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.
The coveted FedEx Cup Top 30: Why making it to the Tour Championship really matters
This week at the BMW Championship held at Medinah Golf Club in Chicago, the top 70 players left in the FedEx Cup Playoffs are looking to seal their spot in the top 30 and get to East Lake for the Tour Championship.
Not only does getting into the top 30 mean a chance at winning the FedEx Cup and a cool $15 million bonus for winning the event, but heading into the 2020 season, being in the top 30 comes with some big perks. This top 30 threshold allows players the opportunity to build their schedules around the biggest event in golf.
Let’s take a look at what punching a ticket to East Lake really gets you
- An automatic invitation into every major in 2020: The Masters, PGA Championship, US Open, and The Open Championship. For many players qualifying for these events, especially The Masters in a lifelong dream.
- Invitation to all the WGC Events: There are only a few event on tour that get you an automatic paycheck and FedEx Cup points. Being eligible for the WGCs shows that you are a world-class player, and with these events on the schedule, you don’t have to worry about qualifying through world rankings.
- Invitation to all limited field events: This includes the Genesis Invitational (formerly Genesis Open / LA Open), The Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Memorial, and The Players Championship.
If a player was to play every one of the qualified events that would put them at 12 events for the season—to maintain a card for the next year a player has to play in at least 15 events. If you conclude that many of these are also winners and will play in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii that would put the players at 13 events.
This is why being in the top 30 is such a vital line in the proverbial sand—it gives these top players the ability to pick and choose their schedules for the 2019/2020 season without the stress of worrying about what events they are in. Although not to the same extent, this is also why every cutoff is so crucial for each player, whether it be the PGA Tour top 125, PGA Tour 125-150, or those players that gained their cards through the Korn Ferry Tour. Every dollar and every point earned accumulates towards playing opportunities for the next season!
WRX Q&A: NewClub’s Matt Considine
A friend of a friend pointed me to NewClub’s website. Having never heard anything about the effort previously, my first impression of NewClub was a product of its homepage, which looks something like (OK, exactly like) this.
“Sounds great,” I thought. “But what the heck does all of this mean practically?”
To get the answer to that question, I got in touch with founder and CEO Matt Considine, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the venture.
GolfWRX: Let’s start with a little bit about your background in golf…
Matt Considine: As Lebron likes to say “I’m just a kid from Akron” and like many Midwestern kids, I’ve loved playing games with my friends, especially the game of golf. I grew up working and playing at area clubs, munis, and driving ranges. I always had a club in my hands — my mom will attest to all the divots in her carpet and repaired windows in our house. My first internship in college was with IMG Sports in Cleveland and that was my first formal introduction to the golf industry.
WRX: How did arrive at the concept for NewClub?
MC: Golf societies have been around since 1744, so I’m not sure I can take credit for conceiving anything. We took an old idea and made it new again, something that would mesh with the life of a modern golfer.
The first time I was introduced to a golf society was in 2005, and I haven’t been able to shake the concept since. Like many people I’ve talked to, I was burnt out and frustrated with golf, so I quit my college team and shipped off that summer to study at University College Cork in Ireland for 9 months.
I left to get away from golf but it was my experiences in Ireland that introduced me to a whole new way of enjoying the game. After getting laughed off Cork’s Hurling team (Ireland’s native sport) they found out I could play a little bit of golf and offered me a spot on the club team (league rules permitted one American per squad). My dad shipped my clubs over and I was back in business. Because their University teams operated on a lean budget, we would play matches against local societies and clubs in between the college matches to keep the competition sharp. It was those matches and people I met that taught me a whole new way to look at, appreciate, and enjoy the game of golf. It was a miraculous blessing looking back on it now.
Fast forward 10 years, I was living in Chicago working in business development for a technology company. I kept meeting people who were self-proclaimed “golfers,” but not playing much golf. So a small group of friends took a trip over to Scotland where we had an especially enlightening experience playing the Old Course and hanging out at The New Golf Club of St. Andrews after our match.
It was our experience there that was the final spark that NewClub needed. We enjoyed our lunch while The New Golf Club members file through the entrance, four golfers at a time to reminisce about their game on one of the seven links courses available to them through the St. Andrews Links Trust and their golf society membership.
We met teachers, bankers, architects, grocers, police officers, accountants, and fishermen. We heard stories about legendary members like Tom Morris and Sandy Herd. The New Golf Club of St. Andrews is a magical place where any golfer in their community, anyone in good standing with a passion for the game could make their golfing home.
When I returned to Chicago from that second pilgrimage in May of 2015, I decided it was time to start enjoying golf again. Just like the way I used to as a kid, the way those clubs and societies did in Ireland, and the way those members did at The New Golf Club of St. Andrews. That summer I started a standing game every Saturday at any compelling course I could find and my golf society was born. Then in 2017, we made NewClub official with 50 founding members and 5 clubs in Chicago willing to host the society.
WRX: What’s happened since launch and where you are now?
MC: The society has grown to over 300 members and we have relationships with over 50 private clubs and golf courses that we find fun and compelling places to play the game. We have standing tee times every Wednesday to Sunday throughout the golf season and host five tournaments and three trips every year. Next Spring, we have our first NewClub trip scheduled to back to Scotland.
We’ve also introduced an ambassador program for people from all around the country. It’s been amazing how many people we’ve met who are eager for something like this in their own community, a golf society that they can genuinely be proud of.
WRX: Anything more about what members are saying and what the feedback is been like?
MC: In a lot of ways, we’ve set up this really unique society golf experiment, so we’re not afraid to try new things and see how people respond. Our members have been incredibly helpful with feedback. We’ve been listening a lot, watching how they use the mobile app, how they play their golf, learning about things they need, things they don’t. It all has helped us get to where we are now.
Overall, we’ve found that people have enjoyed the access and discovery of new and exciting courses, but the more pleasant surprise has been how much our members enjoy meeting new people and playing with each other. Nobody ever thinks (or admits) that they need golf buddies. But what we’ve found is that people are far more likely to play a round if they know they’ll be playing with someone they actually want to play with.
We’ve also learned that match play is very unappreciated in our country. Members love the matches, and match play is one of our core principles at NewClub.
WRX: What’s next for NewClub?
MC: We have plans for our second market launch in 2020 and will continue to grow our ambassador program to show us the road ahead. People are starting to stand up and say “this is how I want to experience golf,” so we know there is a serious need out there and we want to make sure we are meeting the demand by growing in the right way.
WRX: What do prospective members need to know?
MC: We have a really straightforward and proprietary application process on our website. Every prospective member needs to complete the application before being considered for membership. We look for applicants who possess a high quality of character, passion, and respect for the game of golf, and always leave the course in better shape than they found it.
Slow play is all about the numbers
If you gather round, children, I’ll let you in on a secret: slow play is all about the numbers. Which numbers? The competitive ones. If you compete at golf, no matter the level, you care about the numbers you post for a hole, a round, or an entire tournament. Those numbers cause you to care about the prize at the end of the competition, be it a handshake, $$$$, a trophy, or some other bauble. Multiply the amount that you care, times the number of golfers in your group, your flight, the tournament, and the slowness of golf increases by that exponent.
That’s it. You don’t have to read any farther to understand the premise of this opinion piece. If you continue, though, I promise to share a nice anecdotal story about a round of golf I played recently—a round of golf on a packed golf course, that took a twosome exactly three hours and 10 minutes to complete, holing all putts.
I teach and coach at a Buffalo-area high school. One of my former golfers, in town for a few August days, asked if we could play the Grover Cleveland Golf Course while he was about. Grover is a special place for me: I grew up sneaking on during the 1970s. It hosted the 1912 U.S. Open when it was the Country Club of Buffalo. I returned to play it with Tom Coyne this spring, becoming a member of #CitizensOfACCA in the process.
Since my former golfer’s name is Alex, we’ll call him Alex, to avoid confusion. Alex and I teed off at 1:30 on a busy, sunny Wednesday afternoon in August. Ahead of us were a few foursomes; behind us, a few more. There may have been money games in either place, or Directors’ Cup matches, but to us, it was no matter. We teed it high and let it fly. I caught up on Alex’ four years in college, and his plans for the upcoming year. I shared with him the comings and goings of life at school, which teachers had left since his graduation, and how many classrooms had new occupants. It was barroom stuff, picnic-table conversation, water-cooler gossip. Nothing of dense matter nor substance, but pertinent and enjoyable, all the same.
To the golf. Neither one of us looked at the other for permission to hit. Whoever was away, at any given moment, mattered not a bit. He hit and I hit, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes within an instant of the other. We reached the putting surface and we putted. Same pattern, same patter. Since my high school golfers will need to choose flagstick in or out this year, we putted with it in. Only once did it impact our roll: a pounded putt’s pace was slowed by the metal shaft. Score one for Bryson and the flagstick-in premise!
Grover tips out around 5,600 yards. After the U.S. Open and the US Public Links were contested there, a healthy portion of land was given away to the Veteran’s Administration, and sorely-needed hospital was constructed at the confluence of Bailey, Lebrun, and Winspear Avenues. It’s an interesting track, as it now and forever is the only course to have hosted both the Open and the Publinx; since the latter no longer exists, this fact won’t change. It remains the only course to have played a par-6 hole in U.S. Open competition. 480 of those 620 yards still remain, the eighth hole along Bailey Avenue. It’s not a long course, it doesn’t have unmanageable water hazards (unless it rains a lot, and the blocked aquifer backs up) and the bunkering is not, in the least, intimidating.
Here’s the rub: Alex and I both shot 75 or better. We’re not certain what we shot, because we weren’t concerned with score. We were out for a day of reminiscence, camaraderie, and recreation. We golfed our balls, as they say in some environs, for the sheer delight of golfing our balls. Alex is tall, and hits this beautiful, high draw that scrapes the belly of the clouds. I hit what my golfing buddies call a power push. It gets out there a surprising distance, but in no way mimics Alex’ trace. We have the entire course covered, from left to right and back again.
On the 14th tee, I checked my phone and it was 3:40. I commented, “Holy smokes, we are at two hours for 13 holes.” We neither quickened nor slowed our pace. We tapped in on 18, right around 4:40, and shook hands. I know what he’s been up to. He understands why I still have a day job, and 18 holes of golf were played—because we both cared and didn’t care.
There you have it, children. Off with you, now. To the golf course. Play like you don’t care.
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