Horace Hutchinson long ago bemoaned golf as “a game of putting little balls into little holes with instruments singularly ill-adapted for the purpose.”
Poor Hutchinson. The two-time British Amateur champion (1896–97) missed out on over-sized titanium drivers, cavity-back game-improvement irons, perimeter-weighted putters, and solid-core, multilayer golf balls that hardly curve. Today’s equipment is designed by elite scientists who are bumping up against the laws of physics in a battle to make our golf shots fly straighter and longer. It’s become an arms race that involves launching new products at breakneck speed and has turned the PGA Tour into a three-club game of driver, wedge, putter.
While there certainly is room for debate, the argument here is that technology has disproportionately helped the elite players. But for our purposes, we’re going to celebrate the best equipment innovations of approximately the last 50 years that have benefited rank-and-file golfers as opposed to the pros.
This is a tricky subject. It can be argued that the introduction of the Top-Flite two-piece/solid-core golf ball in 1971 is the biggest innovation to come along in the past half century. Indeed, it gave all the great unwashed 15 extra yards while being too hard for any pro to play it (thus earning the infamous nicknames of “Top-Rock” or “Rock-Flite”). Although offering unmatched distance off the tee, these balls spun very little around the greens. The so-called “longest ball in golf,” Top-Flite once dominated at sporting goods, mass merchants, and off-course specialty stores. As late as 2001, one in four balls sold was a Top-Flite, and its maker boasted that it was the most used golf ball for 85-plus scorers, public-course users, and golfers over the age of 50.
When Mark O’Meara won the 1998 Masters with a Top-Flite Strata, he became the first player to win a major with a three-piece, solid-core ball. It was Bridgestone who introduced the first ball with a urethane cover, and even new players to the premium ball market, Callaway and Nike, launched the Hex and Tour Accuracy respectively, before Titleist debuted the Pro V1 and made the ball commercially successful.
The shift to the non-wound ball benefited golfers of all abilities. It was The Holy Grail. Before, golfers had to choose between more distance or more spin and feel. No longer. As an added bonus, these balls have such a low spin rate off the driver that they don’t hook or slice very much at all, making it easier to hit the ball straighter off the tee.
Today’s lively golf ball (along with the thin-faced metal driver) is the primary reason PGA Tour pros smashed more than 100 drives of 385 yards or longer in 2017. Former USGA technical director Frank Thomas noted that Tour pros gained 25–30 yards between 1995 and 2003, “without any increase in skill.”
There is another school of thought that says the invention of the solid-core, multi-piece, soft-cover golf ball deserves mention as one of the top five innovations because it provided all golfers the maximum distance allowable by the Rules of Golf, but with the spin, feel, and control of the older wound-construction ball. Whether or not you believe that only high-swing-speed players benefit from this evolution, it is clear that the modern ball has benefited the professional player at least as much as the lesser player.
For those golfers with low to moderate clubhead speeds, there’s no denying that the invention of the soft and low-spinning distance ball has been a boon. The Callaway Big Bertha Diablo was first to market, followed by the Wilson Duo and the Top-Flite SuperSoft, and others have followed. These balls will never be mistaken as an elite or tour product. Previously, two-piece balls had hard covers and were sold as 90- or 100-compression. Today’s low-compression core with a moderately soft ionomer cover was a significant breakthrough for higher handicappers. Its firmer cover actually increases spin because it prevents the soft core from deforming.
In 2004, the Darrell Survey Company polled golfers and found that fewer than one in 12 carried a hybrid club; ever since, hybrids have come on like gangbusters and made the “butter knife” and its fellow long irons all but obsolete. Even skilled players aren’t carrying 4-irons anymore. Designers have made significant improvements in moving the center of gravity lower and deeper to optimize ball flight and carry distance, reduce spin, and cover up misses. Hybrids are handy for chipping, too. (When was the last time you chipped with your 1-iron?) If you’re not a scratch golfer and still have anything longer than a 5-iron in the bag, do yourself a favor and replace it with a hybrid and use that old blade as a fire poker.
The 60-degree wedge
Seve Ballesteros was such a wizard with a wedge that he needed only one: With disdain for the modern pro who carried four wedges, he once called the 60-degree, or lob wedge, the most significant innovation in golf. In the 1980s, at the advice of short-game guru Dave Pelz, Tom Kite became the first player to carry a third wedge in his bag, which allowed him to be more precise with his distance control. The facility to produce higher, softer pitch shots around the green has made the 60-degree wedge one of the most important tools in golf. Now everyone has them. Some players use it more than any club other than the putter. Major golf equipment companies employ wedge gurus, and the sheer variety among wedges speaks volumes. Fifty years ago, nobody talked about the bounce of a wedge; now, it’s dinner-table conversation.
Poor Hutch had to play with hickory. The first graphite shafts debuted in 1970, and while elite players have enjoyed the benefits in their drivers and woods, better players tend to stick to steel shafts in their irons. Graphite shafts are lighter than steel, increasing clubhead speed and distance. Most of the advancements in graphite have been producing lighter shafts that often produce better feel, balance, and repeatability. The advent of 40-gram shafts has helped minimize the loss of clubhead speed, allowing average golfers to gain, or at least maintain, such speeds.
The days of one size fits all are over. Pros have had access to clubs made to their specifications for years, but now any regular Joe can buy clubs tailored to him better than a bespoke suit. Henry Griffitts, a boutique custom manufacturer, was one of its primary innovators: It was the first to introduce a fitting cart and interchangeable heads. Ping has long been considered the brand-name leader in custom fitting: The company introduced the color chart in 1971, added the lie board in the ’80s, and developed the first fitting cart by a major equipment company in 1995.
Like buying a car, golfers want to take a test drive. Launch monitors and Trackman have become standard equipment at golf shops, and use spin data, launch angle, ball speed, and smash factor, just to name a few of the data points collected, to dial you in to better performance. What a time to be alive!
The technical evolution of the game over the past five decades has given us less gifted players access to drivers as big as a Prince tennis racquet, computer-milled grooves, and prescription golf balls. And that’s a good thing, since most of us can still use all the help we can get putting the little ball in the little hole, even if our instruments aren’t so ill-adapted for the purpose anymore.