Rough Draft-Golf Equipment Controversy
The game of golf has been solidly entrenched in America since the late 1880s. The game was originally played by the white upper class. Before golf carts came on the scene, caddies were used to carry these wealthy people’s bags. Caddying still exists at certain courses, and the professionals use caddies because they are not allowed to ride in carts. A golf course will have a head professional, who differs from professionals who play the game competitively for a living. This head pro will give lessons, watch the pro shop, order merchandise, and generally keep the golf course running. He may have assistant pros serving under him, and also likely has people that help him around the shop. Golf course superintendents take care of all the maintenance work on the golf course. They cut grass, spray chemicals, change cups, and basically do all that they can to keep the course looking nice.
There are organizations formed to serve those who play golf. For example, the Virginia State Golf Association serves golfers in Virginia, and on a larger scale the United States Golf Association serves golfers across the United States. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, in Scotland, is the other major governing body of golf in the world. These organizations have a governing body, which makes the rules of golf and regulate equipment and amateur status. For example, in 1904 an American named Walter Travis used a new style of putter called the Schenectady to easily defeat his opponents in the British Amateur. The English were so infuriated that the R and A ended up banning that style of putter from competition on its soil. That band would not be lifted for over fifty years.
As golf grew, there became an urgent need to provide clubs and balls for the golfing public. Entrepreneurs quickly rose to the challenge, and the golf equipment industry was born. The first golf balls were made of wood. These primitive golf balls were replaced in the early 1600s by the featherie golf ball, which was made of leather and feathers. These balls were replaced in 1848 by the gutta percha golf ball, which were made from the sap of the Sapodilla tree. When molds were adapted for making this golf ball, making mass production possible, the game became much more accessible to the lower classes because the ball became much cheaper. Balls in the featherie era were worth more than clubs. In 1898, the rubber golf ball was invented. Covered with a gutta percha outer layer, these balls are the same balls used today, although they have been vastly improved. The R and A first set a standard for golf ball size in 1930, and the USGA followed two years later. The two governing bodies had different size limits on the golf ball until 1990, when the two formed an agreement and set a worldwide size for the golf ball.
Golf club technology followed much the same pattern as the golf ball. Early golf clubs were made entirely of wood. Irons were used sparingly in the featherie golf ball period, because they often tore the fragile golf ball. The tougher gutta percha ball made it possible to use irons. The first irons were primitive, and made by blacksmiths until the 1870s. These irons had wooden shafts and iron heads. Until 1910 or so, these wooden clubs were made by the professionals at the clubs. When technology made mass production irons possible, golf club companies started, leading the way for the mass industry in place today. Early irons had a smooth face. In 1908, a grooved face on irons was produced. This innovation made the golf ball go much farther because it gave the golf ball backspin. Steel shafts first surfaced around 1925, and were commonplace in the United States by the mid-1930s. Steel shafts did not break nearly as often as the traditional wooden shafts. Graphite shafts were first introduced in the 1980s, and their lighter weight makes it easier to swing them faster, resulting in longer shots. Woods were made out of wood until the 1970s, when metal-headed woods were first introduced. Metal headed woods produced longer and straighter shots.
The USGA and the R and A are responsible for testing and approving all of this new equipment. Many new innovations have been introduced throughout the 1900s, and quite a few have been banned by golf’s governing bodies. These two governing bodies are there to protect the integrity of the game. This means that they make rules and test clubs to preserve the “spirit” of the game. The game of golf is much easier than it was twenty, fifty, or one hundred years ago thanks to the improvements in technology. Twenty years ago, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was about 265 yards. Today, the average driving distance is almost 290 yards. The golf ball is going even farther than it was five years ago. Some feel that this vast increase in distance is making the game too easy, because the way golf is played is evolving. Accuracy and control were vital in the past, but with the new technology, golf has become more of a “grip it and rip it” sport. Is this trend just the evolution of the game, or is it something to be concerned about? Another concern with the new equipment is the fact that it favors the longer hitters. Without getting too technical, some of the new drivers compress the golf ball at impact. This compression results in the ball going much farther. The shorter hitters, even using the same technology, do not have enough swing speed to compress the golf ball at impact, so they gain less distance from the new drivers. For example, Golfer A who hit the ball 20 yards farther than Golfer B with the old drivers, but with the new drivers the difference in their driving distance is 35 yards, because the shorter hitter can’t compress the ball. Golf is a game of inches, and the extra 15 yards ends up making a big difference.
Corey Pavin, who is in his mid-forties now, was a dominant force on the PGA Tour in the late 80s and early to mid 90s. He hasn’t won a golf tournament since 1997. Yes, he has aged, but he is also infamously known as the shortest hitter in professional golf. Driver technology has made great leaps since the mid-90s, and he has been left in the dust. To combat this technological onslaught, golf courses have been lengthened in order to make them tougher for the longer hitters. On some courses, the average length player has an extremely difficult time contending, simply because the course is too long. The USGA and the PGA Tour are concerned that only the long hitters have a chance to be dominant. Some of golf’s stars in the eighties and nineties, such as Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo, Paul Azinger, and Tom Kite were short or average length hitters. They made up for their lack of length by controlling the golf ball and putting and chipping well. Greg Norman, Fred Couples, and Davis Love III were also dominant players who hit the ball a long way. There was an even mixture of long and short length players who had success.
On the other side of the issue, we have the average golfer and the equipment industries. The equipment industries have computers and experts testing equipment, trying to make it as good as it can be made. Golfers flock to the stores to buy the newest driver or latest set of irons that will hit the ball farther and straighter. The golf equipment industry is a booming business, and limiting their technological advancements would cut their profits.
Golf is an extremely difficult game. The average person who plays golf can’t shoot under 95 for eighteen holes (the pros routinely shoot under seventy). This new equipment makes the game more enjoyable for the average amateur player. It doesn’t make golf courses too easy for them; it just makes them able to play golf courses better. Why take the fun out of the game for these average players?
A proposed solution to the equipment controversy is that the professionals could have their equipment limited by the USGA, and there could be separate limits for amateurs. This would allow amateurs to play the game at an enjoyable level while ideally leveling out the playing field in professional golf.
Another reason that the golf ball is going further today than in years past is the fact that golfers are bigger, stronger, and in better shape. Golf has grown in popularity, and more kids are turning to golf that in the past would have played football, basketball, or baseball. Many professional golfers work out regularly, while even twenty years ago exercise was viewed as taboo for golfers. The idea of using video technology to analyze players swings in slow motion and the golf academies devoted to teaching the golf swing have also resulted in better golf. Better technique leads to hitting the golf ball longer.
Technology has affected golf like it has affected many things, and now those in the golfing world are wondering how to handle these technological advances. Technology is usually good, but it must be handled the right way. The golf community will eventually have to compromise with its separate factions.