Some of the most important improvements and inventions in the history of the game of golf have occurred over the last 40 years. Golf has seen more improvements to its equipment throughout history than any other sport. As a result of these improvements, some of golf’s greatest courses have been rendered obsolete for professional tournament golf. Many of golf’s greatest courses have added length and difficulty to avoid being left behind. Many golf “purists” believe some of these improvements have taken away some of the shot-making possessed by some of the great players of years past. Others believe these improvements have made the game better by lowering scores for professionals and amateurs alike.
Below we have listed some improvements we feel have changed the game the most over the last 40 years. These improvements include the golf ball, the 60 degree wedge, metal woods, graphite shafts, square grooves, oversized drivers, hybrids, long putters (belly putters), carry bags with stands, better golf shoes, and soft spikes.
The golf ball
Let’s just start with, in many people’s mind, the most significant change of all – the golf ball. In the 1970s and 80s, the ball of choice for most professionals was the balata covered ball. This ball had a rubber core filled with liquid. It was wrapped in rubber bands and had a soft “balata” cover. At the time, this golf ball was top of the line. Most of today’s golf balls have a one-piece core with a more durable cover.
How do these two different balls compare to each other? The balata ball tended to produce more spin and had a softer feel around the greens, which many tour players prefer. However, the liquid filled core surrounded by rubber bands, coupled with the softer cover did not produce the kind of distance the one-piece of today produces. Also, because the balata cover was much softer, it was not nearly as durable as today’s balls of choice. Manufacturers have found ways to make today’s balls more durable while still producing sufficient spin rates.
However, the biggest difference is distance. Today’s golf balls travel much further than those of years past. This aspect of the ball is the most significant upgrade, and the most controversial. None other than Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are on record saying the ball goes too far now, rendering some of our greatest golf courses obsolete.
The 60 Degree Wedge
Seve Ballesteros once said the most significant innovation to the game of golf is the 60 degree wedge. Coming from one of golf’s most talented magicians, that’s quite a statement. The 60 degree wedge has allowed players to hit shots around the green that, in years past, were close to or impossible to hit. Firm, fast greens (like those seen in the U.S. Open) have probably contributed to the use of the 60 degree wedge more than any other factor in golf. The ability to hit higher, softer pitch shots around the green have made this club almost a must for tour players.
In the late 1970s, metal woods made their way onto the scene. The immediate difference these clubs made was an increase in distance off the tee. A firmer hitting area with more of a trampoline effect quickly made persimmon woods a thing of the past. Metal woods also proved to be more durable and required less maintenance such as replacing the insert of a persimmon wood, which would eventually wear out.
If there is a negative to the invention of metal woods, it is the fact that those beautiful, hand-made persimmon woods of the past aren’t produced anymore. Many feel the persimmon woods were a work of art, much like a classic car.
Many consider the shaft the “heart” of the golf club. Throughout the history of golf, the shaft, more than any other part of the club, has undergone the biggest transformation. Going from hickory to steel is still the biggest step up in shaft technology.
Even though most golfers still play with steel shafts in their irons, graphite shafts in drivers and fairway woods have become the norm. Graphite shafts are lighter than steel, increasing club head speed and distance. Like the ball, but to a lesser extent, graphite shafts are responsible for much of the increase in distance off the tee.
Controlling the golf ball around the greens and out of high rough has become a priority for tour players over the years. Square grooves, compared to U-grooves and V-grooves, produce much more spin. Many believe square grooves have contributed to a lack of shot-making by today’s tour players compared to the greats of years past. Just this year, square grooves have been banned on the P.G.A. Tour, much to the delight of many older players and purists of the game. Imagination and shot-making should now play bigger roles in golf like they did in years past.
For amateurs and professionals alike, oversized drivers have made hitting tee shots longer and straighter much easier. The reason is the sweet spot on these bigger heads is much bigger, allowing for straighter miss hits and more shots hit solidly, thus increasing distance. Couple this with a graphite shaft that is lighter, and in many cases longer, and you have a recipe for more distance immediately.
How many of you carry a 1, 2, 3 or even 4 iron in your bag now? The hybrid is one of those improvements to equipment that we can ask ourselves, “Why didn’t someone invent this years ago?” Hitting a long iron has always been a challenge for most golfers. Hybrids have made this a much easier proposition. With a little more “meat” behind the clubface and a lower center of gravity, getting the ball in the air with a less lofted club has become much easier. For most golfers, long irons have been relegated to “alignment club” status.
Long putters (belly putters)
Long putters, also known as belly putters, might be the most controversial of all the innovations to our game. If you ask a golf purist about the long putter, you might want to find a chair and get ready for an earful on why it is a cancer to the game. If you ask someone who has the yips, you might want to find a chair and get ready for an earful on why this putter is so great. The purist, Tom Watson, will tell you that you shouldn’t be able to anchor your club to your body as a way to deal with a balky putting stroke. If you ask a “user”, Bruce Lietzke, he might tell you it added over 10 years to his career because of the improvement in his putting.
If something is outlawed on the P.G.A. Tour in the near future, it will probably be the long putter (belly putter). Only time will tell whether that happens or not. We would hate to see all of the great players whose career would have been cut short if not for the long putter. However, we can see the argument for both sides.
Carry bags with stands
In the late 1980s, PING introduced the carry bag with a two legged stand that unfolds as you put your bag down. At first glance, this new contraption looked foreign and awkward. Because a bag with a stand made it easier to keep your bag, clubs and towel dry in morning dew or rainy conditions, this quickly became a standard piece of equipment for golfers who prefer to walk. Not having to bend down to pick up your bag also made this carry bag an instant hit for people looking to avoid a sore back. You would be hard pressed to find a carry bag today without a stand.
Better golf shoes
Like many areas of fashion, golf shoes have changed dramatically over the years. The look of certain shoes tends to come full circle like we often see with pants and shirts. However, comfort and durability have been the biggest improvements in golf shoes over the last few years. Most golf shoes today are not only very comfortable, but also waterproof. More people than ever are playing golf and many of those players are walkers. Keeping your feet happy while playing golf is a must.
Soft spikes have made a big difference in keeping putting surfaces smooth over the last several years. In years past, metal spikes added an unwanted bumpiness to greens making them more difficult to putt. Soft spikes, made of plastic, have drastically reduced the amount of spike marks on greens, thus making for a smoother putting surface.
Looking back, all of these improvements and innovations have made the game better in one way or another. It can be argued that some of them lean against the spirit of the game. However, make no mistake about it, technology and innovation in equipment play a bigger role in golf than in any other sport. With competition for millions of dollars between equipment companies and golfers always wanting that extra edge, don’t expect equipment manufacturers to slow down their efforts in finding the next big innovation or improvement. This constant effort to come up with the next big idea is as much a part of the history of the game as the gutta-percha ball and the hickory shaft.
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