To say golf is more entwined with its equipment innovations than other sports isn’t opinion. It’s numbers. During the past 40 years, of the tens of thousands of patents granted in sports, golf ideas have numbered twice as many as those for football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, swimming, bowling, soccer, lacrosse and skiing combined. Feverishly anticipated by many, decried by others, golf products have relentlessly pushed forward technologically throughout Australian Golf Digest’s 50 years, a time that’s probably seen more innovation in each successive decade than in the preceding century.
Of course, with that kind of progress, choosing one representative for each of the past five decades meant leaving out memorable inventions (soft spikes, hybrids and launch monitors, to name three). But whether you’re a Major champion or a beginner, the innovations profiled here were paradigm shifts. They changed the game almost instantly and made us wonder what might be next.
You might be surprised to learn that one of the most important innovations of the past 50 years was initially a bit of a failure. But that was the case with graphite shafts.
Made from carbon fibres originally developed for the space program, graphite shafts had fits and starts for much of their first 20 years. The playability suffered somewhat for elite PGA Tour players who had a hard time controlling the lighter, whippier construction, but what couldn’t be denied was that carbon fibres presented a weight-saving opportunity. Graphite had 14 times the strength of steel, allowing the new shafts to be built at less than half the weight of the old shafts. Now, average golfers and ageing players could stay in the game longer, and faster swingers could find an extra gear.
Still, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Aldila began to solve the graphite shaft’s issues with torsional stiffness. Larry Nelson’s win at the 1987 PGA Championship [above] was the first Major for a graphite shaft, and throughout the next three decades, carbon composite dominated the metal wood-shaft market and even became key to how clubheads are made. The graphite shaft showed that the right new material poached from a high-tech industry could offer solutions for golf.
The Ping Eye2 irons weren’t founder Karsten Solheim’s first perimeter-weighted irons, but they were the most significant.
Known best for its square grooves, which sparked a standoff with the USGA, the Eye2 featured a variety of technologies and design elements that were a significant shift from the muscle-back blades used by the majority of tour pros and everyday golfers. Careful consideration was given to the amount of offset on each hosel, the camber and radius of the sole, the shape of the head with its high toe, and the design of the cavity-back. Even the location of the “eyeball” in the cavity was positioned to produce the best feel.
The square grooves were largely credited with producing the generous spin, but Karsten insisted it was the design of the neck, which helped the head rotate downward at impact, thus boosting spin. The feature – which had the neck tapered from both ends leading to a narrow mid-section – was first used on the 1984 version of the Eye2. Several versions of the Eye2 followed, including a lighter-weight version and beryllium-copper models.
The longevity of the Eye2, the best-selling iron in the game for nearly a decade, would be unheard of today. Soon other manufacturers followed with perimeter-weighted, cavity-back designs – even traditional blade brands like MacGregor, Wilson, Tommy Armour and Ben Hogan. Golf World magazine summed up Solheim like this: “Karsten showed the way, proving that a useful, non-traditional innovation would be accepted by the golf world.”
A news summary of the 1991 PGA Merchandise Show included a sentence easily overlooked: “Callaway had a hit with Big Bertha, an oversize stainless-steel driver…”
More than “a hit”, what happened might better be described as a cultural phenomenon. The Big Bertha was a breakthrough in size that took the driver from a club players learned to control to a forgiving monster built for attack. The industry never shied away from the search for bigger and better until the R&A and USGA slapped a limit on clubhead size in the early 2000s.
At 190 cubic centimetres, Big Bertha was about 30 percent larger than most drivers at the time but nearly 60 percent smaller than they are today. The club was the idea of Callaway’s design genius, Dick Helmstetter. Although told the frame would probably collapse, Helmstetter located a foundry willing to take a chance.
“I knew the design worked,” he said. “I just had to find a way to get it made.” He did, and by 1993 Big Bertha was the No.1 driver on the American tours and the best-selling club of its time. Two years later, Callaway went larger still with Great Big Bertha. Made from titanium, the metal’s strength allowed for thinner faces that propelled the ball in a new and faster way.
So, Big Bertha spawned not one, but two technologies that forever changed the equipment landscape.
Multilayer, urethane-cover balls
In late 2000, when Hal Sutton heard Tiger Woods had changed from a wound Titleist Professional ball to Nike’s solid-core, urethane-cover Tour Accuracy, he said, “That can be a very dramatic change in a person’s life.”
As it turned out, it was the golf-ball industry that got upended. The rubber-based solid-core and polymer mantle layer provided more energy for ball speed than a liquid centre surrounded by rubber windings, and the urethane cover offered short-game spin without cutting like balata could.
More tour players took notice, but the idea didn’t have the full approval of the game’s best player.
But then Woods finished third in Germany in his first try with the ball, igniting a run of six wins in eight events, including three Majors. His dominance shifted the tour and the market, most dramatically when Titleist jumped into the multilayer, urethane game with a “laboratory test ball”. That test project became the Pro V1, and it debuted that October with 47 players putting it in play in Las Vegas, including winner Billy Andrade. The move to solid-core, urethane balls was on.
Barely two years later, wound balls had disappeared from the tour, and their roughly 30 percent market share had evaporated. Everyday golfers hoarded these new tour-level balls that flew farther but didn’t cut, making the Pro V1 the best-selling ball in history.
Today, solid-core, multilayer urethane balls represent 60 percent of the market and 100 percent of tour use. Truly a dramatic change.
The most exciting golf innovation of the past decade has its roots not in the multi-million-dollar R&D hubs of the major equipment companies but in the offices of one of the two organisations whose primary equipment-related role has been in restricting innovation. When the USGA loosened the limits on clubhead adjustability back in 2005, it set in motion a new type of driver.
Now, instead of heads players had to adjust to, a single head could be all things to all players – a Swiss Army knife of intuitive complexity. Starting with the four movable weights in the sole of the TaylorMade r7 Quad (which pre-dated the USGA change), drivers and ultimately all metalwoods became erector sets that allowed both a tour player and your grandmother to play the same club, just adjusted differently.
Adjustable drivers dominated the market throughout the past 10 years, featuring moving weights and hosels that rotated to create multiple changes in loft, lie and face angles. That created variability in performance and ushered in a move to club-fitting. Fitters could easily switch between thousands of head-and-shaft combinations with the simple twist of a wrench.
By mid-decade, screws were being replaced by even heavier sliding weights on clubs like 2014’s breakout TaylorMade SLDR and later the TaylorMade M5, which used two weight tracks and a 12-way rotating hosel for more than 21,000 setups on every head. Could the average player always tell how ball flight changed from one click to the next? Maybe not, but it did, and more important, knowing it could has made all the difference. Thanks, USGA.