Dennis G. Kloeth, WEEKENDER | Tue, 02/28/2012 2:11 PM |
Great strides in technology have changed the way golf is played.
Ever since golf was born as a game in the late 1500s, the equipment has played an important role – a role that was enhanced when it graduated to a sport. Old Tom Morris, the sport’s founding father and four-time British Open winner between 1860 and 1867, conquered the Old Course at St. Andrews with a wide selection of clubs that included hickory-shafted Mashies and Scare Neck Brassies and Spoons. The latter were the predecessors of today’s driver.
As well as being a highly successful golfer, Morris earned a reputation as a highly sought-after club maker; by the time he died in 1908, club making had made considerable progress. The Scar Neck Brassie had given way to the so-called “Drilled Neck Spoon”, whose patent was granted in 1898, three years after the clubs went on the market. According to those in the know, this elegant little golden-headed club is possibly the most influential patent in golf club development. It was characterized by a radical move away from attaching the head to the shaft with a scare/splice and toward the modern socket head that is still used today.
From the days of the “spoon” to the drivers of today, a considerable amount of time, money and thought has been pumped into equipment R&D. The watchword in designing and developing new equipment is “longer and more accurate”. Initially, pursuit of this ideal led to the introduction of the steel shaft – replacing hickory – in 1925. It was not until 1929 that the steel shaft was allowed in tournaments – and only after the Prince of Wales used one on the Old Course at St. Andrews that same year. Billy Burke was the first player to win a major – the 1931 US Open – with a steel shaft.
Today, manufacturing of golf equipment is all about science and technology, characterized by seemingly esoteric concepts such as “center of gravity”, “perimeter weighting” and “Coefficient of Restitution (COR)”, to name just a few. The result has been more forgiveness and greater accuracy for irons and longer drives off the tee. In the face of relentless competition, nothing is left to chance and the major golf brands spend millions not only on R&D, but also on marketing. Tour players, obviously, are important in this regard, by endorsing brands – and, of course, performing well in tournaments while using these brands.
In golf today, “hitting it longer” is a magic phrase. Amateurs and pros alike are in search of an extra 20 to 30 yards on any given shot. Few amateur golfers, however, realize that “hitting it longer” has all to do with technique and skill – and a state-of-the-art golf ball. Golf ball technology has come a long way since the early “featherie” and “gutty” of 1850.
In particular, the Haskell ball, introduced in the early 1900s, was revolutionary. This ball was a composite of a solid core wound with rubber string covered in gutta percha, called a three-piece ball design. This design persisted until the early 1970s, when it was replaced by the highly popular two-piece ball design of today.
Into the Woods
When Tiger Woods agreed to endorse and play with Nike clubs and balls – and of course, went on the take the golfing world by storm – it was clear that he had what might be described as a lethal combination of talent and equipment, aweing golfers worldwide with his short game and with tee shots of more than 300 yards. In 1997, he won the Masters by a margin of an unprecedented 12 strokes (over Tom Kite), a feat never before seen. Unsurprisingly, Nike clubs and balls started flying out of the shops.
Woods represented a game changer in many ways. Since his early days on the tour, R&D in golfing equipment has improved in leaps and bounds. Now, 15 years later, Woods is no longer considered a long hitter, having been surpassed by an array of younger professional golfers hitting the ball further than ever before. J.B. Holmes, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson are three of the longest hitters on tour, averaging tee shots of 325 to 350 yards.
Obviously, the dramatically improved equipment and balls have changed the game tremendously, raising concerns that golf courses will be too short and too easy for the pros. To prevent this from happening, in 2005, most tournament courses in the States were renovated; not only were the distances between holes increased, but also the positions and lengths of the rough were shifted and fairway bunkers and water hazards more strategically placed – all just to make sure that the game required a lot more than just a 300+-yard drive. In March 2006, Augusta National, home of the famous Masters tournament, ended a renovation program that made the course not only longer, but also a lot tougher. In April of that year, the winning score of minus 7 brought the game back to normal.
The long hitters on tour have no doubt made a considerable contribution to publicity and sales for the many golf brands that dominate the tour, the market and the game. TaylorMade drivers are the most used drivers on tour and, when the new TaylorMade R11S driver was introduced at the end of last year, pro and amateur golfers were guaranteed that they could lengthen their drives by 20 to 30 yards. This created an enormous buzz and record sales for a club that is priced in the top segment of the market.
For the average golfer, buying the latest and most popular driver on tour and using, for instance, the touring-pro-preferred Pro V1 balls, has more to do with emulating the pros than with actually hitting longer shots. Only if you’re a single handicap golfer should you be interested in keeping up with the incredibly high frequency with which new and (supposedly) improved clubs and balls are introduced to the market.
We can safely say that after 50 years of R&D, the most sweeping changes in golf equipment and ball design are behind us – poor-quality clubs and balls are history. But while high-tech equipment can make a difference for those at the top of the game, mere mortal golfers like you and me are better off putting the R&D into ourselves – finding a teaching pro to bring out the better golfer within may prove to be the real game changer.