Certainly golf is much different now than what players from centuries past would recognize. Well, maybe the late 20th century, but other than that, the game has seriously evolved over time.
Some of the changes over time have been slow and minor while other evolutions were revolutions.
Here’s my list of nine of the most important advancements in golf history.
Dimples on golf balls
The golf ball has really changed over time. From leather-covered “featheries” to wooden balls, to gutta-percha balls, few advancements rival the addition of dimples to the ball in the early 20th century. Prior to that, balls were smooth. Eventually players realized that as gutta-percha balls got nicked up they actually traveled further.
In 1908 William Taylor patented a dimpled golf ball in England. The patent was captured in the United States in 1918 and dimpled balls were manufactured by Spalding.
The dimple patterns on balls reduce drag for more distance. Since the first intentionally dimpled balls, the the concept has become a serious science with ball manufacturers putting a lot of effort into development of dimple patterns that provide the most distance, accuracy, and control.
Codified Rules of Golf
In the beginning there was chaos. Rules varied from place to place, like the virtually infinite variation of play in home poker games. That started to change with the first written rules in 1744.
The United States Golf Association (USGA) formed in 1894 and began issuing rulings on various topics. In 1897 the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) formed its first rules committee.
It all came together in 1952 when the USGA and R&A came together to issue the first world-wide set of rules of golf. This meant that the game of golf would then be uniform all over the world. A player from any part of the world can play anywhere else and have a complete understanding of the game. Since 1952, the USGA and R&A convene every four years for the purpose of updating the rules and keeping them uniform all over the world.
Prior to steel, club shafts were made of hickory. The wooden shafts were notoriously brittle and they would commonly break. Steel shafts meant that players could really start swinging hard when they needed to, without fear that their hickory shafts would blow apart. Also, steel shafts could be manufactured to very tight specifications, meaning clubs would react very similarly.
In 1924, the USGA approved the use of steel shafts in clubs and in 1927, American Fork and Hoe, which would later become True Temper, perfected and patented the stepped steel shaft, which is still widely used today.
Steel was a big leap from hickory and graphite was nearly as big a jump from steel.
Jim Flood is credited with developing early graphite shafts from carbon fiber he saw being applied in other industries. In 1972, he founded Aldila.
Today, drivers are shafted almost exclusively with graphite composites because their light weight compared with steel helps players generate the maximum club head speed, which directly correlates to distance. Being both light and strong is a big advantage.
Though less common, graphite shafts in irons are popular among players who may lack the strength to maximize club head speed in heavier steel-shafted irons.
Metal headed woods were used sporadically prior to 1979, but that’s when the revolution occurred. That year, Gary Adams founded Taylor Made and unveiled his new metal 1-wood at the PGA Merchandise Show. It quickly gained popularity and when Jim Simons won the 1982 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am using a Taylor Made metal driver, there was no going back. The days of the persimmon woods were numbered.
Metal heads have continued to evolve, eventually into titanium and more recently into exotic composites, most likely the next revolution in club head materials.
The Modern Sand Wedge
Gene Sarazen was credited with its invention in 1930 after a flying lesson with Howard Hughes. He noticed how the plane’s rudder flowed through the air and realized that a heavy club with a wide flange and extra bounce would skid through the sand without digging.
Prior to that, there were sand clubs with concave faces that resembled spoons and let players scoop the balls out of the sand. Most were not allowed by the USGA and clubs with concave faces were finally banned in 1931, making way for Sarazen’s invention. His wedge ushered in a whole new era of control from the sand.
Computerized Launch Analysis
Launch analysis was previously reserved for the game’s elite. Now it’s available for the average player. It allows a player’s swing to be measured in every conceivable way and have equipment fitted that perfectly matches the individual’s swing characteristics. Things like shaft flex, shaft weighting, length, lie, loft, and other characteristics can be tuned like never before, allowing a player to milk every bit of control, distance, and forgiveness out of his clubs.
The days of mismatched equipment are over. At least they can be for most players.
Golf on Television
The first televised golf tournament was the 1947 U.S. Open, shown on a local broadcast. The first national telecast followed shortly thereafter in 1953 when the Tam O’Shanter World Championship was shown on ABC.
In the 1950′s, Arnold Palmer became a household name through the publicity that televised broadcasts provided. That trend continued through the 20th century that eventually culminated with the launch of a fledgling television network dedicated exclusively to Golf. Now, after about ten years, The Golf Channel is available in some 75 million homes.
That was right around the time that the Tiger Woods era started and his fame extended well beyond regular golf fans. Woods became well known all over the world and helped to grow the game more than ever before.
Without television, professional golf would likely exist for most people as a section on the sports page of their local newspaper. With the evolution of televised golf, more people are watching and playing the game.
Modern Turf Science
In the beginning, golf was played in pastures. Eventually, tracts of land would be designated as golf courses and work would begin to carve them out of the landscape.
In the United States, maintenance staffs have taken golf course manicuring to almost an unbelievable level. With advancements in construction, irrigation, equipment, and techniques, course maintenance is more refined than ever before.
Consider that some of the legends of the game played on greens that were bumpy and long. Have a look at film and newsreels from the early 20th century. Virtually all the players used some degree of wrist break in their putting strokes because it was necessary given the conditions of the time. Now, even weekend players play on greens that are so smooth and roll so true that players from previous eras in golf who didn’t live to see the change might not even believe it.
Fairways are like carpets, rough is more uniform in height and consistency, bunkers are meticulously raked. Obviously that attention to detail varies among courses, but compared to a century ago, most players of today experience better conditions than their counterparts from the past.
In some ways these advancements have made conditions more difficult. Ridiculous green speeds come to mind. At the same time, conditions have become very consistent making low scores more routine.
Golf is constantly evolving. decades from now, some of these will just be insignificant blips on the radar. But now, they’re major advancements that have shaped the game of today.
What are some of your favorite advancements that have shaped the game of golf?