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Classic golf clubs of the 20th Century
Classic Golf Clubs of the 20th Century
This is part of an ongoing 2nd Swing exclusive historical golf club history series.
As golf began to evolve from its Scottish roots, its clubs would change yet again in the 20th century as the production materials and the ball itself advanced.
In the later 1890s, the more compact “bulger” style wood head (similar in shape to what we play with today) was being made from durable persimmon with a strong, flexible hickory shaft installed.
Around the same time Mills and Spalding were two companies that actually tried the modern-day idea of producing metalwoods, albeit thick aluminum ones, sometimes in the shape of the old long-nose clubs. But it would be a while until the first metal woods would be made as we know them today.
We have a gentleman known as Coburn Haskell to thank for the wound balata (which is rubber extracted from the South American trees) covered ball that was used throughout most of the 1900s.
For roughly four centuries prior to Haskell’s balata rubberized revolution, golf balls were made of wood and then of leather filled with feathers, aptly called featherys. In the mid-1800s, Rev. Dr. Robert Adams invented the Gutta Percha or gutty golf ball made by tapped from Sapodilla trees then dried and reheated and formed into balls.
Then in 1898 while visiting a friend at the B.F. Goodrich rubber plant, Haskell fooled around with some rubber threads he found. He wound them tightly into a ball shape and noticed how lively the ball was. With the addition of a vulcanized cover molded of balata rubber, the Haskell ball was born. The days of guttys were quickly numbered. And the wound-type Haskell ball (wrapped tightly over a small solid or liquid inner center) would be the preferred ball of most golfers up to the late 1980s. It actually would continue to be made until the year 2000.
With a multitude of new dimple designs, the balata ball became the only one to play with for more than half the 20th century. Golfers could spin the ball more for pinpoint accuracy and stopping action into a green. Around and on the green, the ball was much easier to control on chip shots and putts.
It is fortuitous that this new softer ball came around roughly the same time as the successful invention of the steel golf shaft. People loved the look and feel of hickory wood shafts but the lower torque and improved accuracy of the tempered tubular steel shaft would prove to be unstoppable. Some folks were not willing to accept the new metallic, harsher feeling shafts. The USGA even banned them for ten years as being non-traditional, but in 1924 relented and approved them for play.
Spalding introduced their ever popular Bobby Jones Signature clubs in 1932 with steel shafts. (Hickory shafts also were initially offered, but few were sold.). People wanted the steel performance but still clung to the look of wood, therefore many of the first Jones sets were steel shafts that were painted to appear to be wood.
Golfers who have played with persimmon woods and wound balata balls recall the days when you could really “work” the ball into your target. The curve of the wound balls was much greater than today’s solid layer balls. This was good and bad. The ball was workable, but it was also much easier to hit off-line (lots of backspin for accuracy also allowed for lots of side spin for too much fade or draw).
The lower-torque steel shafts helped this and for a large part of the 20th century golf clubs were made of persimmon wood and flat-backed forged irons. Some of the most popular were MacGregor’s Tommy Armour Silver Scot woods and irons. These were sought after by players and collectors for many years.
Initially, produced from the late 1930s to the 1960s the classic pear-shaped head of the woods was something that even the top Tour players would seek out to play with during the 1960s to 1980s. Other MacGregor woods with their “Eye-O-Matic” fiber inserts and their “firing pin” insert additions created a great appearance and perceived better feel. The M693 and Tourney models were two very popular clubs. MacGregor’s early staff players consisted of a few golfers that did okay on the pro circuit. Guys like Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Byron Nelson.
Of course, Wilson Sporting Goods hired some young fellows named Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead who turned out to be pretty good, too. Wilson Staff clubs were very popular and with the invention of its Strato-Bloc wood head (a laminated hard rock maple used to replace the scarcer persimmon), and Wilson went on to capture a good portion of the market.
MacGregor Tourney (MT) irons were forged with a flat back and then the back was “broached” or milled into many different shapes such as the “winged back” and the “diamond back” to allow for different feel and looks. Wilson Staff irons, with its unique bored through hosels, created their “Fluid Feel” irons that were sought by better players.
In 1953, Ben Hogan not only had his banner year of three Major wins, but he also found time to start up his namesake company. The Hogan Apex irons were some of the best clubs produced in the 20th century and used by many PGA Tour players, whether under contract or not.
In the 1960s, PING Golf was formed and the modern investment cast cavity-back iron was introduced. There had been many cavity-back and heel-toe weighted irons in years prior this, but PING’s investment in casting produced a distinctive looking club that performed better than the old flat-back design. Some said they were not as workable as the old designs, but accuracy and ease of play soon won over many golfers.
In the late 1970s, a little company began known as TaylorMade. They made the first thin walled hollow steel metalwoods. Known as “Pittsburgh Persimmon” these small little heads seemed to have an advantage over every day wooden heads. If you get a chance to see an early TaylorMade metalwood, you’ll be amazed at how tiny they were. The drivers were small and the fairway woods were minuscule. This was due to the weight of steel and the wall thickness that had to be maintained in those early days. As casting technology improved, the walls got thinner and the heads got bigger. When the industry switched over to titanium driver heads in the early 1990s, the head sizes began to increase exponentially.
Again, the clubs and balls go hand in hand. When Spalding produced the large solid core with surlyn cover Top-Flite ball in the 1970s, people noticed that the ball shot off the face and rolled farther than the wound balls of the day. Not everyone liked the balls due to the harsh feel, but distance often trumps feel.
Match up this solid core ball with the new metal woods and …. Boom! An explosion in the game was heard.
Around the mid-1980s, Spalding worked on a softer version of the solid-core ball coupled with a very soft urethane and zinc cover which produced the Tour Edition ball. Greg Norman used this ball for the high points of his career. It seemed that only the powerful Norman could get all the distance out of this ball with wooden-headed drivers. Other top players loved the feel and spin (One Hall of Famer once told me it was like cheating around the greens because the Tour Edition ball was so easy to control.), but many didn’t get the distance they desired.
The next generation ball was longer; and as metalwoods began to overtake the persimmon market, a synergy was noticed between these new type of balls and the thin-walled metalwood clubs. The spin could be controlled, yet the feel and the distance were better. Soon thereafter balls with multiple layers were invented — and now many types of feel and spin can be created for every type of golfer.
Add in the newest and best designed composite graphite shafts and distance launched exponentially. By the 1990s, the wooden-headed clubs were gone — and the wound ball was on its way out as well.