Most Impactful Innovations in Golf

Talking ’bout a revolution. Several really.

Trap Five LogoA recent forum post by a Carmelo Anthony fan got me thinking about the how the game of golf got to the point it is today. Respondents posted a number of very good candidates: the hybrid club, the 460cc driver, the sand wedge, and more.

A surprise in the thread on golf’s top inventions/innovations of the last 100 years was the number of people who included the backpack or two-strap carry bag in their lists of the top inventions/innovations in golf over the past 100 years. Not to dismiss the impact of the modern strap systems for carry bags, they have undoubtedly saved many backs and just generally made the game more enjoyable for others, but I don’t feel that it’s revolutionized the game. It has made it more comfortable to be sure.

The golf tee would have made my list, but the modern tee is between 110-120 years old and thus missed the cutoff. Before the tee was developed, players placed their golf balls on little piles of sand to begin play on a hole. Imagine trying to hit a 460cc driver off a pile of sand! No thanks.

The game of golf has changed tremendously in the past 100 years. Here are the innovations that I think most changed the game.

Number Five: TV and the PGA Tour
PGA Tour LogoA number of posters cited televised golf as one of the best innovations. It has undoubtedly had a huge impact on golf, but I would argue that televison is a separate innovation that has been applied to golf. It’s difficult to separate the effects the two have had on golf, and in fact, they’ve worked hand in hand to promote the game (or at least the PGA Tour), but would television bother with the sport if the PGA Tour had not worked to make the game “ready for primetime.”

Television didn’t create the “golf program.” The old Bobby Jones series predates television, having run in cinemas originally. Golf does present television with some special issues: small ball, high speeds, large playing area… The quality of TV golf is still improving, but with today’s HD television and other innovations we can finally follow the ball flight more often than not during a broadcast.

Even if it hasn’t revolutionized the game by itself, television has certainly contributed to golf’s growth over the past 40 years. Televised golf has helped millions discover the game and it’s helped bring in tons of sponsor cash, but golf as a product has been largely packaged by the PGA Tour.

Love it or hate it. The PGA Tour has done as much to change the face of golf over the past 40 years as any equipment change. The PGA Tour branched off from the PGA of America in 1968, during the heyday of Palmer, Trevino, Nicklaus, and Player. In 1968, Billy Casper was the top money winner, earning $205,169 (more than $40,000 more than either Frank Beard or Lee Trevino would win in 1969 or 1970, respectively). In 2008, Vijay Singh lead the money chase with $6,601,094 (more than $4 million less than Tiger made in 2007 and the lowest total for the top grosser since 2001). So, 40 years ago, Billy Casper made just 3% of Vijay Singh’s winnings last year. Inflation doesn’t come near explaining that kind of difference.

Television had a lot to do with that increase, but so did the PGA Tour, which negotiates the television contracts and makes sure that the golf is covered in an appealing fashion. As the week-to-week cheerleader for professional golf in this country, the PGA Tour has promoted the game to a very strong position.

Number Four: Men of Steel
Graphite shafts have helped pushed drives to averages approaching 300 yards on the major tours, but it was the steel shaft that first brought the promise of consistent play and longer golf shots to the game.

Hickory shafts were resilient enough to withstand the stresses of golf, but they were very flexible and required more skill to use successfully. Imagine all the variation in the wood and the different flexes they would produce. Great skill was required to manufacture a well matched set of clubs.

With the advent of steel shafts in the early 1900s, the variation in a set of clubs was greatly reduced. Shafts became available in different flexes accomodating more aggressive swings and longer golf shots. By 1931, TrueTemper shafts were already the number one choice of pro and amateur golfers. While the lighter weight of graphite has surplanted steel in woods and hybrids, steel shafts remain the popular choice in irons because of its consistency and feel. Manufacturers continue to find ways to make them lighter and more flexible, which means steel shafts could remain a major part of the game for another 80 or 90 years.

Number Three: Weird Science
When I started golfing in high school, way back in the late 70s, the public golf courses I played on were a little shaggier than those I play today. Fairways had less roll; greens were slower, a lot slower.

Many Thanks to Those Who Mow

That certainly wasn’t the beginning of the current maintenance revolution. The equipment that greenskeepers use to manicure golf courses has come a long way since sheep were responsible for nibbling the greens down to a playable length. Today’s mowers cut rough, fairway, and greens more uniformly. The modern greens mowers, whether one of those cool side-to-side ride alongs or the more typical walk-behind model, cut the green to lengths that would never have been possible in the past.

Of course, the grasses of the past wouldn’t have lasted long at those heights. New hybrids are creating better growing, smaller bladed grasses that create less grain on the greens and putt smoother and more truly.

Today, greenskeepers go to college to learn about grasses, air flow, irrigation, drainage, and anything else than can help keep the course in great shape. Advances in each of these sciences, along with improvements in the equipment, have made courses far better than they were just 20-30 years ago. Fairways are firmer, greens smoother, rough thicker, and everywhere better grasses are growing, well, better.

Number Two: Size Matters
It’s not so much that the modern driver is made of titanium (or at least part of it is), though that certainly does help with the distance we can achieve, the really big deal with today’s one woods is that they are, well, big.

Driver heads have more than doubled in size over the past 15 years. Many of today’s 3-woods are the same size or even larger than the drivers I grew up playing. That’s a very good thing.

The forgiveness afforded by the extra large sweetspot lets us swing harder and play longer shafts than we would have dared with persimmon. All of which means we’re able to generate a lot more swing speed and transfer that speed to the golf ball more efficiently.

The lighter weights of today’s titanium or mixed materials allow weight to be moved around in the clubhead to create any number of different effects, from reducing a slice to increasing launch angle.

In 1980, Dan Pohl lead the PGA Tour in driving distance with 274.3 yards. In 2007, it was Bubba Watson’s 315.2 average that everyone was chasing. That’s a 40-yard increase in 27 years. But it’s not just on tour that you can see the increased distance. Today, when I play a course that I knew well in high school or even college, I’m always amazed at how my drives carry far past the places I remember routinely playing my second shots from. Frankly, I love the new drivers.

Number One: It’s All in How It Bounces
Is the Ball as Long as It Can Be?One hundred years ago, the hot golf ball of the day was made of rubber threads wound around a solid rubber core. It had recently replaced the various evolutions of the gutta-percha ball, which had 60 years earlier ended the 400-year reign of the featherie. Gutta-percha lived on as a cover for the rubber ball until it was replaced by Balata. By 1908, dimples had appeared on the rubber ball, replacing various patterns such as “bramble,” “mesh,” and “reverse mesh.” Because there were no standards, size, weight, and playing characteristics varied greatly.

On January 1, 1932, the USGA standardized golf ball weight and size, based on the 1930 standards set by the British Golf Association for a slightly smaller ball. From then on, golf balls had a maximum weight of 1.620 oz. and a diameter of not less than 1.680 in. Later, the USGA limited maximum velocity to 250 feet per second. From that point forward, golf had a more level playing field.

In the last ten years, we’ve witnessed a major leap in the materials and manufacturing of the standardized ball, which has resulted in large performance gains by the pros and recreational players alike.

Abandoning a wound core for a solid one, balata covers for urethane, and adding specialized and sometimes very thin layers into the ball construction, manufacturers have been able to fine tune the performance of balls so that every level of player can now find a ball that fits his or her game perfectly. Want more spin? That’s ball A. Want distance? Ball B is for you.

While some complain that the ball has gone too far and that further improvements could jeopardize even the longest of today’s courses, I tend to think that the ball, like the driver, is pretty much at its distance limit. From 1995-20005, it was possible to walk into a golf shop, plop down some money, and walk out with another 10 or even 20 yards of drive. With the USGA’s velocity rule, even new materials will have limited effect. New dimple patterns might help keep balls in the air a little longer, or new covers might make them stop faster (even with the new groove rules). I think we are at the start of a new period of stability. Maybe it will last as long as the featherie period… but probably not.

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7 thoughts on “Most Impactful Innovations in Golf”

  1. An interesting article.

    I wouldn’t argue with any of your points, but I think you have to add modern grooves to wedges among “most impactful” innovations.

  2. I think golf balls still have another step to go. In particular we’re going to see more individualized balls designed to correct swing problems.

    The velocity may be topped at 250 ft per second, but is there any rule about what swing speed is used to produce that? Somebody is going to figure out how to create “swing speed matched” balls. Balls that acheive their max velocity when hit at a certain speed (be it 100, 90, 80, 70, or heck even 50 mph.)

    As long as the ball acheives 250 ft per second with a 90 mph swing speed, and has a LOWER velocity when hit with a higher swing speed they will be good under the rules. Yea, I know it sounds like it violates the laws of physics, but given the right combo of materials it is probably acheivable.

  3. I think golf balls still have another step to go. In particular we’re going to see more individualized balls designed to correct swing problems.

    The Titleist guys like to imply similar things, saying “If we’re approaching the end zone in terms of distance, we’re probably not even at the 50 yard line in terms of ball fitting.”

    The velocity may be topped at 250 ft per second

    To be clear, those were the old rules. The new Overall Distance Standard is a bit different and takes into aerodynamics, characteristic time, and all sorts of things.

    Balls that acheive their max velocity when hit at a certain speed (be it 100, 90, 80, 70, or heck even 50 mph.)

    I don’t think that’s physically possible, and as the Titleist guys point out in the podcast (linked already), it’s not about optimizing distance for a swing speed because even within one player’s set swing speed changes throughout the clubs, from driver to pitching wedge. What club would you optimize for? Short game and iron play account for about 70% of scoring.

    And I still doubt that what you’re suggesting is physically possible and that, if it was, it wouldn’t work throughout the set at all.

  4. You left out the sports psychologist. They have helped to make the game slower, sold more books, put on layers of urethane and balata over the brains of players. 🙂

    What about fitness? Surely that has had a huge impact on the game today. Just look at John Daly, his beer drinking and smoking surely help keep him calm when his ball is in the deep rough (he doesn’t need a sports psychologist). His beer paunch imparts great confidence to amateur players like me (who share his rotund shape). I don’t drink or smoke, but that gives me even more hope, that I room to degrade considerably and still shoot closer to par golf.

    Lastly what about the Internet and the World Wide Web that gives the forum to discuss all manner of minutiae of golf.

  5. And I still doubt that what you’re suggesting is physically possible and that, if it was, it wouldn’t work throughout the set at all.

    Oh sure it’s possible. You already see this with long drive competitions. I’ve read several times long drive competitors saying there was a limit to how hard they could hit the ball. If they went over that speed the ball actually didn’t go as far as it does if hit at a slower speed. My guess is that at those higher speeds the ball compresses to the point that the ball design breaks down and no longer functions as designed.

    Do ball makers test what happens when a ball is struck with a 150 mph swing? No, because none of their customers swing that fast. My guess is as long as the ball performs well at swing speeds of 120 mph and below they’re good. They don’t care how the ball performs at higher swing speeds.

    You can take that approach to design a ball for lower swing speeds as well. As long as the ball performs well for a 90 mph swing speed and below you’re good. You don’t care what happens at higher swing speeds. 80 mph. 70 mph. 60 mph. You get the picture.

  6. There is no such word as “impactful”. You’re welcome.

    My guess is that at those higher speeds the ball compresses to the point that the ball design breaks down and no longer functions as designed.

    Clearly you weren’t talking about overly deforming the ball. You were talking about normal swing speeds. A ball optimized for a guy swinging at 80 MPH will still go further if he swings at 90 100, or 120 MPH. Once you get into LDA speeds, it breaks down (almost literally).

    And we already have balls that are aimed at slightly slower swingers. All I’m saying is that those balls will not travel further for the slower swingers than for the faster swingers. 100 MPH will always send the ball further than 90 MPH (assuming, of course, that contact, backspin, and launch angles are as optimal for each).

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