Ever since golf was invented the marketeers have been busy at work, trying to convince us of the latest technology breakthroughs to hit it further, straighter, higher and more consistently. Golfers can bomb it, hole more putts, get it closer with a wedge, spin it more or hit it out of any lie if you choose to drink the kool-aid. Those smart advertising guys can appeal to our basic desires to improve through subtle and not-so-subtle images, techno-bable and endorsements... but it seems the modern-day advertising companies have nothing new.
So it got me thinking. What have been the real breakthrough technologies in our game over the years? I'm defining breakthroughs as paradigm shifts, a fundamental breakthrough that changed the face of equipment. Not yellow balls, pretzel tees or fluffy head covers: I’m talking innovations that have truly revolutionized the game.
Here’s my top-10 list, and my rationale for each.
The "guttie" ball
You have to realize that when golf was first played on the links, finding a ball to play with was a problem. Golfers graduated from stones and carved wood to a ball made of leather, filled with feathers and painted white. These "featheries" were expensive, time consuming to make (an experienced ball maker could only make a few balls in one day), and practically useless when wet, but they offered feel and reasonable distance. They remained the standard ball for a few centuries with little modification. It was only toward the end of the last century that the game progressed to a new ball technology.
Gutta Perchie was a natural rubber-like substance that, when heated, was easily moulded. It was only a matter of time before golf enthusiasts discovered that this new material would make an ideal ball, which became known as the "guttie." This precursor of latex, once cooled and dried, retained its shape. Players realized that the ball’s performance improved after it had been played a few rounds. The nicks and marks on the ball helps its flight, so manufacturers started introducing patterns during the moulding process, which later became dimples. These balls went farther, were a lot more consistent and durable -- even in the wet -- and if they went out of shape they could be remolded.
The guttie truly transformed the game. And, yes, later we saw the introduction of the rubber-banded Haskell ball with a balata cover, which instantly added 20 yards to everyone’s game, and then the surlyn ball coming on in a variety of layers. But surely the guttie ball was the one that transformed golf the most.
The launch of steel shafts and investment casting
Up until 1920s, golf clubs were made with wood shafts derived primarily from hickory trees. Then the industrial revolution brought steel, and it quickly found a place in golf. Although heavier than hickory, steel was much stronger and more consistent in its performance. Prior to steel, a player would need a slightly different swing for each shaft given the inherent inconsistencies in hickories. Although lots of advances have been made since, stell shafts still remain at the fore. Coupled with the birth of steel, the investment casting processes enabled manufacturers to easily mass-produce clubs with consistent properties. Up to then, irons were hand forged, making them expensive and inconsistent. Casting made clubs cheaper and more accessible to the masses. The 1920s and 1930s saw huge growth in the game thanks to this new technology.
Wilson’s launch of the sand wedge with bounce
I’ve covered this in a previous article but it still remains high on the list of golf technologies that revolutionized the game. I love the thought process that Gene Sarazen used when landing on the water in Howard Hugh’s boat plane. His homemade designs were later taken up by Wilson and the industry soon followed. He made bunker play easier and a lot more consistent and his fundamental club design still is seen in today’s wedge designs.
Metal-headed clubs with graphite shafts
I have already written about how this technology revolutionized golf in the 1980s and 90s. Lighter, stronger, tougher materials enabled consistent mass production. This pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the advent of graphite shafts. Again, lighter materials enabled faster club head speed and high tech nanotechnology meant that flexes, torque, kick points and weight could all be dialed-in. The graphite shaft was first marketed in 1970 at the PGA Merchandise Show but did not gain widespread use until the mid-1990s and is now used on almost all woods and some iron sets. You rarely see a steel shaft on a driver these days and it’s even rarer to see a wooden headed club.
Back in the day, the average golfer facing a long iron off a tight lie quaked in his boots. All of us golfing mortals know it is the hardest club in the bag to hit consistently well even off a good lie; the long irons show every flaw in our swings. And from the rough, long irons were useless altogether. Fairway woods weren’t much easier. As one of our contributors Barney Adams once famously observed "They couldn't hit a long iron and they couldn't hit a fairway wood either." The hybrid transformed the average golfer’s ability to get the ball in the air from a range of lies offering the distance of a wood with the easier to hit nature of a mid-iron. TaylorMade is credited with starting the trend when it introduced the Rescue in the 1980s, a club that was part iron and part fairway wood making the long iron obsolete for casual players. Over the past thirty years this club more than any other has revolutionized the game. Just look in the bags of your regular group.
Perimeter weighted clubs and heel toe-balanced putters
OK, you will have to bear with me again as I try and combine two into one again. Karsten Solheim was one of the true pioneers of the golf equipment business. A Norwegian-born, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1913 and trained as a mechanical engineer. He only came to golf in his 40s and after struggling on the greens, he decided to design his own putter using physics and engineering principles learned at General Electric. His concept of transferring much of the weight of the club head to the perimeter took a while to be accepted, but when it did it he set up the Ping brand. A few years later he lent the same principle of perimeter weighting to a set of irons and these were quickly successful. The other golf equipment manufacturers soon followed his innovations, which became industry standards.
Launch monitors, range finders and GPS
OK, so I cheated here as these are three innovations but in my mind they all use technology that has added significant value to the golfer over the last three decades. GPS and range finders were originally developed for defense applications and found a home with golf in the 1990s. Golfers were able to quickly and accurately work out their distances making club selection easier and quicker, taking the guess work out of yardages. There is still the constantly raging debate as to the pros and cons of each but both offer the golfer the advantage of taking doubt away.
And the launch monitor has revolutionized club fitting and teaching. Retailers and instructors can now can help golfers optimize their equipment and tuition, using compelling hard numbers rather than feel. It’s scary the array of information that is now accessible for analysis. Golfers can now send a video of their swing to their instructor, along with a spreadsheet of data from the specific shot. And the instructor can immediately interpret the numbers to identify swing flaws.
One of the benefits of playing links golf in Ireland is that I can play pretty much all year round. On the downside, however, is that I play a lot of my golf in wind and rain. There is nothing more miserable than the feeling of being cold and wet. So having the right gear on is essential. Just ask the 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup team who played in Scotland with their now infamous porous wetsuits.
When the game of golf first began, golfers wore heavy tweed jackets and moleskin trousers. If it rained, these provided initial protection and warmth but eventually soaked up the water and became heavy and extremely restrictive. But back then men were men. Technology and fashion improved over the years to the ‘Norfolk’ jacket in the 1920s to the water resistant ‘Eisenhower’ jackets of the 1940s that were more conducive to the golf swing because of the roomy shoulder fit and the snug waistband. In the 1950s post- period, newer and lighter materials were developed using plastic derivatives like PVC. They gave a level of protection from the elements but they were unable to breath, meaning golfers sweated buckets. The material was also very restrictive and uncomfortable to wear. Remember the times when Arnie or Jack needed a big drive and they would remove their jackets?
Gore-Tex was invented in 1969 as a waterproof, breathable, lightweight fabric membrane able to repel liquid water while allowing water vapor to pass through making it perfect for all-weather use. It was quickly adopted into the outdoor clothing market and golf took a fair share of that. These days the ultra-thin material used in wetsuits provide ultimate protection and comfort. You hardly know you are wearing a suit that is keeping you dry and warm.
OK, so this is closely connected to the computer and optics related stuff, but in fact I think it rightly deserves a place. Mobile devices and apps have revolutionized how we think and act about golf. Youtube has an abundance of golf instruction available as do a bunch of other golf web-sites. You can now film yourself on your smart phone and an app will tell you what you are doing wrong. You can book a tee time, watch a tournament or shoot the breeze with like-minded folks on forums from a mobile device. You can check the weather before your round, your exact handicap, buy and sell equipment and download the GPS coordinates for courses you want to play. And you can do it quickly and easily from the comfort or your armchair. I can only see this trend continuing.
The Golf Shoe
Back in the days of yore, golfers wore heavy boots to tramp round the links. These transformed over the ensuing decades into leather shoes with metal spikes and for a long time golfers put up with these leather brogues including the tongues. It was only in the last thirty or so years that the golf shoe has been transformed. Using high-tech materials, computer design and input from other sports, the golf shoe has now turned into a ultra-supportive, light, waterproof but breathable fashion statement. The metal spikes have been replaced with a variety of grip options from cleats through to dimples. Marketing people have found a way to get into our heads that the shoe’s performance can be optimized to provide stability and balance shaving untold shots off our scores. What I can tell you is that thirty years ago a pair of leather shoes took about a week to wear in, overcoming painful blisters and rubbing, they were not waterproof and usually weren’t the most comfortable shoe you possessed. Recently, I got a new pair of shoes which were like wearing slippers. They are light, waterproof and look great.
So there you have it: my top ten. I’m sure I have missed a few, or perhaps not argued my case decisively enough. So please join in the debate and enlighten us.