot of future ones.
The year 1938 saw the end of unlimited clubs in the bag and I’m sure caddies all over the world rejoiced. Lawson Little, the great amateur player of the 1930s, once went to battle with 31 clubs in his bag. Shotmaking has evolved in the modern era, or at least it had until the ball became nearly impossible to curve.
Although they were used as early as the 1930s, golf carts were everywhere by the 1950s. Their impact was immediate, bringing many more people to the game and allowing people who previously had trouble walking the course to play. In fact, the 1950s saw a huge wave of popularity in our game influenced largely by the emergence of fan-favorite Arnold Palmer and Dwight Eisenhower, a popular president who played a lot more golf than any of his predecessors and didn’t care who knew about it.
Another 1950s legacy, the first televised golf event, was in 1954 at George May’s famous Tam O’Shanter Open. This was really the first time viewers could enjoy the game as spectators even if they didn’t play. A great surge, particularly of professional golf, followed and the game began to lose much of the pomposity many attached to it. The era of the blue collar golfer was just around the corner.
The Lob Wedge
Although not that new, the popularity of the lofted wedge has had a significant impact, particularly on professional golf. Where players once feared “short siding” themselves, they now are more apt to go for tucked hole locations because of the lob wedge. Even the amateurs who have suffered forever from the perennial condition of trying to flip more loft on the club have benefited greatly from the lob. It is underrated in its impact on modern golf.
If I had to pick one man who may be more responsible for changing the modern game more than any other, I would unequivocally choose Karsten Solheim. His concept of moving the weight from the center of the clubface to the perimeter of putters and then irons has made golf easier for all of us. I’m 66 years old and still play fairly well thanks to Karsten’s curiosity.
A more efficient, economic way to make golf clubs, casting has pretty much sent forged clubs packing. Ninety percent of irons today are cast, and all the woods… or metals, I mean, are cast.
This oxymoron has confounded some English teachers, but has been the single greatest blessing to the modern game of golf. It’s now almost inconceivable to think of driving a golf ball with a wooden club head. Think about how slow we were on this one: The idea arrived in the 1970s, meaning that the game was played for about 500 years before someone raised the question: Isn’t the wood absorbing a lot of the energy in the hit? Duh!
It’s a good thing, too. Let’s leave the trees alone! When I hit a solid drive in the persimmon/balata era, which was when I wore a younger man’s clothes, it might go 250. Now I’m on the mid-to-late back nine of my golfing life and I can still drive it 250. Let’s use another sport as an example. In college I could dunk a basketball, but now I can’t even touch the net.
Some 25 years ago, Ely Callaway got to wondering if larger drivers might make the tee ball easier for golfers. He came out with the “Big Bertha” and the rest is history. My 460-cubic-centimeter driver looks perfectly normal to me now.
Talk about taking over the game. Try finding a steel-shafted driver driver in any serious golfer’s bag now. Do you want to swing this thing or this other thing that is a third of the weight? Golfers are pretty smart, after all. Credit Frank Thomas for this concept.
Curiosity might kill cats, but in golf it has made the game easier for all of us. While it is true that there are downsides to some of the changes — the lively golf ball, hot drivers that require larger playing fields and the like — changes are inevitable, and if these changes help the average golfer enjoy this wonderful game just a little bit more I’m ok with that. I am an advocate of some degree of bifurcation and think it’s only a matter of time.
Again, I welcome your comments on other inventions I may have omitted.
As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.
An open letter to golf
I know it has been some time since we last spoke, but I need you to know I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again.
It was just a few months ago I walked crowded isles, stood shoulder to shoulder, and talked endlessly with likeminded individuals about you and your promising future in 2020 at the PGA Show. At that time, the biggest concern in my life was whether I had packed the perfect dress-to-casual pant ratio and enough polos to get through the mayhem of six days in Orlando. Oh, how the times have changed.
On a professional level, what started with the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior progressed quickly at The Players Championship, when you ground to a complete halt within days. As much as it was a tough decision, it was the right decision, and I admire the judgment made by your leaders. Soon after, outside of the professional ranks followed suit and courses everywhere began shutting doors and asked golfers to keep away.
This is the right decision. For now and for the foreseeable future, as much as I don’t like it, I understand how important it is we let experienced health medical professionals make choices and craft policies for the wellbeing of people everywhere. Although, judging by the indoor short game trickery I have witnessed over the last 10 days, handicaps could be dropping when you finally return.
As a game, you are over 200 years old. You have survived pandemics, wars, depression, drought, and everything else that has been thrown at you. Much like the human spirit, you will continue on thanks to the stories and experiences others passed down and enjoyed.
I know you will survive because I also plan on surviving. As long as there are people willing to tend to your grounds and maintain your existence, I will also exist ready to take on your challenge.
When you are able to return in full, I will be here.
Ryan Barath (on behalf of golfers everywhere)
The Wedge Guy: Improving your short iron and wedge impact
One of my most appreciated aspects of this nearly 40 years in the golf equipment industry is the practically endless stream of “ah ha” moments that I have experienced. One that I want to share with you today will–I hope–give you a similar “ah ha moment” and help you improve your ball striking with your high lofted short irons and wedges.
As I was growing up, we always heard the phrase, “thin to win” anytime we hit an iron shot a little on the skinny side (not a complete skull, mind you). When you caught that short iron or wedge shot a bit thin, it seemed you always got added distance, a lower trajectory and plenty of spin. It was in a testing session back in the early 2000s when this observation met with some prior learning, hence the “ah ha moment” for me.
I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, testing some wedge prototypes with a fitter there who was one of the first to have a TrackMan to measure shot data. I had hit about two dozen full pitching wedges for him to get a base of data for me to work from. The average distance was 114 yards, with my typical higher ball flight than I like, generating an average of about 7,000 rpms of spin. What I noticed, however, was those few shots that I hit thin were launching noticeably lower, flying further and had considerably more spin. Hmmm.
So, I then started to intentionally try to pick the ball off the turf, my swing thought being to actually try to almost “blade” the shot. As I began to somewhat “perfect” this, I saw trajectories come down to where I’d really like them, distance increased to 118-120 and spin rates actually increased to about 8,000 rpms! I was taking no divot, or just brushing the grass after impact, but producing outstanding spin. On my very best couple of swings, distance with my pitching wedge was 120-122 with almost 10,000 rpms of spin! And a great trajectory.
So, I began to put two and two together, drawing on the lessons about gear effect that I had learned back in the 1980s when working with Joe Powell in the marketing of his awesome persimmon drivers. You all know that gear effect is what makes a heel hit curve/fade back toward the centerline, and a heel hit curves/draws back as well. The “ah ha” moment was realizing that this gear effect also worked vertically, so shots hit that low on the face “had no choice” but to fly lower, and take on more spin.
I had always noticed that tour players’ and better amateurs’ face wear pattern was much lower on the face than that of recreational golfers I had observed, so this helped explain the quality of ball flight and spin these elite players get with their wedges and short irons.
I share this with you because I know we all often misinterpret the snippets of advice we get from friends and other instructional content that is out there. To me, one of the most damaging is “hit down on the ball”. That is a relative truth, of course, but in my observation it has too many golfers attacking the ball with their short irons and wedges with a very steep angle of attack and gouging huge divots. The facts are that if the club is moving only slightly downward at impact, you will get the spin you want, and if the clubhead is moving on a rather shallow path, you will get a more direct blow to the back of the ball, better trajectory, more distance and improved spin. Besides, shallow divots are easier on the hands and joints.
If this is interesting to you, I suggest you go to the range and actually try to blade some wedge shots until you somewhat groove this shallower path through impact and a lower impact point on your clubface. As you learn to do this, you will be able to zero in on the proper impact that produces a very shallow divot, and a great looking shot.
[TIP: If you will focus on the front edge of the ball – the side closest to the target – it will help you achieve this kind of impact.]
It will take some time, but I believe this little “experiment” will give the same kind of “ah ha moment” it gave me.
On Spec: Interview with Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion
In this episode, host Ryan speaks with Trevor Immelman about his career, what it was like growing up around the game as a competitive amateur in South Africa, and what it’s like being a Masters champion.
Topics also include his experiences working with the design team at Nike Golf as well as his current “What’s in the Bag” which includes equipment from Titleist and the process he went through to get it dialed in.
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