The History of Golf Clubs

By Ryan Watson

Modern golf clubs get the most out of applying the latest technology and science. Clubs are designed first through computer programs, modeling all the ways to get the optimal weight, balance, loft and any other factor that can affect the swing of a club and flight of the ball. Once a design is settled on, clubmakers use the best materials including titanium, graphite, and carbon fiber to construct the clubs that professionals use. After hours of testing and alterations, clubs are ready for shelves. All of this is commonplace now, but the current state-of-the-art engineering is a far cry from the first golf clubs fashioned centuries ago.

Early Clubs

The earliest known clubs date from around the 15th and 16th centuries and consisted of “longnoses” for driving, fairway clubs, “spoons” for the short game, precursors to modern wedges known as “niblicks”, and a putting “cleek” that resemble blade putters. These clubs were constructed of European hardwoods like apple or beech for the heads with ash or hazel shafts, and would have been handmade often by a local craftsmen and golfer. When the game came to America in the early 1800s, hickory became the preferred wood for shafts due to its superior durability. These early clubs generally had small heads compared to modern clubs, and would’ve needed a freat amount of swing control to cause the ball to fly straight.

Early clubmaking was limited by the technology of the day, notably the lack of durable golf balls. By the 1600s, leather balls stuffed with feathers (appropriately known as featheries) were used and their delicate nature meant few golfers experimented with iron clubs. The only exception would be specialized clubs like the “rutting iron”, whose odd spoon shaped iron head was designed to hit the ball out of wheel ruts.

Developments in Irons

Featheries would remain in play until the mid-19th century, when they were replaced by gutta-percha balls. These balls were much more durable and cheaper than featheries, and were made of the sap of a Malaysian tree that had similar properties to the more famous rubber trees. With the new gutta-percha balls, known as “gutties”, golfers could use more iron clubs. The early irons tended to be heavy and were hand forged by local blacksmiths and look primitive by today’s standards. It wasn’t until industrialized “drop forging”--placing molten metal into preformed molds--became perfected in the late 1800s that irons more closely resembled today’s clubs. Further developments in golf balls to the modern rubber cored and dimpled balls in the early 1900s allowed clubmakers even more license in experimenting with new iron clubs.

20th Century Developments

Entering the 20th century many changes came to clubs. Wooden club heads were now almost exclusively made from durable persimmon wood, while the shapes that could be achieved by drop forging led to many interesting clubs. Notable examples were giant wedges that were a half-foot wide and Walter Hagen’s infamous sand wedge featuring a curved face. The most important changes of the early 1900s were the introduction of steel shafts to replace older hickory ones and the invention of grooved irons. The new shafts allowed for even faster swing speeds, while grooved surfaces allowed golfers to get more distance through increased backspin and gave greater control when shaping shots.

Another huge change of the early 20th century was the introduction of regulations to both the number of clubs permitted and the specifications of clubs allowed. Before the 1930s, golf clubs were largely unregulated and innovation was largely unchecked. However, both the USGA and the R&A began taking a hand in standardizing the game. This started with the 14 club rule, forcing golfers to decide which clubs they most needed. In addition, further regulation would dictate head size, lofts, and how clubs can be used. Regulations have seen some kinds of clubs, notably “long putters”, outlawed quickly after their introduction to the game.

New Materials

The latest changes to golf clubs came in the late 20th century as a variety of new materials were used in the manufacture of clubs. The most notable was the introduction of the Pittsburgh Persimmon by TaylorMade, the first metal “wood” offered to the public. Soon all drivers and woods would be made of metal. Increasingly, graphite has replaced steel in the manufacture of shafts, while titanium and other lightweight metals have become the chosen metals for clubmakers. New materials like carbon fiber has been used in some clubs due to its lightweight and nearly indestructible properties. Irons increasingly became cavity-backed, while long-irons have been replaced by the first real “new” club to come to the game in decades with the advent of hybrids. Hybrids feature a head shaped like a wood but are lofted like an iron.

With advances in technology coming seemingly with each new day, the future of golf club design remains unknown. It is certain, however, that clubs have come a long way from the hand carved sticks that first played the game.

About the Author

Ryan Watson is a freelance sportswriter and history professor. He has been an avid fan of golf since his father signed him up for golf camp as a young child. Ryan enjoys following the professional game and learning about new equipment and gadgets.