The golf industry has come a long way. What started as players hitting a pebble around sand dunes with a stick in Scotland has now transformed into a mammoth, tech-powered multi-billion industry. Pioneer golfers knew little of the optimized distance, forgiveness, weight distribution, durability, and graduation utility witnessed with modern golf equipment. However, they laid the groundwork for the game we all adore, and their earlier efforts will remain entrenched in golf history.
Golf clubs have undergone the most transformation since the game of golf launched in the 1500s. Earlier golfers would carve their clubs from wood, but as the game gained prominence, they turned to skilled artisans for higher-quality golf equipment. King James IV of Scotland is on record as the first golfer to commission a set of golf clubs from skilled bow-maker William Mayne, who became the Royal Club Maker.
During these earlier golfing days, clubs didn’t have the fancy numbered naming system we have today. Instead, a set of clubs consisted of Spoons for short-range shots, Grassed drivers (or fairway clubs) for medium-range shots, Longnoses for driving, Niblicks like today’s wedges, and a Cleek for putting. The clubs were primarily wooden, with heads crafted from more rigid wood like pear, beech, holly, or apple and shafts made from hazel or ash. Artisans used a splint to connect the club head to the shaft and a leather strap for binding.
Around 1750, local blacksmith shops introduced iron club heads for “niblicks” or wedges. Scottish club-maker Robert Forgan started making club shafts from imported American hickory in 1826. Due to its durability and availability, hickory quickly became a club maker’s favorite wood. In 1900, club-makers adopted American persimmon for making wooden club heads.
In the 1900s, there was a lot of innovation and experimentation in the club design. In 1908, club makers discovered that club face grooves could generate more distance by increasing backspin. Around 1925, the US embraced steel shafts, with the R&A officially legalizing steel-shafted clubs in 1929, which provided more excellent durability and accuracy.
Earlier golfers carried 20-30 clubs in their bags until 1939, when the R&A introduced the 14-club rule. The modern standard numbering system also replaced traditional club names like niblicks and spoons. In 1963, manufacturers adopted the casting method of making club heads, leading to more affordable clubs. A significant milestone came in the 1970s when Karsten Solheim invented the Ping Putter, featuring added heel and toe weight that enabled golfers to putt straighter.
The graphite shaft was introduced in 1973, providing increased strength, lightness, and rigidity over steel shafts. Modern graphite shafts incorporate materials like boron that reduce twisting and improve performance. Taylor-Made was the first equipment manufacturing company to counter the popularity of persimmon club heads by introducing metal club heads.
However, Callaway’s 1991 Big Bertha driver with an oversized metal club head took the market by storm, setting the trend for most manufacturers. The early 2000s saw the introduction of hybrid clubs, which fused woods and irons, performing better than longer irons. Hybrid clubs have proven to be a godsend for slower swingers like women and seniors.
Modern woods mainly bear titanium club heads combined with graphite shafts. Another trend is the adjustable driver that allows the golfer to adjust the driver’s weight accordingly, making it easy to hit a draw or a fade. Although technological advancements have seen countless modern driver designs flood the market, one constant is that the club head size is limited to 460cc.
In the 1500s, golfers used pebbles as golf balls. The situation improved in 1618 when the “feathery” golf ball, consisting of thin leather bags stuffed with feathers, was introduced. As expected, these balls only flew a little. Fortunately, Reverend Adam Paterson invented the gutta-percha ball in 1848, made from the sap of the Gutta tree. The gutta-percha ball was similar to the modern golf ball and could travel a maximum distance of 225 yards.
A significant golf ball advancement came in 1898 when Coburn Haskell invented the first one-piece rubber core. These balls helped golfers achieve longer distances of about 430 yards when hit professionally. In 1905, golf ball manufacturer William Taylor added the dimple pattern to the Coburn Haskell ball, paving the way for the modern golf balls we see today.
In earlier golfing days, the word “tee” referred to the area where a golfer played. Scottish golfers Arthur Douglas and William Bloxsom patented the first documented portable golf tee in 1889. Their creation was made from rubber with three vertical rubber prongs to hold the ball in place, and unlike modern golf tees that pierce the ground, theirs lay on the ground.
Three years later, in 1892, Percy Ellis acquired a British patent for his “Perfectum” tee made of rubber with a metal spike that pierced the ground. Scotsmen PM Matthews introduced the similar-looking “Victor” tee in 1897, but with a cup-shaped top to hold the ball better. The golf tees we see today evolved from these earlier ideas.
Golf bags first came into use in the 1880s. Back then, caddies who helped golfers carry around their golf equipment were nicknamed “the beast of burden.” In 1962, Merlin L. Halvorson invented the first powered golf car, laying the foundation for today’s modern golf carts.
As you enjoy modern golfing technology like computer-optimized clubs, smart watches, GPS rangefinders, and electric caddies, take a moment to salute the pioneers who laid the groundwork. Golf has indeed come a long way, and thanks to technology, we can expect new advancements in golf equipment and how we play the sweet game of golf each year.