The ball-and-stick game has been played all over the world since ages now in one form or the other. In fact, each geography has had their own version of these games, with perhaps the oldest record being that of the Chinese Royals of Song Dynasty (960-1279) playing Chui-wan – a game that involved hitting balls into holes using 10 ornamented clubs!
Similarly, there is plenty of evidence that points to the existence of proto-golf in Netherlands, too. However, in 1400s, Scotland propounded the name “golf” for this game and this has stuck on since then, with the Scottish being credited with the invention of the game.
Thus began the evolution of the golf-clubs!!
Since then, the golf-club has made impressive changes in its design and make, with the shafts being customized over time for lightness, swing speed and ball-flight needs. From blunt, handmade wood instruments to today’s high-tech golf-clubs, golf-club fitting has perhaps evolved as the most important revolution in golf.
Let us briefly trace the journey of the golf-clubs and how they have improved and evolved over time.
A Sneak Peek at The Early Golf Clubs
At the start, golf-clubs had no standard design or makeup. The Scottish golfers of the eastern coast primarily used rudimentary equipment for the game, which had no set rules and was played in a casual, haphazard manner.
Most of these clubs were handmade and the shafts were carved out of local tough woods such as ash, hazel, holly, beech and apple, by the players themselves. The club head was usually tied tightly to the shaft using splints and leather straps and was prone to frequent breakages.
Given the long and thin, snout-like look of these club heads, they came to be known as “long-nose woods”. They endured for hundreds of years – from the time of the wooden golf ball to the featheries that got introduced after 1618 – before being replaced by other materials later.
The early 1500s witnessed the establishment of a standard design for these golf-clubs. It started in 1502 with William Mayne from Perth being commissioned as the royal Club Maker by King James IV of Scotland to make a set of special clubs for him. A set of clubs at this time comprised:
- Play clubs or longnoses for driving
- Bulgers with their bulbous head
- Niblicks that resembled the modern-day wedges
- Fairway clubs for medium-range shots
- Spoons used for short-range shots, and
- Putting cleek
This period was also marked by constant experimentation with the make-up of the club face – from leather to several other materials including bone fragments and forged metals being used to reduce breakage and increase compression of the club head. This eventually led to the emergence of the second generation of the golf-clubs.
The Second Generation Golf Clubs Emerge
As golf made its way to America in the early 1800s, the wood shafts made of European woods were improvised through the use of the more durable (though still breakage-prone!) hickory wood. The hickory wood became the wood of choice with its popularity making it a standard material to make golf-clubs, with most premier club-makers and golfers adapting to the new technology almost seamlessly.
However, as the 200+ years’ of featheries dominance gave way to gutta-percha golf balls (solid molded-rubber balls) around 1850, the hickory shafts graduated to persimmon wood shafts and by 1900, persimmon wood imported from America had completely replace Hickory and other hard woods.
In fact, up to 1930s, several traditional and modern materials including aluminum were being used for club-making, until finally iron-headed clubs entered the arena. What earlier started as crude and heavy iron clubs forged by local blacksmiths, gradually changes into smooth-faced iron golf-clubs with the advent of drop-forging that allowed for mass-production of these iron shafts.
The Golf-Clubs Move into Hi-Tech New Century
The period between 1900 and 1930 and after World War II, was marked by several improvements in the golf-club designs that were predominantly scientific with several new methods and materials being introduced. As the world moved towards technology, the game also caught up with the changes around.
This period saw some bizarre club designs like the “giant niblicks” that had over 6-inches big faces! It also saw the introduction of hollow-faced irons (that didn’t work); Walter Hagen’s concave-faced sand iron (now considered illegal), Gene Sarazon’s sand wedge (a design still widely used); Karsten Solheim’s putter that could adapt to give different lofts; and experimentation with a variety of alloys.
1925 saw the coming of the steel-headed shafts. The obvious advantage of these shafts was their incredible accuracy and durability. Callaway Big Bertha Taylor-Made became the first company to manufacture metal golf-clubs, producing the most successful of all clubs in the history of the game -Big Bertha – a stainless-steel headed driver. But the steel shafts took almost till mid-1930s to become a hit with the golfing community.
By 1963, club heads began to be manufactured using the casting method which made golf-clubs easily affordable. Soon the persimmon wood shafts joined the hall of fame.
The year 1973 saw a marked improvisation in the design of the golf-clubs with the affordable steel shafts being replaced by the light-weight and strong graphite shafts coming on the golf scene.
These were further improved upon with time by adding other materials like boron for better performance and tensile strength. It also witnessed the change in the names of the golf-clubs to the modern convention of numbering them, and the 14-Clubs rule came into existence to limit the number of clubs used.
The Present-day Clubs
The present-day golf-clubs-from drivers to irons to hybrids and putter- are all computer-designed for greater durability, accuracy and balanced weight-distribution. Advanced materials like titanium and zirconia have increasingly come to use, offering a wide choice of clubs to an average golfer. The titanium-headed graphite shaft, like the Taylor-Made’s R1 with 12 lofts and 7 face angles, is the latest kid-on-the-block. These expensive clubs are extremely strong, light-weight and increase the distance considerably.
There has been a major design shift with new designs evolving constantly – the driver heads have become larger for better distance and accuracy, hybrid clubs (marrying wood and iron technologies) have emerged and high-tech putter with mallet designs have come up!
From wooden clubs to these technologically-advanced modern clubs that can adapt to the changing playing conditions – the golf-clubs have traversed a long way.
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