The history of golf clubs - four hundred years in the making
The modern game of golf, as we know it today originated in Scotland around the 12th century. The exact location was on the current site of the Old Course at St Andrews. It was recorded that Shepherds were found knocking stones around a course into rabbit holes. Often players carved their own clubs out of wood and fashioned golf balls from leather bags.
The first reference to a set of golf clubs were those made specifically for King James VI of Scotland by a bow maker named William Mayne. Mayne was commissioned to make the very first set of matched clubs in the year 1603. Although reference to these clubs has been made, no clubs exist from that time.
The oldest golf clubs known were discovered in a house in Hull along with a newspaper dated 1741.
In the Royal an Ancient Club's museum there are specimens of ancient clubs including two woods and a notable putting cleek. The cleek was made in the second half of the 18th century by a golf club maker named Simon Cossar from Leith and was made having an iron head on a wooden shaft.
For next hundred years, early players were so fond of the game that they would fashion their own golf clubs and balls out of wood. The clubs used ash or hazel for the shafts while the heads were made from tougher wood such as beech, pear, apple, and holly. Just like today, a variety of clubs were used in a single game:
Longnose - used for driving
Bulgers - has a bulbous head similar to the wood of today
Fairway clubs - for medium range shooting
Spoons - used in short range shots
Niblicks - similar to the wedge we have today
Cleek - used for putting.
Things would remain much the same until the early 19th century when in 1826 Robert Forgan of Scotland changed the way in which golf clubs were made. Forgan's golf clubs were made by using American hickory to fashion the shafts instead of the traditional ash or hazel. Soon Forgan's golf clubs became quite popular and set the standard for later makers.
In 1848 Reverend Adam Pearson was the innovator of the Gutta-Percha golf ball. Not only was the gutta-percha a better ball than the 'feathery', it was cheaper to make. With the popularity of the gutta-percha ball came the requirements for a new generation of golf club that could cope with the increased stress associated with this new type of golf ball. The outcome of this new generation of golf clubs best resembles the modern set of woods in today's game of golf.
In the beginning of twentieth century, America started to manufacturer and export golf clubs in large volumes. Outdated materials such as hickory were being replaced with hard woods such as beech or American persimmon used for golf club heads. During this time there also became a growing demand for hand-forged metal club heads and in 1902, the first groove-faced irons appeared. These new club heads offered an increased amount of backspin, compared to wooden club heads.
As manufacturing technology evolved, the technique of forging clubs became more sophisticated. Now the factories could produce the irons in numbers as golf became more popular with the masses. Aluminum was first used about this same time period, replacing the hand-forged method of the previous century.
The Prince of Wales would bring about the next major change in the history of golf clubs. Steel shafts had been experimented with since the late nineteenth century but gained little acceptance. Then in 1929 the Prince of Wales began using steel-shafted golf clubs made to his specifications. He was spotted using a set of these golf clubs at St. Andrews. They soon became quite popular with golfers outside the royal circle.
Shortly after that, the Haskell ball came out in the United States and steel shafts replaced the hickory shaft altogether. This is also the time when many modifications and substitutions were made to lighten the shaft. With this new innovation, the clubs would finally begin to more resemble those we see today. The US Open was the first major tournament to feature this new type of golf club.
Along with the improvement of the shafts came the introduction of numbered, rather than named, clubs. Clubs had become more numerous and finely graduated than the names that traditionally had been applied to them. In addition, companies were able to manufacture to specifications and point of flex that allowed merchandising of matched sets rather than individual clubs. Formerly, a golfer seeking new clubs went through a rack of clubs searching for one with the 'right feel' then tried to find other clubs with the same feel. The merchandising opportunities of numbered clubs and matching sets was carried to an extreme and in 1938 the USGA limited the number of clubs a player could carry per round to 14.
The 1960's saw a major innovation in putters from a gentleman named Karsten Solheim, a General Electric mechanical engineer. His first putter, the 1A, was created in his garage after his frustration with putting led him to design his own club. The putter not only improved his putting, but it was the source for the name of the putter and later the company. As he stroked putt after putt with a radical looking putter, it rang out - PINNGGG. Karsten's persistence resulted in new designs, including the Anser putter in 1966, which proved to be the most successful putter design in history. The company PING is credited with one of the earliest golf companies dedicated to the advancement of the golf putter.
Of course today's technology is continuing to transform the history of golf clubs. Innovations such as graphite shafts, titanium heads, adjustable distributed weight, peripheral weighting to reduce twisting if the club contacts the ball slightly off-center are just a few. Putters alone are subdivided into mallet, peripheral weighted and blade styles. The latest putter design technology incorporates power adjust-ability and practice/play convertibility features.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring in golf club design!
About the Author
Randy Raasch has been in golf for over thirty years. His website, Golf-Fever shares information and products that are sound and easy.