The History of the Golf Club
As a result of people finding my other Web pages on antique golf clubs, I've had several requests for information on the history of the golf club. There are a number of books on golf history, (see below), but many of these are hard to find. Some of the good sources are out of print. So I felt there would be some interest in a short piece on golf clubs and their history. This isn't a definitive history, and certainly not an academic treatise. It provides an outline of the subject, some thoughts of my own, and a list of books that you can try to track down.
[When I wrote this piece in February 1998, there was practically nothing on the Web about golf history. Searching on the phrases "golf history" or "golf antiques" in the major search engines will now turn up a number of useful Web links: many more than it did a year or so ago. DN, June 1999]
History of the Game
Golf's origins are lost in history, but in its present form it is generally agreed to have been played in Scotland near St Andrews in the late 1400s. A lot has been said about fanciful links to a game played on frozen ponds in Holland earlier, but I think the connection with Golf is too tenuous to be credible. Golf as we know it was first recorded in Scotland in the region around Edinburgh in the 15th Century.
It became quite notorious then, and was even banned for a while by the King of Scotland, as golfers had become so obsessed with the game that they neglected their archery practice. (Not much has changed.)
In the subsequent 500 years, the game has advanced from one played with simple hand made clubs and leather balls stuffed with feathers to the game we know today, based on clubs designed by computer using advanced materials such as titanium and zirconia. The biggest changes to the game have been in systematisation of the rules and playing field, and the technology employed in the clubs and the balls.
Actually hitting the golf ball towards the hole remains a dark art. It is as much a mystery now as it was in Fifeshire in the 1400s!
Factors influencing the design of clubs
There are a number of factors that have influenced club design, particularly irons. These are the nature of the terrain in which they were used, the technology available to make them, the rules set up to govern what could or could not be used, and in recent years, physics and computer aided design. A major influence has been the golf ball itself. New club styles have tended to follow innovations in ball design.
Firstly, terrain. The early irons were used somewhat sparingly because they could easily destroy the "feathery" golf balls of the day (to about 1850). Most shots were accomplished by a range of wooden clubs. The "rutting iron" was used to extract balls that had landed in cart wheel ruts. Wooden clubs in a variety of shaft lengths and face lofts were used for most shots.
Second, technology. Iron clubs were made by blacksmiths until perhaps the 1870s. As a result they were rather crude, heavy implements with massive hosels (shanks). They were hard to use and when drop forging became widely available, the mass of the clubs decreased considerably. The words "hand forged" on the back of hickory shaft clubs in the 1900s was in fact a misnomer, as the only thing done by hand by that time was the impressing of the makers name and cleek mark.
The advent of drop forging in the late 1800s meant better iron clubs could be mass produced in factories. Wooden headed clubs were usually hand made by the local golf professionals until perhaps 1910, when factories started to make them due to the huge demand, as a result of golf's enormous growth in popularity.
The period from 1900 to 1930 was marked by many innovations in club design, such as the hollow faced irons (which didn't work); Walter Hagen's concave faced (now illegal) sand iron with the extended flange, a variant of Gene Sarazen's initial idea (still universal); a club that could be adjusted to give different lofts; the drilled hosels of the "Maxwell" irons intended to lighten the club head, and experimentation with a variety of alloys. There were many bizarre clubs made in this period, such as the "giant niblicks" whose faces measured over 6 inches (15cm) across!
Probably the most important change was the move from smooth faces on the irons to the grooves we use today. This started around 1908. The designers realised that you could get more backspin on a ball with a grooved club, and that this led to more distance. The coming of the modern golf ball in 1905, which displaced the solid "gutty", went hand in hand with this.
Steel shafts were introduced in the US in around 1925, and became standard everywhere from the mid 1930s, as they did not break like hickory shafts and could be produced reliably with uniform feel in matched sets.
Since the 1980s, computers have been used increasingly to design clubs and balls. Materials such as graphite shafts and titanium "metal woods" have come into widespread use in the last 20 years. Just how much help they give the average golfer is a matter for debate!
The coming of the steel shaft in the late 1920s led to a more uniform club style, and this was aided by the third factor, the regulation of what was allowed. Many of the more peculiar items were ruled out, such as the adjustable loft club. There have been many advances materials that could be used in golf balls, but in the interest of a "level playing field", most of these have been ruled illegal.
The history of regulations of golfing equipment is as complex as any part of the history of golf. As innovations were introduced, they were looked at by the world's golfing authorities - the US Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews - to see if they gave the user an unfair advantage. If so the innovation was either ruled out or its application controlled within defined limits - for example the width and depth of club face grooves.
One reason for regulation has been the need to maintain the competitiveness of the older golf courses, and the investment in them. Having equipment that could reach a Par 5 green in two shots for the average golfer would reduce the challenge and caliber of the courses. So there's now a law of diminishing returns imposed on equipment designers by the ruling bodies.
What's in a name?
The 1920s also marked the change of names of the clubs from terms like cleek, mid-iron, mashie, jigger and niblick to the familiar numbering system (which arose in the US). The names of the wooden clubs took a bit longer to change from driver, spoon and brassie, but the coming of the new "metal wood" varieties has made these names archaic, with the exception of the driver. The lofts of the clubs and their shaft lengths also became standardised with the number system, though things had undoubtedly been heading that way much earlier.
The future is here
The final phase has been the adaptation of computer aided design (CAD) to club design. This has led to some odd designs, but all the major manufacturers use CAD these days. Using finite element analysis you can go a long way to simulating club performance before manufacture.
The peripherally weighted irons in widespread use today, designed to "expand" the sweet spot on the club face, are a recent and effective attempt to do something which designers have tried to do since 1900, in one way or another.
The benefits from changes to the design of clubs have been less spectacular in recent years, with arguably the major effect being on the psychology of the golfer. If you have the latest "Whammo" monster driver, you just know you're going the hit the ball as far as Greg Norman. Objectively, the improvements have been more modest.
And finally, the golf ball and its effect
You can look at the history of golf in three eras, based on the type of ball used. The design of clubs has tended to follow improvements in golf ball design.
From its beginnings to the mid 1800s, the "feathery" golf ball was used. This was made from leather in three pieces (two disks and a rectangular strip) stuffed with "one Top-Hat full of fine feathers"!
Perhaps because it was easy to damage these balls and they were hand made and expensive, golfers mainly used wooden clubs (easier on the ball), though iron headed clubs were used to get the ball out of cart ruts. The shafts of all these clubs were made out of local European woods like Ash. The heads of the wooden clubs were long and thin, and they were known for this reason as "long-nose woods".
Another reason for their prevalence may have been their relative ease of manufacture.
The first big change came with the "gutty" ball around 1850. This was made from a solid molded rubber called gutta-percha. It was much stronger than the feathery, and a range of iron clubs were introduced, as they gave the golfer better control over the ball and the ability to hit it out of difficult lies. The introduction of golf into America in the early 1800s lead to hickory wood being used in the shafts of the clubs. This was found to be far more durable than other woods and it became standard until steel shafts were introduced in about 1925.
The next revolution in ball design came around 1905 with the patented "Haskell" ball, which is a composite of a solid core wound with thin strips of rubber. Some modern balls (the expensive ones) are made this way today. This ball performed much better than the gutty and could be made cheaply compared to earlier balls.
The surface shape of the ball was also an area of considerable experimentation. Early gutty balls were smooth. Users found that they flew further once they had developed nicks and cuts from play. They started to pre-score their golf balls to achieve this effect. It didn't take the manufacturers long to apply patented surface shapings to the balls.
Initially these surface moldings took the form of grooves and later bumps. The "bump" design was known as the bramble pattern, probably due to a resemblance to the blackberry. Around 1910, balls with small dimples were devised. These flew further than the bramble pattern balls. Initially the dimples were square but the golf ball makers found that round dimples in the ball surface made it fly even further and this has been the standard since about 1920.
Along with this ball, club makers found that you could get better backspin and better distance if you put grooves on the club face. Some of the early grooved clubs had very wide deep grooves. These were deemed to give the player an unfair advantage and the width of grooves has now been strictly limited.
If you want one source of information about golf club technology that will probably tell you more than any other, I'd suggest you explore the deeper recesses of the Patent Office. All the new club technologies - and many that never made it to the market - are to be found there, dating back to the 1880s.
There are several excellent books on the subject of the history of golf and golf clubs. I've listed them below with their ISBN numbers to aid you in tracking them down.
Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles, John M Olman and Morton W Olman, Books Americana, Florence, Alabama, 1985. (ISBN 0-89689-050-3)
Olmans' Guide to Golf Antiques, John M Olman and Morton W Olman, Market Street Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1992. (ISBN 0-972117-02-6)
Golf in the Making, Ian T Henderson and David I Stirk, Sean Arnold, London, 2nd edn., 1982. (ISBN 0 9516078 0 4)
Golf: the Great Club Makers, David I Stirk, H.F.&G. Witherby Ltd, London, 1992. (ISBN 0-85493-204-6)
Collecting Old Golfing Clubs, Alick A Watt, A.A.Watt & Son, Alton, Hants, 2nd edn., 1990. (ISBN 09510923 1 6)
This is a rough guide to the history of golf equipment. It's bound to contain errors and I welcome any .
Please note: I usually get several queries a week asking about golf history. I try to answer these as quickly as I can, but sometimes other things intervene (ie work!) so there can be some delay in getting a reply. Also, some replies I have sent have returned to me as undeliverable. Please make sure your email address is correct!
Copyright © David Nicholls 1998, 1999. No part of this article may be reproduced by any means without explicit permission in writing from the author.