The eyes of golf lovers worldwide are currently on the Augusta National Golf Club as Augusta, GA, hosts the 2014 Masters Golf Tournament. This ancient game, first thought to have been played by the Scots in the Fourteenth Century, is today much different than it was even a hundred years ago. Even novice golfers are playing better than ever before—the average handicap of golfers has decreased consistently over the past 15 years. What can account for this? Golf innovations have made playing easier, and recent equipment innovations have taken playing to a whole new level. Let’s look at the history of the basic rules and equipment used at the Masters Tournament today.
The Golf Ball
The modern golf ball—round, white, dimpled, and solid—has only been in use since the late 1960s. The first golf balls in use were hard round wooden balls made by carpenters from beech and box trees. Imagine being hit at high speed with that projectile!
The Fourteenth Century also brought us of the Feathery, a hand-sewn round leather pouch filled with chicken or goose feather (thus giving it is unique name). The creation of a feathery was a long process, as the feathers were boiled and softened before being placed in the pouches. Experienced craftsmen could only make a few balls per day, but few of them were perfectly round and often went off course. Wet balls decreased speed and threatened to split open.
Gutty & Brambles
The Nineteenth Century brought the Gutty, made from the dried sap of a sapodilla tree. This brought improved playing as the rubber-like ball could be heated and shaped into a sphere. It was discovered that the nicks produced by normal wear made the gutties more consistent in flight than the round balls, so makers began to create indentations on the surface with a knife or hammer and chisel. These new balls were nicknamed Brambles due to their similarity to bramble fruit.
The Rubber Haskell Ball
Named for inventor Coburn Haskell, this ball made its debut in1898, after Haskell wound rubber thread into a ball and covered with a thin outer shell of balata sap. Also in the early 1900s, the inversion of the dimples was found to produce even more control over a ball’s trajectory, flight, and spin than the protruding-dimpled bramble balls. These balls would be used into the late Twentieth Century.
Spalding and other synthetic resin balls
The mid-1960s brought a new synthetic resin called Surlyn as well as urethane blends for ball covers, which proved more durable than balata. Further developments brought golf ball classifications of two-, three- or four-piece balls, according to the under of layered components. In 1967, Spalding purchased a patent for the solid golf ball and created a chemical resin that removed the need for layered components. Known as the Executive model, Spalding created and distributed the first solid golf ball.
The Golf Club
The creation and use of golf clubs depending on a number of factors, including the terrain in which the golfers played, current technology, and the rules that detailed what equipment could be utilized. Clubs also have changed to keep up with advances in golf ball creation.
Early Iron Clubs
Early irons were created from wood with a variety of shaft lengths, as these clubs were less likely to damage the Featheries in use at the time. Iron clubs, made until the 1870s by blacksmiths, were heavy, crude, and hard to use but improved after the advent of drop forging brought factory-built systemization to the club creation.
The early Twenty-first Century brought many club innovations, both good and bad, along with the growing popularity of the game, including hollowed face irons, concave-faced sand irons, clubs adjusted to give different lofts, and drilled club heads for less weight, and use of a number of different alloys.
Most important was the change from the smooth iron faces to the use of grooves, starting in approximately 1908. Designers noted players could achieve more backspin on a ball with a grooved club, which led to more distance. This change happened almost simultaneously with the replacement of the Gutty with more modern golf balls.
Steel Cleeks, Mashies & Niblicks
Steel shafts replaced hickory in the first quarter of the 1900s, becoming standard ten years later. Steel was less likely to break and could be produced for reliably and uniformly. The 1920s brought club name changes, from “cleeks,” “mashies,” and “niblicks” to the numbering system developed in the United States. “Metal Wood” varieties replaced “drivers,” “spoons,” and “barssies.”
Computer Designed Clubs
The 1980s brought computer technology into the design of golf clubs, and graphite shafts and titanium metal woods have been in use over the past 20 years.
Rules and Regulations
While you may not think of rules of the game of golf as an “invention,” these innovations are indeed created intellectual property and have both responded to and helped shape material innovations.
Before standardization of rules, various clubs held their own rule sets. As innovations were introduced, the U.S. Golf Association and the St. Andrews Royal and Ancient Golf Club reviewed them to ensure no users were given unfair advantages. This led to some new products to be ruled out or its application limited, to maintain competitiveness of older courses. The game is governed by the jointly produced Rules of Golf.
The earliest set of known rules dates back to the 1744 Gentlemen Golfers of Leith “Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf.” Many of these rules are still in use today, including those on order of play, outside interference, and making a stroke.
Just as important as the Rules of Golf is the etiquette practiced by the players, which are designed to make the game safe, enjoyable, and fair for all. Course authorities may remove players who breach proper etiquette for violation of the spirit of the game. Severe breaches may include course damage, distraction of other golfers during play, or attempts to use the rules to gain unfair advantage.
Rule changes in the 2012-15 Edition of Rules of Golf impacting the Masters Tournament today include one covering “Ball Moving After Address,” for which a penalty was given during the final round of the 2011 Open Championship.
Innovation and technology can have an immense effect on the way we play the game of golf today. What innovations do you think are having the most impact on this year’s Masters Tour? Comment below!