With the remarkable technology that goes into golf clubs today, it’s easy to forget the humble origin of the golf club nearly 600 years ago in Scotland. After hundreds of years of club makers’ combining ingenuity and passion for golf, we're at a point where golfers know that if they make a proper swing they will be rewarded with a favorable result.
Early golf clubs were little more than a stick with a crudely fashioned wooden head on the end, often made by the golfers themselves out of whatever wood was available. Golf balls in the 16th century were made of wood as well. The equivalent of a driver was known as a “longnose” because of the elongated shape of the club head, which looks very strange to us today.
Effect of the Ball, Part I
The preferred clubs were influenced by the golf ball introduced in 1618, the “Featherie.” It was composed of three pieces of leather sewn together and stuffed with feathers. This ball was expensive to produce and damaged easily during play. Most players continued to use wooden-headed clubs even after clubs with forged iron heads were available because the ball would last longer when struck by wood. Until late in the 19th century, the heads of iron clubs were often made by local blacksmiths. Wooden clubs were made by hand. The heads were made of harder woods such as apple or beech. The shafts were fashioned from hazel or ash. This tradition lasted until golf because so popular that players sought out less-expensive clubs made in factories.
Americans began contributing to club design in the early 1800s, but Scotland was still regarded as the center of high-quality club making. Hickory wood grown in the U.S. proved to be more durable than the European woods. Hickory shafts became the most popular material and were even used by the most skilled club makers in Scotland.
Effect of the Ball, Part II
In the middle of the 19th century, golf ball technology was greatly improved with the introduction of the gutta-percha ball, made from solid molded rubber. The ball was significantly more durable than the featherie. Irons now became a key part of a golfer’s set of clubs, allowing him to achieve much better control of the ball.
After the turn of the 20th century, iron clubs began to be made with grooves rather than smooth faces. Now golfers could put backspin on the ball. Hickory shafts continued to dominate until steel shafts were legalized by golf’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, in 1929. Two years later, Billy Burke won the U.S. Open while playing with steel shafts. Steel shafts allowed for faster club-head speeds than hickory shafts.
Science and technology have provided golfers with many innovations in the last 40 years, such as the advent of graphite shafts in the 1970s. Their lightweight design also allowed for greater club-head speed. Metal “woods” came along in the 1980s and soon replaced wooden-headed clubs altogether. The introduction of the strong, lightweight metal titanium allowed clubs to be designed with larger heads that could promote both distance and accuracy. Cavity-backed irons were a major innovation at the end of the 1970s. These irons could be made with larger heads that provide a greater hitting surface, increasing the average golfer’s chances of making solid contact with the ball.