I believe that golf has gone through three distinct eras, with each of these eras defined by the equipment of their times. The three eras are: hickory, steel, and "metal." The first two refer to shafts, while the third refers to the heads of drivers. There have been great golfers within each of these eras and a few like Tiger Woods pushed the era changeover to take place. I know that separating these eras as I have is a bit of an oversimplification, but nonetheless each is important in its own way.
I will be the first to admit that I do not know much about the hickory era. There will be some argument, but the greatest player from this era is likely Bobby Jones. Only if you are the truest of traditionalist will you play the game with the equipment from this era. I have used a replica of Calamity Jane, which is the putter used by Bobby Jones, and even that putter is pretty darn hard to hit. I can only imagine trying to hit a driver consistently along with the lousy golf balls from that era. Still, it is the considered by many as the start of the modern game as we know it.
Golf's next era, which I coin the Steel Shaft era, is believed by many to be the golden age of golf. There are numerous superstars from this era, Ben Hogan, who started in the hickory era, but was not dominate until the steel shaft era was in full swing. Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and more modern players such as Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Arnold Palmer were the strength of this era. Some of the best ball strikers to ever play the game came from this era. Certainly one of the two best golfers ever to walk the earth came from this group, Jack Nicklaus. Without a doubt he was the best player from this era and the most dominate golfer. You can still find groups of golfer today who find this era so compelling that they continue to play golf with the throwback blades and persimmon drivers that came from this era.
The final era, which is today's modern era, I term the metal wood era. This era likely started around 1980 or so, but the cut-offs to my eras are not hard dates. Stainless steel was the first metal to be used for drivers and fairway woods and there was a not a huge difference between them and the persimmon driver. There were some benefits, but in terms of size and performance it was not overly dramatic. Titanium changed all of that. The size of the drivers went bonkers. Add into this distance recipe, a new golf ball that goes really straight, and golfers working out and becoming true athletes, and a new era of golf has been created. This era has revamped course architecture making some courses obsolete or forced to by more land as Augusta has done. This era is full of great players but the scene has for the most part been dominated by one man.
Tiger Woods is not responsible for the equipment in this era, but he is responsible for the work out programs that now grace our game. At Stanford, Tiger was a skinny kid who looked like most of the golfers who played the game. By 1998 he was looking more like a middle linebacker than a typical golfer. This forced all the new golfers who have joined the Tour in recent years to be more athletically gifted and have a strict work out plan. This is not to say that golfers in previous eras did not work out, but I believe Tiger took it to another level.
If you ask me to pick, my favorite is the steel shaft era. To be fair I have never played in the hickory era, but the game seemed pretty hard then. Having played in the other two, I feel there is a level of precision that I prefer in the steel shaft era. I watch high school kids play on our golf course and each and every one of them swings out of their shoes at the ball. We could not swing that way with the persimmon driver because a mishit was such a severe penalty. I also enjoyed the creativity that the balata ball gave me in being able to shape my shot as well. The game in the steel shafted era rewarded a golfer for hitting the sweet spot consistently, with today's driver a mishit almost goes as far as a well struck one.
Still, golf today is still a very challenging game. Even we have made such dramatic improvements in the equipment handicaps really haven't improved that much, and the game itself has adapted by making longer golf courses for us to play. I am also not advocating the game switch back, every game evolves and improves and golf is no exception.
Photo credits: © Associated Press.