Evolved from hickory sticks and feather-stuffed balls to precision clubs of graphite and titanium, the modern game of golf is decidedly high-tech.
By Dale Leatherman
Among the many legends about Sam Snead, one of golf’s icons, is that he often won bets playing with a limb cut from a tree. He probably didn’t tell challengers that he learned to play golf with tree limbs, rocks and tin cans buried in the ground. While many golfers aspire to reach Slammin’ Sammy’s levels of greatness, amateurs and pros alike often need more help from their equipment, fueling industry research and the development of instruments that facilitate hitting the ball farther and more accurately.
A Hitter’s History
Six hundred years ago, golfers started out much as Snead did, with rudimentary wooden clubs. The Scots, who get credit for creating the game, hit leather balls stuffed with feathers. “Featheries” gave way to more durable balls, which led to drivers with hard persimmon heads and hickory shafts. The 1800s ushered in clubs with iron heads and steel shafts. In the 1930s, golf’s governing bodies limited the weight and size of golf balls and the number of clubs in tournament players’ bags.
As clubs evolved, their colorful names—brassie, spoon, cleek, mashie and niblick—disappeared, and numbered woods and irons became the standard. Only the putter kept its original name and purpose. In the late 1970s, club designer Gary Adams created a stainless steel driver he called TaylorMade and formed a company of the same name. A few PGA TOUR players began to use his Pittsburgh Persimmon model, and metal woods were here to stay.
“Of the key steps in golf’s evolution, the transition from persimmon to metal was the biggest event in modern golf,” says Brannen Veal, director of golf at Sea Island. “TaylorMade broke in with the first metal woods, but Callaway’s Big Bertha was the catalyst club that got everyone talking about switching to metal. The head on the Big Bertha was so much larger than the persimmon driver’s, and at first everyone thought it was too big. Oddly enough, the original Big Bertha had a 190 cc (cubic centimeter) head, and today’s drivers range from 420 cc to 460 cc. The goal of the big head, of course, is a bigger sweet spot.
“From then on, the game became more equipment- and performance-driven,” Veal explains. Since the debut of the Big Bertha driver in 1991, the sport of golf has continued to change with new materials, tools and insights on how to guide golfers to the coveted hole in one.
A Whole New Ball Game
Nike Golf has scored a hit with a new series of advertisements that poke fun at players who resist innovation. “Every golf club has … the guy who makes fun of the golfer with the latest technology,” says Nate Radcliffe, director of engineering for golf clubs at Nike’s Fort Worth, Texas facility known as “The Oven.”
“That’s the thrust of the commercials: the golfer’s inherent tendency to resist change. It’s a very traditional sport, but if you look at what’s played on the [PGA] TOUR today, whether it’s hybrids or larger drivers or solid-core balls—they were all rejected by golfers at some point. … If you have breakthrough technology, it’s foolish to reject it, because the best players in the world are taking advantage,” Radcliffe explains.
That advantage comes from a team of nearly 50 designers, engineers and craftsmen who work on new technology for clubs that Radcliffe oversees in The Oven. The facility is a proving ground for Nike-sponsored athletes to test prototypes and work with the new products they play on tour. Fort Worth is an aerospace town, and The Oven is like a small-scale aerospace operation, according to Radcliffe. “What used to resemble a blacksmith’s shop is now heavily driven by computers and high-end measurement tools,” he says.
“Made for persimmon woods, the old balata ball had a soft cover and wound rubber band interior around a soft center. It spun a lot, and when you hit it with a metal club, it just fell out of the air. So the techs had to create a ball that would stay in the air longer and still spin around the greens,” Veal explains.
Nike has put technology to work in developing a better golf ball. The Oregon-based company began making golf shoes in 1984 and launched its equipment line in 2002. PGA TOUR players like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Michelle Wie and Suzann Pettersen are playing with Nike’s latest clubs as well as its newest ball, the RZN series.
“The RZN family of balls uses an interlocking Speedlock core made of a proprietary resin material that is lighter than rubber, and loads and transfers energy differently,” says Radcliffe. “It’s designed to reduce energy loss at impact while maintaining low spin off the driver and consistent spin on iron shots.” Technology has been able to control the spin and flight of golf balls, but it also has changed another major tool to golf: the club.
Joining the Club
While golf balls have been rolling along, clubs have also become state-of-the-art. “Golf clubs have evolved into high-tech pieces of sports equipment,” Radcliffe explains.
A major milestone in golf has been the development of hybrid clubs, which have come to replace long irons. “For the majority of players, 3-, 4-, and 5-irons have been replaced by hybrids,” Veal says. “To hit low-numbered irons you have to generate so much speed, whereas hybrids are easy to hit and get the ball up in the air, and they go as far.”
Radcliffe is most excited about Nike’s VR-S Covert 2.0 series driver. It features High-Speed Cavity Back technology, which redistributes the club’s weight to its perimeter and moves the center of gravity forward while increasing stability.
“Within the Covert line there are also two hybrids,” he explains. “Like the driver, the Tour model utilizes FlexLoft, so you can change the loft and the face angles. That’s powerful technology, allowing the recreational player to get dialed in just like the pros, who have always been able to go to a tour van and have clubs adjusted.”
The putter’s appearance has also changed through time and can now be tailored to each athlete. Nike has a line of new Method Mod putters with signature Polymetal Groove technology. Radcliffe explains, “A groove in the face of the putter grips the ball, lifts it and starts it rolling quicker, which leads to more consistency.”
“There has been a lot of change—weighting, materials, shape and fitting,” Veal says. “We’re also bending them to fit the individual.”
According to the experts, having a club that fits properly is just as important as using the latest technology. “Average golfers may think they’re not good enough to need clubfitting, but it’s actually more important for them,” Radcliffe says.
“Fifteen years ago you seldom heard about clubfitting,” Veal agrees. “If you played a stiff club, you bought one off the rack and that was it. Now hardly anyone is going to buy clubs without being fitted. It’s become a precise science.
“There’s also been a big change in the tools we utilize to fit clubs to the golfer, such as the TrackMan radar system or the Nike 360-degree fitting system,” he continues. The Sea Island Golf Performance Center uses TrackMan launch monitors that enable golfers to test an array of products and brands in live conditions, ensuring they get the best-fitting equipment for their swing. “Those technologies allow us to measure performance and not only give someone a better piece of equipment, but also make their bodies better pieces of equipment.”
As Veal indicates, the body of a golfer has become a new area of interest for those researching and playing the sport. If clubs are being tailored to work with players’ bodies to drive the ball farther, then it makes sense that the way golfers tailor their own bodies has changed as well.
For much of golf’s history, instruction was a haphazard affair. New players were simply told to watch experienced golfers and imitate their swings. Later, when golf instructors came on the scene, they adopted a cookie-cutter approach.
“Early instructors thought there was only one way to do things, rather than treating each golfer as an individual,” says Scott Fedisin, a senior instructor and golf fitness specialist at the Sea Island Golf Performance Center. “That doesn’t work. Body types are different and body mechanics are different.”
The change in attitude about training coincided with changes in equipment. “Players were hitting the ball farther, so they began working out to enhance their swings. Trainers started studying the mechanics of the swing and breaking down the body’s movements piece by piece, and figuring out how to best train the individual.”
According to Fedisin, one of the greatest assets in golf instruction is the video camera. “When you see yourself, you understand where you can improve,” he explains.
“Today we can draw right on the video screen, and there are phone apps that enable us to … show a player exactly what he’s doing. We can use Nike’s 360-degree analyzer to see the body from every angle—what the spine, hips and shoulders are doing; how much turn there is; even the weight shift. There’s no way to hide.”
Champions like Harry Vardon, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones and Sam Snead never had formal lessons or fancy technology, but there’s a very different track to becoming a champion these days.
“Players are starting earlier and employing all the technology,” Fedisin says. “Today’s young players have their swing coach, their putting coach and their fitness trainer. That’s why we’re seeing rookies doing so well.
“At one time golfers did not work out for fear they’d get too bulky,” he adds. “One of the first to go against that belief was Gary Player, who worked out consistently. At age 78, he is still leg-pressing. … Greg Norman was one of the next to do strength training and, of course, Tiger Woods is a prime example today.”
With the advancements that have occurred in golf over the last 40 years it’s hard to imagine where the sport might go next. When asked about future projects, Radcliffe explains that there is still uncharted territory. “The possibilities are significantly greater than what the average golfer believes,” he explains. “The game is changing and the people who play it are changing. They are stronger, more athletic, more knowledgeable and more capable.”