Golf Club Technology: Where We Started and Where We Are Now

Published on 10/04/2023 · 14 min readFrom humble beginnings to cutting-edge innovations, deep dive into the evolution of golf club technology in this comprehensive article!
Brendon Elliott, Golf Expert
By Golf Expert Brendon Elliott

Photo by Dan Thornberg

In 1764, on the hallowed grounds of the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, golf as we know it today, where 18 holes are played, was created. Golf is a game of tradition. That aspect of the sport draws many to it each and every year. For others, some segments of that tradition may seem unappealing.

Photo by Ryan Caven

Over the past two decades, those who govern and serve the game of golf have made many adaptations to how it is presented to the masses, perhaps in an attempt to help modernize its appeal. It is a delicate balance, trying to preserve this ancient game's traditions and still make it inviting to the millions who have some interest in it but do not yet participate. Topgolf, PopStroke, indoor golf facilities where you play simulated rounds or practice on a screen, Toptracer technology on driving ranges, affordable hand-held simulators, radar devices, and more have made the game more appealing to many.

Much has changed in those two and a half centuries since “modern” golf was first introduced. But what precisely has changed in terms of technology and the equipment used to play golf? That question will be the topic of this article. We will take a journey through golf’s past and present, examine the tech that goes into golfers' clubs, and look at when significant changes happened throughout history.

From the feathery ball to today's modern three-, four-, and even five-piece balls, from hickory shafts to hundreds of different graphite exotic shaft options, and from a clubhead that wasn't much bigger than a golf ball to today's large, game-improvement heads, golf equipment has changed a great deal.

The Evolution of the Golf Ball

As we explore the history of golf equipment and the technological advancements over the years, it is important to note that golf balls, irons, hybrids, fairway woods, drivers, wedges, and putters all need to fall within specific parameters to be deemed conforming within the rules of the game. Within the rules of golf, the ball used to play must be no less than 1.680 inches in diameter. In terms of the weight of the ball, it can not be any more than 1.620 oz. Testing of equipment is conducted by the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the R&A to ensure that the limits of technology do not go too far within the game. The R&A is the Royal and Ancient, the European equivalent of the USGA here in America. The two work together as the governing bodies of golf regarding rules and standards.

Early Golf Balls

Old wooden golf ball. Photo by Photo Melon

Pre-modern golf, which, again, we are defining as having started in 1764 and going back to the 14th century when a game remarkably similar to the modern game was being played, used golf balls that were made out of wood.

The Hairy Golf Ball was played from the late 1400s and on through to the early 1600s. This ball was made of leather and filled with cow hair or straw. These golf balls were sowed by hand and primarily produced in the Netherlands; however, in the mid-1500s, they started to be produced in Scotland.

The Featherie Golf Ball was introduced in the early 1600s. This new rendition of the golf ball was similar to the Hairy, but goose or chicken feathers were used instead of cow hair or straw. The use of feathers allowed for greater stuffing of the inners of the ball than cow hair and straw. This made for a ball that was more solid and, in turn, could fly further.

The Featherie was an expensive golf ball at the time. Being handmade and having to allow for a drying and painting process, this type of ball was time-consuming to create, and because of that, the cost was much higher than it was for the Hairy. Because of this, many golfers still used the Hairy as it was cheaper to purchase.

Like all balls that were made during this time, there were a lot of inconsistencies from one ball to the next. Poorly made balls would often split and become unusable due to poor construction.

The Early Modern Golf Ball

In 1848, Dr. Robert Adams Paterson invented what would be one of the first predecessors of today's modern golf ball. The Gutta-Percha Ball, often called the Guttie, was made from the dried sap of the Malaysian Sapodilla tree. By heating up the sap, a ball could be formed. The sap of the Malaysian Sapodilla tree was very rubber-like, making it much easier to make than the Featherie. Guttie’s could be produced much more cheaply and consistently than previous golf ball renditions.

Almost by mistake, it was discovered that when a Guttie started to get some nicks and dings on it, the flight characteristics actually improved, and it became more aerodynamic. After this was discovered, manufacturers intentionally made molds with patterns of bumps on the balls. This was the predecessor of the dimple patterns we see in today's modern golf balls.

In 1898, Coburn Haskell and Bertram Work of the B.F. Goodrich Company invented a golf ball, which became known as the Haskell Golf Ball, by putting a thin cover around a rubber inner core.

The process of making this ball involved putting a thin outer cover, made of balata, around either a liquid-filled or solid round inner core, which was then wound with a layer of rubber thread to create a larger secondary inner core.

Over the years, the process of making what was once known as the Haskell Golf Ball has become more streamlined, efficient, and modernized. Make no mistake; however, today's modern golf ball was born because of Coburn Haskell and Bertram Work way back in 1898.

The Modern Golf Ball

Photo by Antpkr

Fast forward to the 1960s, and we have the creation of a new synthetic resin called Surlyn. This Surlyn, along with new Urethane blends, are what we know as today’s modern golf ball coverings. With these modern ball coverings and new materials, golf balls now had very durable covers that would last much longer than previously made golf balls.

Through these discoveries in the 1960s, combined with the process of ball-making invented by Coburn Haskell and Bertram Work in 1898, golf balls began to look a lot like what we know them to be today. Eventually, golf balls started to be classified by how many layers they had and how they were constructed. Balls were either two-piece, three-piece, or four-piece balls.

In 1967, Jim Bartsch of Spalding Golf patented and developed a solid golf ball. This solid ball is basically a two-piece ball with no layering. It is made of a solid core with a thin outer cover, often made of Surlyn or Urethane.

Today’s modern golf balls come in the following constructions:

Two-Piece Golf Balls

  • Solid core made of acrylate or resin
  • Covered in Surlyn or a similar kind of material
  • Very durable
  • Low spin
  • More of a “Distance Ball”
  • Examples:
    • Callaway Supersoft
    • Maxfli Straightfli
    • Titleist Velocity
    • Top Flite XL Distance
    • TaylorMade Distance+
    • Srixon Soft Feel

Three-Piece Golf Balls

  • A solid core made of solid rubber or a liquid core
  • A secondary rubber or a liquid-produced layer
  • Covered in Surlyn, Urethane, or a balata-like material
  • Durable but softer than a two-piece ball
  • More noticeable spin
  • A ball for better players who want some workability and spin
  • Examples:
    • Bridgestone Tour B X
    • Callaway Chrome Soft
    • Maxfli Tour
    • Titleist Pro V1
    • TaylorMade Tour Response
    • Srixon Z-Star
    • Srixon Q-Star Tour

Four-Piece Golf Balls

  • A solid core made of solid rubber
  • The second layer is an inner cover to help transfer energy from the core
  • The third layer is a middle inner cover that helps to increase both distance and spin
  • Covered in Urethane
  • Constructed to maximize both distance off the tee and spin around the green
  • A ball for better players who want a little bit of everything from their ball
  • Examples:
    • Callaway Chrome Soft X
    • Maxfli Tour X
    • Titleist Pro V1x
    • Srixon Z-STAR XV

Five-Piece Golf Balls

  • A solid core made of solid rubber
  • Has three mantle layers to help increase both speed and spin
  • Covered in Urethane
  • Constructed to optimize performance as much as possible
  • A ball for better players who want a little bit of everything from their ball
  • The most expensive of all golf balls
  • Examples:
    • TaylorMade TP5
    • TaylorMade TP5 X

The Evolution of Iron and Wood Design

Photo by Richard van der Spuy

Like the golf ball, golf clubs have also had a very interesting evolution since the game's early days. As we explore golf clubs and their history, I want you to remember the date of 1764, as mentioned at the onset of this article. Remember that date, as it will be our timestamp of when the modern game started.

Before that placemark in the history of golf, in the year 1764, games very similar to golf were being played. An interesting footnote in the evolution of golf, as it pertains to the equipment used, was a record of the first commissioned set of golf clubs. Around 1500, King James IV of Scotland was said to have hired William Mayne to craft him a set of clubs. After completing the King's clubs, Mayne was made his majesty’s Royal Club Maker. This is the first record of the title “Club Maker” being used.

Most who played golf or early renditions of the game during the 1400s and 1500s would make clubs themselves out of wood. Eventually, more skilled craftsmen were called on to make clubs for those who played the game.

By the 1500s, golf clubs were made of shafts from ash and occasionally hazel trees, and clubheads were made from harder wood trees such as apple, holly, and beech. Clubheads and shafts were bound together by twine or leather.

Early clubmakers would occasionally experiment with different materials and incorporate them into the head of the club to help make them stronger and more durable. However, It was not until around the time St. Andrews changed the sport forever in 1764 that iron would start being used in club construction.

Names of Golf Clubs Over The Game’s History

1500's1700'sModern
LongnosesDriverDriver
LongnosesBrassie2 Wood
Grassed DriversSpoon3 Wood
Grassed DriversWooden Cleek4 Wood
Grassed DriversDriving Iron1 Iron
Grassed DriversMid Iron2 Iron
Grassed DriversMid Mashie3 Iron
SpoonsMashie Iron4 Iron
SpoonsMashie5 Iron
SpoonsSpade Mashie6 Iron
SpoonsMashie Niblick7 Iron
NiblicksLofting Iron8 Iron
NiblicksNiblick9 Iron
NiblicksNiblickPitching Wedge
First lofted wedge-type clubs came in the 1930'sGap Wedge
Sand Wedge
Lob Wedge
CleekPutting CleekPutter

Forged Clubheads (Middle to Late 1800s)

In the mid to late 1800s, factory iron forging was introduced. This process allowed for iron golf clubheads to be mass-produced. This was one of the most significant advancements in the history of golf club manufacturing.

Steel Shafts (1890s)

Steel shafts were experimented with by club makers in the UK in the 1890s, but they didn't make their way over the pond until the 1920s. In 1924, the USGA allowed for steel shafts to be played within the rules. The R&A did not allow steel shafts, according to the rules of golf, until 1929. The use of iron shafts was another one of the game's significant historical advancements in club design.

Grooves on Clubfaces (Early 1900s)

In the early 1900s, Edgar Burr discovered that a golfer could increase backspin and generate more distance by having grooves on the club face. These groves would become prevalent on the faces of clubs shortly after their origin.

The Sand Wedge (1928)

Photo by Peter Drew

Contrary to popular legend, the sand wedge, as we know it today, was not invented by Gene Sarazen in 1932. It was actually invented and patented by Edwin MacClain in 1928. Sarazen was a very early adopter of the sand wedge and used it to win events beginning in 1932.

Fiberglass Shafts (1954)

Amazingly, the first fiberglass shaft in golf was produced in 1954 by Golfcraft. In an official announcement from Golfcraft, they proclaimed that their shaft was one of the game's biggest revolutionary products to date. They were definitely onto something, but fiberglass shafts still took some time and tinkering before they started to show real promise.

In 1962, the Shakespeare Golf Company introduced its Wonder shafts. In a second rendition of their original, they had then PGA Tour star Gary Player use and endorse the Black Knight model. These shafts proved not ideal for the average golfer.

Cast Iron Head Production (1963)

In 1963, the casting method of manufacturing clubheads was introduced. The popularity of cast heads grew in the 1970s as they made for more forgiving clubs and were much more affordable. This was a significant advancement for high handicappers, allowing them to hit quality shots more often and not break the bank in buying a new set.

Aluminum Shafts (1965)

In 1965, True Temper and LeFell Sport both introduced an aluminum golf shaft. Both of these shafts were slight improvements on previous tries at Fibreglass but still were not ideal for most amateur golfers.

As was the case with Gary Player promoting the Shakespeare Golf Company’s Black Knight Wonder shaft, LeFell found some moderate success with Arnold Palmer playing their shaft in the 1967 Los Angeles Open. Eventually, that success faded when the shaft, in many amateurs' hands, was found not to be the best option.

Graphite Shafts (1970)

Remember the Shakespeare Company that launched their Fibreglass Wonder shaft in 1967? They did not give up on their mission of making game enhancement shafts. In 1967, they hired a young man, Frank Thomas. The South African, who would become one of golf’s most brilliant minds, helped develop one of golf's most significant advancements in club manufacturing.

In 1970, at the PGA Merchandise Show, Frank helped introduce the graphite shaft. These shafts provided golfers the opportunity for increased speed and greater distance. Today’s modern graphite shafts are made from various materials that help improve performance.

Metal Woods (1979)

Many may think that the advent of the metal wood came in 1991 with Callawy’s Big Bertha. In actuality, Taylor-Made was the first company to produce metal club-headed woods. In 1979, TaylorMade introduced their 12-degree TaylorMade Original Driver, some 12 years before the Big Bertha was introduced. That first metal wood head from TaylorMade started Gary Adam's mission to make persimmon woods a thing of the past.

Unfortunately for Adam’s, it took the craze of Callawy’s Big Bertha driver in 1991 to really turn the tides in making persimmon a historical relic in golf.

Hybrid Clubs (1998)

The fusion between a long iron and metal wood, widely known today as the hybrid, was officially introduced to the golf world in 1998. Cobra Golf’s Baffler was the first to introduce this concept; however, similar designs date back to the late 1970s.

Moveable Weight Technology (2004)

When TaylorMade Golf introduced the R7 Quad, it literally turned the golf world on its head. For the first time ever, a driver's head had the ability for the golfer to easily adjust weights on the clubhead to help them with ball flight.

This was a game-changer moment in golf. Customization was out there before this, but it took a club fitter to make those adjustments. Now, however, the individual golfer could do it on their own using a handy dandy tool that came with the purchase of the driver. A weight set also came with the driver, and you got a lot of weight to play with…up to 24g in total.

Sliding Weight Technology (2007)

In 2007, Mizuno Golf launched the MP-600 driver, which was golf’s first driver to offer sliding weight technology. And yes, I said Mizuno Golf, which is more regularly known for its innovative and beautifully designed irons.

Wrapping Things Up

Photo by Everett Collection

Golf has an extensive and rich history that has seen many advancements throughout the two-and-a-half-centuries it has been played. There are undoubtedly many more technological advancements in equipment and manufacturing that I did not touch on today. However, this summary should prove suitable in giving you a glimpse into the extraordinary advancements that have been made in golf as it pertains to the equipment we use today.

If you want to learn more about golf equipment history, have other equipment questions, or even need a swing tip or two, your next best step would be to contact a Curated Golf Expert for free, personalized advice or answers to your questions.

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