Golf is a sport like no other, because while it has been played for centuries it has also been evolving the whole time. Did you know that some of the first golf balls were essentially small feather pillows? Or that some of the greatest social shifts in golf have taken place in just the past few years?
From drastic revisions in its most fundamental equipment, to internal revolutions in its culture, the game we know and love today is both the same and very different from how it began.
The Equipment Evolution
The equipment necessary for the game of golf has evolved significantly over the centuries, and while each iteration improved on previous generations, each also required some adaptation from players.
Golf Balls: from Box Trees to Chemical Resin
The first golf balls were made of hardwood, and, later, leather pouches stuffed with feathers (“featheries”)
“In 1848,” notes author and journalist Robert Silk, “Dr. Robert Adams invented the gutta-percha golf ball. The durability and distance of the gutta-percha in comparison to the earlier feathery ball transformed how the sport was played. Equally important, by replacing the expensive feathery, the gutta-percha opened golf to the masses.”
Golf balls continue to transform today—from convex dimples to concave, and rubber to resin covers.
“In the early 90’s, the golf ball changed dramatically,” explained Ryan Young, an avid golfer and founder of Front9Back9. “We started seeing a huge change from a balata ball to two-piece balls. I think this started the revolution into what we know today as, ‘modern golf equipment.’”
Today, golf balls might have up to six pieces. Who knows where they might be headed.
Golf Clubs: Molding the Perfect Swing
Clubs have become more and more sophisticated as well, but where new golf balls required new skills from players, new clubs gave them new advantages.
Take the hybrid golf club: “First introduced by TaylorMade in 1979,” explains Golf for Cause CEO Debbie Waitkus, “the hybrid golf club accentuates the importance of advanced technology in equipment, which in turn helps golfers of all abilities play better and engage more passionately in the sport.”
Young explained the effect of new golf clubs on courses: “Different metals were discovered to improve the golf clubs, and equipment manufacturers began to come up with different ways to mold golf clubs. This led to moving the weight around to different positions, and changing the center of gravity. Now, you go to the golf store and there are thousands of models, all with their own technology. Golf courses are longer, and you can attribute this to Tiger Woods along with drastic equipment evolution.”
As new technologies have allowed manufacturers to improve clubs, the courses, strategies, and expectations have all shifted accordingly. Those kinds of fundamental shifts will move the culture of the game as well.
Golf Culture Goes Global
The modern game of golf originated in Scotland, but most observers would not identify golf as a “Scottish game” the way many might attribute cricket to England or baseball to America.
Silk explained why: “Francis Ouimet’s win in the 1913 U.S. Open over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The young amateur’s shocking upset heralded a new popularity for golf in the United States, and set the stage for American dominance in the Scottish game.”
Another huge advance for golf didn’t happen anywhere near a fairway, but in millions of homes across America. “1953 marked the first televised golf tournament,” said Waitkus. “1990 brought the Golf Channel to millions of viewers. Presenting golf to a television audience has welcomed the game to all demographics – not just in the U.S., but around the globe. Viewers can observe … a variety of professional tours … [and they have] the opportunity to glean tips on golf instruction and game performance, golf travel and destinations, and other interesting topics tied to the game and lifestyle.
The game of golf has come a long way from being a Scottish gentleman’s game. The LPGA/USGA Girls Golf launched in 1989 to teach the game to girls, and in 2012 the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club opened it’s membership to women. The sport is enjoyed and played today by people of all ages, ethnicities, and economic statuses.
The Tiger in the Room
Technical advancements lead to cultural advancements, which make room for new records and great moments.
In Young’s lifetime, for example, he believes that one of the the sports’ biggest moments is when Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters:
“This by far is the greatest moment that has changed the game of golf,” he says. “This is what effectively started the ‘Tiger Era,’ and led to all the changes the game has experienced up until today: things like golf courses being ‘Tiger-Proofed,’ prize money doubling and tripling, and more people picking up the game. These three things are just the tip of the iceberg. More importantly, Tiger Woods became the first African-American, and youngest player, to ever win a golf major championship. He did it in dominating fashion: winning by 12 strokes.”
But as Silk points out, even Tiger Woods stands on the shoulders of players before him:
“Jack [Nicklaus]‘s win at the 1986 Masters. There has never been a better tournament. We wouldn’t have been talking about Tiger’s quest for 18 for all these years had Jack not won #18 on that amazing April afternoon.”
Every player and fan remembers a win, a player, or a moment that changed everything. The game of golf is ever advancing.
How About A Game?
Where is the great game of golf headed? It’s hard to say, but most players and fans are content to take it one tee at a time. Golf can be a competitive sport, but for the most part it is relaxing and relational. Hopefully we’ll see you out on the green soon!