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.
Mondays Off: Augusta National: start on the front or back nine? | Knudson’s Fujikura visit
Would you rather start your round at Augusta National from the front or back nine? Mondays Off debates both after the most recent Masters had players starting from both. Steve gets some information on Fujikura shafts from Knudson’s visit last week and then Knudson confesses on how his first night of league play went!
The Wedge Guy: How many wedges?
From the feedback I get, many golfers are not entirely confident…or are completely confused…about how many wedges they should carry. Those of you who know my work and writing over the past 25 years or so also know that I am a proponent of carrying a carefully measured “set” of wedges that give you the shotmaking control you need in prime scoring range. But what I’ve learned over those many years is that the number of wedges that is “right”, and the lofts of those wedges can be very different from one golfer to another.
The reason I think getting this right is so important is that your scores are more heavily influenced by your play from wedge range into the green, and your shotmaking around the greens, than by any other factor. The right “set” of wedges in your bag can make all the difference in the world.
As I repeatedly preach, taking your guidance from the PGA Tour players might not help you achieve your goals. These guys spend hundreds of hours each year perfecting their wedge play, and you simply cannot do that. The good news is that you can add some science to your wedge set make-up that can help you have more shot choices when you are in scoring range or trying to save par from a missed green.
My basic premise on the subject is that the answer can be approached scientifically for each golfer, and it is a multi-step process
- Begin by knowing the loft of the 9-iron and “P-club” that came with your set of irons, as optimum gapping begins there. The industry challenge of producing longer-hitting irons has led most OEMs to strengthen lofts throughout the set. Along the way, it was apparently decided to widen the gaps between the short irons to 5 degrees from the traditional 4 that stood for decades. What this does is increase the distance differential between your 9-iron and “P-club” from what I would consider optimum. For golfers of slower swing speeds, that 5-degree gap might well deliver a 10-12 yard differential, but my bet is that most of you are getting a difference closer to 15 yards, or even more. That just will not let you get the distance control precision you want in prime scoring range.
- The second step is to be honest with your distances. I am a big proponent of getting on the golf course or range with a laser or GPS and really knowing how far you carry each of your short irons and wedges. Hit a number of shots from known yardages and see where they land (not including roll out). My bet is that you will find that your distances are different from what you thought they were, and that the differentials between clubs are not consistent.
- Figure out where to start. If your actual and real distance gap between your 9-iron and “P-club” is over 12-13 yards, maybe the place to start could be with a stronger P-club. You can either have your loft strengthened a bit or make the shaft 1/4 to 1/2” longer to add a few yards to that club.
- Figure out what lofts your wedges should have. From there, I suggest selecting lofts of your wedges to build a constant yardage difference of 10-12 yards between clubs. Depending on your strength profile, that may require wedges at four-degree intervals, or it might be five – each golfer is different. Those with very slow swing speeds might even find that six-degree gaps deliver that distance progression.
- Challenge the traditional 52-56-60 setup. Those lofts became the “standard” when set-match pitching wedges were 48 degrees of loft. That hasn’t been the case in over 25 years. Most of today’s P-clubs are 45 degrees, which leaves a very large distance differential between that club and a 52-degree gap wedge. Some enlightened golfers have evolved to carry a wedge set of 50-54-58, which is a step in the right direction. But you can get whatever loft precision you want, and you should do that. At SCOR, we made wedges in every loft from 41 to 61 degrees, and our wedge-fitting tool prescribed lofts of 49-53-57-61 to many golfers, based on that 45* “P-club” and their stated distance profile. Those who took that advice were generally very happy with that change. We fitted and sold many sets at 49-54-59 as well. Though no company offers wedges in every loft, you can bend even numbers to hit your numbers exactly. Just remember, bending stronger reduces the bounce and bending weaker increases the bounce.
What many of you will find with this exercise is that it suggests that you should be carrying more wedges. That’s probably true for the vast majority of recreational golfers. I have come to realize that more wedges and less long clubs will usually improve your scores. After all, long or short by 25-30 feet is great at long range, but not acceptable in prime scoring range.
If you have more clubs at the long end of your bag (longer than a 5- or 6-iron) than you do at the short end (9-iron and up) then you should consider an honest self-appraisal of how often you use each club between your driver and putter. My bet is that it will be an enlightening analysis.
The Harding Park experience
When you turn onto the road that leads to the clubhouse at TPC Harding Park, it doesn’t take long for your eyes to focus on the 18th hole. The road winds between the par-3 17th green on your right and the back tees of the 18th on your left, presenting a direct view down the beautifully doglegged left finishing fairway. And if you weren’t already excited about your upcoming round, this ought to do the trick.
TPC Harding Park is San Francisco’s top public track. It was opened in 1925 and was designed by Willie Watson, who also is responsible for the nearby Lake Course at Olympic Club. And Harding Park has already been pegged to host the 2020 PGA Championship, which will only be the second time a municipally owned golf course will host the PGA. And even though the event is over a year away, the facilities are already being prepared for the major.
The clubhouse itself is impressive for a municipal layout; two stories with an event space on the second floor, the layout runs parallel with the 18th fairway, allowing for great views of the back dining patio and balcony. They already have it decorated in anticipation or the PGA Championship with large wallpaper photos of the Wanamaker Trophy, which gives off a serious feeling of legitimacy in the clubhouse entryway. The Cypress Grill, which comes with a full bar, is finished with a full wall of glass overlooking both the final hole and Lake Merced. It was packed at lunch on a Friday when I played…and not just crowded with golfers. The food and view must be good enough to attract regular patrons.
The pro shop is a nice size and the members of the staff were incredibly welcoming and friendly. Most of the apparel was Nike, Adidas and Under Armour but there were a few smaller brands as well. FootJoy was also present and the course’s logo on shirts and hats alternated between the traditional Harding Park logo with the lone tree and the PGA Harding Park logo. There is, of course, already 2020 PGA Championship gear for sale as well.
The course offers carts and pushcarts for rent, but if you do decide to ride, the course is cart path only year round. Rates range from $49-$188 depending on the day and if you are a San Francisco or Bay Area resident.
As you can imagine, Harding Park gets a substantial amount of play, being a first-rate daily fee in a highly populated city. My buddy and I opted to walk as we both believe that’s the best way to experience a course for the first time.
The bad weather earlier this year had left the driving range in disrepair. It was closed during my visit but they are planning to turn that area into a pavilion space for the PGA Championship anyway. Harding Park also has a short course called The Fleming 9 which weaves in between the holes of the Harding 18. That Fleming 9 space will be used as the professionals’ range during the major event.
The course conditions were top quality, especially for a daily fee course with so much traffic. The only real complaint from my group was the presence of so many ball marks on the greens. This can be expected from a course with that number of daily golfers added to the wet conditions of a place like San Francisco. I would imagine that the greens would run much smoother as we get closer to the 2020 PGA. Still, this was nit-picking; the greens were not in bad shape at all.
The first thirteen holes at Harding Park are good but don’t rise to the level of “great.” A friendly starter helps maintain pace of play off number one, a slightly right bending par four. The second hole is much like the first, which was a theme of the first 13. Looking back on my round, it’s tough for me to differentiate between each of the first 13 holes. Every hole was really solid, but not exactly unique, with the exception of number 4 and number 10, both fun par 5’s with some character.
Harding Park plays at 6,845 yards from the blue tees, which were the back tees on the day I played. There is a championship tee box that plays at 7169 but they were not set up for us. I would imagine that they’d be willing to do so with a special request. I heard the course is even better from back there. I was told that they will be working to lengthen some of the holes in anticipation of the 2020 PGA.
Along those lines, we were also treated with a special view of what the course will look like for the major next year. The PGA had been out to the course the week prior to my visit and had staked out each fairway with little red flags denoting where they want the first cut of rough to reach. On most holes, these flags were five-to-10 paces inside of where the rough currently was being cut, which showed us exactly how tiny these fairways will be for the pros. It was amazing to see some of the narrow landing spots these guys will be aiming for in a year.
As you walk off the 13th green, the course turns one final time back towards the clubhouse. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, you are about to play five incredible holes in a row to close out your round. The teebox on 14 is snuggled up next to the lake but elevated enough to give you a tremendous view of the water below and Olympic Club Golf Course across the way. The hole in front of you is a 440-yard par 4 that steadily climbs uphill with a gently slanting fairway to the left, pushing landing drives towards the water. As I stood over my approach shot, I looked around and then wrote “best hole so far” down on my scorecard. That was true. Until the next hole.
The 15th and 16th holes both follow the same blueprint: fairway bunkers at the elbow of the dogleg, grabbing the longer drives and forcing a club selection decision off the tee. The lake is still running along the left side of each fairway, giving a completely different feel to these holes than you had on the course’s first 13. At only 330 yards, hole 16 plays much shorter than the previous two lake-side par 4s. But the green slopes enough to make you nervous on your putts and keeps the hole from being an easy birdie. Honestly, after these holes were behind me, I took a moment to look back down the fairway and appreciate how good these holes were.
Hole 17 is a 175-yard par 3 that was playing much longer with a solid wind in our faces. The green is positioned near the entrance into Harding Park and, as I previously mentioned, one of the first views of the course you get as you arrive. The green is slightly elevated and protected by two bunkers in front. It requires a long and accurate tee shot, which is difficult because the 18th hole looms large to the right of the green. And once you finish on 17, it’s just a short walk over to the 18th tee.
The final hole is Harding Park’s most special. A 440-yard par 4, the tee shot requires a carry over the lake to a dogleg left fairway. The longer hitters can take a more aggressive line over the trees to cut off a substantial amount of distance. And by longer hitters, I mean guys like Tiger Woods and John Daly.
The fairway is picturesque. 18 is one of those holes that you want to take your time on. It just has a different feeling. The green is slightly elevated, providing amazing views of the clubhouse and Lake Merced. It is the perfect finishing par 4, giving you everything you could possibly want in a golf hole: strategy, challenge, and beauty all wrapped into one. And then it leaves you feeling grateful for having decided to play Harding Park.
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