Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Evolution of Golf

Take a glance at the kind of clubs used by greats such as Bobby Jones, and you wonder if it would have been able to cause bodily harm to another person, let alone send the ball soaring away into the distance. No wonder then, it is safely enshrined in some Golf Museum today.

One look at the type of equipment available these days and you are forced to think whether the skill quotient is fading away from the game. The amount of research that goes into trying to develop a new club is mind boggling and the result is for all to see. It is almost like having to play in the auto pilot mode. You just let the club do the talking!

In the first half of the 20th century when the “Benny” Putter was first manufactured it was considered “revolutionary” for the kind of handgrip it provided. Compare that with some of the putters that are produced these days and you wonder whether we are still talking about the same sport! Now factors like Moment of Inertia are taken into account while manufacturing putters. The MoI is used for reducing the twist on off center contact.

When the Scots started playing this game a few centuries back they carved their own clubs from wood! I am not sure if they ever had an inkling that sometime in the future the need for improved performance on the golf course and better hitting would spawn such a huge Industry for making better (understating the point!) golf clubs and balls.


Longnoses made of woods were the norm for driving in the early days and people largely used the wooden clubs and avoided using the irons, fearing damage to the very expensive Featherie balls. This despite the fact that Irons were more effective. Man, those balls must have been expensive! The first real big improvement in the golf clubs came after the onset of Industrialisation in Europe which allowed for metal forging and their mass production in the factories.

Due to convention we may still refer to some of those clubs as woods but they are developed with Titanium heads and Graphite shafts. The material of the shafts changed from wood to hickory wood, a higher quality wood found more widely in the U.S. The trend then shifted to steel shafts, Permisson woods, metal woods and now graphite shafts. Grip it and Rip it that is exactly what these new age clubs seem to be screaming out! The greatest testimony to the power of some of these modern sticks is the fact that the name of one of the most famous clubs used in Golf so far The Big Bertha was actually the name of the Howitzer used to fire shells in the First World War. Talk about the name conveying power! The Big Bertha series started out the trend of using large/oversized club heads to provide the golfer with a greater hitting area and offer more accuracy. While new and improved designs will continue to evolve we may not see any major changes in this field as the ruling bodies of the sport have started imposing certain norms with respect to size of the club heads and other factors that have been introduced in the modern club making technology.

From wooden shafts to clubs with space age material making up the shaft, a lot has changed over the years. With the advancement of the CAD technology or what is known as Computer Aided Design, new factors have been taken into account. Coefficient of restitution or CoR is another keyword that is hotly debated between the club makers and the lawmakers of the game. It deals with the amount of energy that can be transferred from the club to the ball and right now the limit is set at 83%. A law that affects the distance on the drives of players who have a slower swing speed than the others. This game definitely isn’t as straightforward as Miguel Angel Jiminez makes it out to be with that confident stride and the cigar in his mouth.

Clubfitting techniques have managed to keep pace with the changes around them. While a couple of decades back a players choice would have been limited to a few of the clubs he had read about in a golf magazine today a player can custom fit a club for him right from the grip to the shaft and the head. Stores have started using simulators to aid the customers in making the right choice. These simulators pretty much give a fair idea as to how the balls will fly out on the course and they could then choose the club that is likely to give them optimum results. This trend is on the rise and more and more professionals are going in for custom made clubs. Just like in the Harry Potter Series where those wizards went into the wands shop and came out with wands that were unique and made just to suit their needs and it did the trick for them. Literally!

Did anyone say that in the days gone by, the players used to carve their clubs out of Wood? Definitely doesn’t sound plausible.

The convention of numbering the Golf clubs was introduced in the early part of last century to restrict the different type of clubs being used by golfers and also to try and push for and promote skill in the game. This was due to the availability of a wide variety of clubs of different shapes and sizes. The authorities had to do something to ensure only those clubs that had been widely accepted were used. The incident that one can think of in another sport of a sporting equipment used on the playing field which was way different from the norm was the Aluminium bat that Dennis Lillie strode out with, to use against the English in a test match in Perth. It definitely was not a “willow” that everyone was used to seeing and it ensured that Lillie was ticked off by the authorities for his antics. That can be considered an instance of technology ahead of it’s time, although one wonders about it’s efficiency, besides creating a fair amount of noise each time the ball hits the bat!


Since the time of the game’s inception, even the golf ball has undergone a huge change. For close to three centuries golfers used to play with a leather covered ball which was stuffed with chicken feathers. This ball was known as the Feathery cube and it was considered the first major “technological” breakthrough in the production of golf balls. Technological breakthrough? Yes, you heard it right! This was the first innovation which actually allowed the ball to follow a good trajectory in the air. When we use the word good, it must be understood that it is a strictly relative term and that means going back 400 years in time. The stuff used before the Feathery cube was a WOODEN ball!! Oxygen anyone? Of course wanting to practice on your swing with the Feathery cube would have left a big hole in your pocket unless you went out to the fairway, picked up your ball and put it back on the tee each time you wanted another swing. Each Featherie had a huge price attached to it. Even the best in the business could not manufacture more than a handful of balls in a day.

Then came the “Gutta percha” ball, made from a gum found commonly in trees in Malaysia. It was whilst using this ball that the first insight or two was gained into the aerodynamics of the ball. Golfers soon realised that the balls which had more bumps on the surface seemed to offer a greater flight. I think it would be fair to say that was when the “Dimples” found acceptance on the golf ball. Soon these odd dimples were regularised and patterns were evolved. The artistic scarring of the golf ball gave way to a more scientific approach. It was around this time that standardization of the golf ball occurred with the Golf Associations giving a fixed figure for the weight and size of a golf ball. The modern ball as we know it has been around only for the last 70 years or so and even that has undergone change due to the amount of time devoted by major manufacturers to try and develop a ball to suit the needs of the modern Golfer. Today you have multilayered balls with chemical elements with ungodly names forming the core of the ball. Sample this, the hottest material going around these days is apparently polyurethane (used in the Titleist proV1) which is applied over an ionomer mantle. Ionomers, if you “google” it, you will realise, are terpolymers of ethylene, methacrylic or acrylic acid and some other component. THAT is what goes into making golf balls these days. After figuring that out will it not hurt your conscience to hit an errant shot of the tee?

This design apparently added 5-6 yards to the average driving distance of professionals. While that does me no good, it would just mean my driving distance would be 106 yards now, instead of 100 (please someone help me!) it sure does mean a lot to the serious golfers for whom every extra yard on the club is a huge advantage. The next time you go on to the golf course, you could whack the living daylights out of these balls and be assured that there are people working to ensure that the distance on your drives continue to increase.

Last year on the PGA Tour there were 20 different golfers who had a highest driving distance of 400 yards or more. Till five years back there was not a single recorded drive of over 400 yards in a professional event on the tour. Sure does tell you something about where the game is headed.

Such continuous change in technology and the way the game is played has also ensured that there is no scope left for cross generational comparison between golfing greats. The answer to the “who is the greatest of them all” question will always be left unanswered. There is very little common ground to pick and choose between these greats across generations.
Whether it is Tiger or Jack Nicklaus or Byron Nelson or perhaps even Tom Morris (Senior). Old Tom Morris(in picture) holds the record for the greatest margin of victory in the British Open. He won by 13 strokes. Morris Senior played in the 1800’s. I wonder how one of the present day golfer’s would perform if asked to play with Morris’ golfing kit? It would be like asking a modern day NASCAR driver to participate in a championship race in a vintage Rolls Royce! The one thing that we can do is appreciate these great players for their sheer dominance over their competition. They have ensured that their names will forever be ensconced in the pages of History.

There are still some unanswered questions. Questions which require to be seriously mulled over. Are we moving away from a sport where golfers used to enthrall us with an exemplary display of touch and finesse on the course, to a sport where we have to be content with watching players muscle away the ball into outer space? Perhaps not, but the trend is alarming. There are ways to circumvent this problem. Develop courses with longer and narrower fairways, more bunkers and more of the long grass next to the fairway! The likes of Norman, Palmer and others could probably figure out a way to take this factor into account when they work on their course design philosophy. But there is only so much we can do with course design. In a tournament in Japan last year (one of the rare events where Tiger lost after leading into the last round) Tiger drove the ball on to the green while the group ahead of him was still on the Green!

For keen connoisseurs of the game one wonders what provides them with greater joy, watching Bubba Watson (one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour) hit monstrous shots off the tee or watching someone like a Seve work his magic on the ball from different parts of the course. It’s not just golf that is facing this question; the rampant use of technology has ensured that other sports too face the heat. Even in a game like tennis the question is still the same, would you rather see a Roddick hammer in 200kmph serves, one after the other or those delightful delectable volleys from some of the touch players in the sport. It’s quite clear where my loyalties lie. While Technology offers a big boost when it comes to improving one’s game, something has to be done to ensure that natural skill is not eroded from the game and victories are not determined by the kind of equipment present in your golf bag. The one thing that we can take heart from is that despite the many quantum leaps that have been made in improving the clubs, when a golfer is faced with a 6 foot putt on the final hole to win a championship, those jangling nerves will always continue to play a part and there is no technology to prevent that, YET!

Sridhar Natarajan

No comments: