The stately Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews clubhouse overlooks the grounds where the sport of golf was conceived and born, reportedly by shepherds filling time by knocking stones into rabbit holes. Soon players began hand carving their “clubs” out of wood and creating leather balls from old satchels.
As time went on, and the sport began to gain popularity, players became particular about the materials used for their clubs, choosing ash or hazel for the shaft, and harder woods like holly, apple, pear, or beech for the head. The cleek, also known today as the putter, was designed in the late 18th century by a well-known club maker named Simon Cossar, and consisted of an iron head and a wooden shaft.
Even before the days of modern golf club design and mass-produced equipment, golfers carried a variety of clubs when they played.
The “Longnose” was comparable to today’s driver and was fashioned much the same way. “Bulgers” were similar to today’s woods. “Fairway clubs”, which are still used today for long range shooting. “Spoons” were used in short range shots. “Niblicks” were similar to the modern wedges, and “cleeks” are now putters.
In the mid-1800’s, Scottish golf designer, Robert Forgran, began importing American hickory which he used to fashion the shaft of the club, which set the stage for rapid advancements in club construction. In the late 1800’s drop-forging enabled the mass production of iron club heads, replacing the long-utilized persimmon. The first groove-faced irons were developed and gained popularity quickly as they increased the ball’s speed and backspin over the traditional persimmon head. In the early 1900’s, aluminum heads made an appearance as well.
In 1929, the Prince of Wales commissioned a set of steel-shafted clubs. When he was seen playing with them at St. Andrews, the steel-shafted clubs’ popularity skyrocketed, with players at every level of ability and class ordering their own set. When the Haskell ball became available in the US, iron shafts replaced hickory altogether, and began an eternal objective to find materials and designs to lighten the shaft.
Improvements to the clubs brought with it the method in which they were marketed and sold. Rather than named clubs, they became numbered based on their specifications. Rather than going through dozens of clubs attempting to put together a set with the right feel, golfers were able to choose clubs within a specific numbered “matched set”, which created all kinds of havoc on the golf course. As a result, in 1938 the USGA set the limit on the number of clubs that could be carried per round at 14.
As we all know, putts win games, and finally the putter saw its day in the 1960’s when Karsten Solheim, frustrated with his own putters, designed the 1A in his own garage. It had a thinner and lighter sweet spot, and when it tapped the ball, it made a distinctive “PING” sound. The club gained popularity, and Solheim soon abandoned his career and began the company know to this day as “PING”. They continue to produce the world’s most innovative and successful club and putter designs.
In the 1970’s the lightweight graphite-shaft clubs widely used today gained popularity with women and senior golfers, but weren’t adopted by typical golfers until the mid-1990’s. Around the same time, Callaway introduced “Big Bertha” a stainless steel-headed driver, which revolutionized the golf club industry and turned the persimmon headed drivers into museum pieces. The Big Bertha is still around today, and Callaway has continued to develop innovative and cutting-edge clubs, along with the dozens of their competitors such as Adams, TaylorMade, and Nike.
Hybrids, a recent innovation in the golf club industry, combine the swing mechanics of an iron with the larger sweet spot and longer distance of a wood. Many golfers embraced the versatility of the hybrids – thus encouraging an entirely new breed of club to take hold. Even though they’ve only been around for just over a decade, they’ve quickly gained in popularity. In 2004, only 7% of golfers reported using a hybrid, while most golfers today have at least one in their bag.
The golf club has come a long way since its origins as a wooden club on the hills of Scotland centuries ago, and is still being revolutionized to this day. Each year brings with it lighter shafts, drivers producing greater backspin, speed and distance, and putters that would make even Karsten Solheim’s jaw drop. We can’t wait to see what these innovators come up with next!