In any of life’s activities, you can do a better job with today and tomorrow if you understand a little bit about yesterday. Trying to play better golf is no different. Whether you are a PGA Tour player, a club professional or an amateur, it is to your advantage to have, at least, a basic grasp of the game’s history.
Most anyone, who understands the difference between a driver and a putter, knows somewhat about the mystery surrounding the origins of the game. Earliest accounts tell us that golf may have begun in ancient Rome with the soldiers. Whereas, other explanations list its roots in Holland with the Lowlanders or, quite possibly in Scotland with the shepherds. For all practical purposes, it matters very little where the game actually got started. What does matter, however, are certain key factors in the game’s more recent history because of their effect on your learning to be a better golfer.
During the 15th century when golf became a national obsession with the Scots, it slowly began to develop into a very similar game to the one in which we are playing today. Throughout that development there have been multiple changes in the equipment used, the course on which the game is played, and even in the people who play it. These various evolutions have resulted in modifications being made in the actual golf swing and the game, itself. I’d like to share with you some of the main advancements that have taken place, over the years, to help you understand why it’s best to approach the golf swing and the entire game in a more basic and fundamental way.
Part I. Equipment
Although, historians tell us that the French played a game with an iron-faced club and a round (more or less) wooden ball during the 15th century, the Scotch game was played with all wooden clubs and balls.
Scotch bowyers, when they weren’t making bows and arrows, began to make golf clubs mostly out of blackthorn wood. For hundreds of years, golf clubs were made out of wood, and it was not until late last century that the hickory shaft was replaced by other materials.
Historically, the club head of a wood was made from persimmon although some manufacturers—notably Ping—developed laminated woods in the early 1970s. Then, in 1979, TaylorMade Golf introduced the first metal wood made of steel and, as a result, persimmon drivers began disappearing overnight.
In the late 1920s, hickory shafts began being replaced by steel shafts. Though, the new shaft was a considerable bonus for the player. It was anything but profitable for the club maker. When my uncle Dick was a young assistant pro in 1923, he could earn $100 a month repairing clubs, primarily because the hickory shafts would bow and snap quite easily. In the 1930s, though, club repairs scarcely totaled that much in a year once the wood shafts were pretty much gone.
By 1938, the steel shaft was so prevalent that the United States Golf Association (USGA) were compelled to decree a new rule limiting a player to fourteen clubs. That rule was enacted primarily because golfers didn’t have to worry about shafts breaking during a round anymore. The new limit was a smart one. Famed course architect Donald Ross had been a prominent critic of the policy that allowed an unlimited number of clubs, contending that “if a golfer gets the notion the more clubs he carries, the better he is going to play, there never would be a limit. In due time, pack mules would have replaced caddies. As it was, the caddies of the nation were all getting humpbacked, staggering along under freight car loads.”
The golf ball, as well, was changing during those earliest days. By the 17th century, golfers had rejected wooden balls and turned to a ball that would travel farther, the “featherie.” As you can see, the one thing that seems never to change is the fact that golfers are always looking for new equipment to help them out! But, the featherie ball, with its leather hide and feather stuffing was a real improvement. Tradition has it that the amount of feathers necessary to fill a ball was a top hat full. Then, these feathers were wet down and stuffed in the cow hide which was then stitched up. Once the feathers dried out, the ball was very hard with the hide stretched tight.
During this time, it shouldn’t surprise you that the frugal Scots started spending a lot of time looking for these balls when they hit them off line. In today’s dollars, you would have to pay from $10 to $20 for each ball you owned! Whereas the wooden balls had been fairly cheap to produce, the featherie was very expensive. So, the authorities of the day were forced to make a rule limiting the amount of time that could be spent looking for a ball. And, that rule still exists today!
In the middle of the 19th century, the first rubber ball, the gutta-percha, was introduced. Not only was this ball less expensive than the featherie but, it also carried a longer distance. Its only drawback was that it did not necessarily fly straight. The flight of the “gutty” was totally unpredictable and erratic until it was dented and nicked up a bit. So, golfers began banging dents and “dimples” into their brand new balls. Modern day research in aerodynamics has proven what these early golfers suspected – that uneven surfaces do affect the flight of the ball. Today, golf ball manufacturers are always trying to determine the best pattern and right number of dimples that produces the truest and best ball flight.
A truly revolutionary event in golf took place at the turn of the century with the introduction of the Haskell rubber-cored ball. It was the first ball made with uneven surfaces but, without dimples. Patented on April 11, 1899, the Haskell ball had a rubber center which was wound with rubber string. In addition, the rubber cover had geometric lines and markings to produce lift and truer flight. Besides being a golf ball that began resembling the type in which we play with today, the Haskell came with a relatively small price tag.
Part II. Course
Through the ages, as better golf clubs and balls evolved, the equilibrium of golf courses was affected. So, they had to be modified and improved to continue the challenge. Those first Scottish “courses” were usually nothing more than publicly owned linksland. Linksland is that land formed along the estuaries of rivers where there is rich soil deposited along the sand dunes and hollows along the beach.
In those earliest days, the first course architect was Mother Nature and rabbits were the green-keepers. The land itself was a task with its scrubby gorse on the dunes, its pits of beach sand where animal burrows had caved in, and its closely grazed areas of pasture. Also, ever changing sea breezes provided yet another consideration for those early golfers. Originally, no specific holes were laid out. Golfers would just hit out, maybe to a rabbit hole agreed upon by the players themselves and then, they would hit back in to another hole somewhere.
As the game became more popular in Scotland, actual “courses” of play were formed. The Old Course at St. Andrews is generally considered to be the oldest golf course in Scotland. Records indicate its existence as early as 1414. The course design at St. Andrews evolved in the shape of a shepherd’s staff or crook. And, interestingly enough, it started out as a 22-hole course. There were 12 different large putting surfaces, ten of which were used twice during a round. Because the golfers had to designate whether they were playing “out” to the sea or “in” to the land, the game inherited two of its modern-day terms: “out” referring to the first nine holes of play and “in” referring to the second nine holes of play in an 18-hole round.
The Old Course at St. Andrews remained a 22-hole course until sometime in the late 18th century when the Society of St. Andrews Golfers decided to combine the first four holes into two holes. Now, since the same greens were played both going out and coming in, this reduced the round to 18 holes. And, even though this occurrence seems to be the facts, a lot of people still find it more enjoyable to believe that those early golfers simply quit playing in the raw Scottish gales when the 18 jiggers of Scotch found in a bottle were all consumed!
In due time, the facility at St. Andrews became recognized as the official home of golf and known as The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. And, because St. Andrews had 18 holes, all golf courses were ultimately designed with 18 holes. Also, traditionalists thought it improper to call just any area for golf a “links” unless it was actually built on linksland. So, after a while, the term “golfing course” and eventually, “golf course” was used to refer to those other areas.
Before the end of the 19th century, golf had established itself in nearby England and France. And, it was being advanced as far away as India, Hong Kong and South Africa. Also, the game had come to the new world with a golf “club” being founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786. For sure, as the game scattered all over the globe, golf courses were going to be different from each other, according to the geography and climate of the area.
All sorts of modifications were being made to golf courses (even, to those already in existence) during this time. The arrival of the gutta-percha ball made it possible for club makers to use iron heads on their implements. So, golfers began to take larger divots and dig up more turf with their shots. Once the heather was removed, it often did not grow back. Instead, bent grass which is common to linksland, grew up in its place and fairways of shorter grass were born. Whereas, there had always been limited amounts of this type of shorter grass, now these areas became wider.
In the 1840s, Allan Robertson, who is generally thought to be the first golf course designer, began planning courses rather than just letting them materialize on their own. Robertson was the head professional at St. Andrews and widely regarded as the finest player, teacher and club maker in Scotland. So, it would only seem logical that he would know best how to lay out a course.
Throughout this period, most courses were designed by professionals or green- keepers. These men would simply travel to a proposed area, spend a few days there and choose some natural locations for tees and greens. Then, they would arrange the course around them. About the only consideration given to construction or maintenance was to make sure there would be enough sand available to top-dress the greens.
As the game’s popularity steadily increased, these early course architects stayed busy not only designing new courses but also redesigning other courses to make them 18 holes. One of them, the illustrious Old Tom Morris developed a unique pattern for the 18 holes. In 1891 his golf course at Muirfield, Scotland opened with two nine-hole loops, each one starting and ending at the clubhouse. This configuration, still very much in existence today, allows for a well-situated round of only 9 holes when we choose to do so.
Needless to say, golf courses continued to be affected by other changes and innovations. In the 1850s, specific equipment for cutting a putting hole came into use and, a few years later, metal cups were being sunk into the holes. Irrigation of putting greens dates back to the 1880s. And, the lawn mower, invented in 1830, finally makes it to some golf courses by the last half of the century.
As constant improvements in course design and maintenance continued to be made in Scotland, there were golf “clubs” in the United States at this time, where those upgrades and innovations weren’t being employed at all. Though, golf “clubs” had been established in South Carolina and Georgia in the 1700s, the members apparently had no golf courses on which to play! Only an avid golfer could appreciate the love of the game those Scotch and English settlers had to have in order to form a club with no golf course. What’s more, in the 1980s, a golf club that attracted over 300 members, was established in Juneau, Alaska. The only drawback to membership was that the closest actual golf courses were located several hundred miles away in Canada.
In the United States, the first verified playing course for golf was a three-hole layout in Yonkers, New York, which was designed in 1888 by a Scottish immigrant, John Reid. Eventually, Reid and his playing buddies expanded their course to six holes and boldly named it the St. Andrews Golf Club. And, though, there’s good reason to believe that Reid’s Yonkers layout is the original course in America. There are courses in Pennsylvania, Vermont, Iowa, West Virginia, Florida, Illinois and even, Nebraska that claim to have been in existence sometime before 1888. The fact is, that no matter where golf actually got started in this country, once it did begin, the game really spread. By 1896 there were over 80 courses open for play. And, by 1900 there were nearly 1000!
About 1890, a Scottish professional by the name of Willie Dunn, or “Young Willie” as he was called, so as not to confuse him with his father, was brought to the United States to design a golf course. His arrival in this country is the first evidence that we have of a qualified course designer being employed. In 1891, Dunn designed and built Shinnecock Hills, a celebrated course located on Long Island in New York. Although his equipment was poor and his help was totally inexperienced in building golf courses, Young Willie constructed a course which was second to none in this country.
Willie Dunn is important to us, not only because he built such an outstanding course, but also because on his return to Scotland, he circulated the word to other Scottish professionals about the exciting and lucrative opportunities in golf which could be found in the United States. Apparently, Dunn was mighty convincing at spreading that gospel because a tremendous influx of his countrymen immigrated to this country. Some of these turn-of-the-century Scotsmen were fine players who became Touring pros and PGA club professionals. While others found employment as green- keepers, club makers or course designers. And, of course, some of these fellows were only interested in the game itself and making a fresh start in the new world.
People and the Evolving Golf Swing
Today, people are taller (and fatter) than ever before. The increase in size can be attributed, most likely, to improved nutrition, health services, hygiene (and fast food joints). During the last 100 years, alone, males have grown 1.5 inches taller and now average close to 5’10”. Females, throughout that same interval, have grown about .5 inch taller and now average 5’4”. However, studies indicate that over a century ago when these Scottish professionals began entering the U.S., their average height was about 5’6’’. Scotsman “Wee Bobby” Cruickshank was only about 5’2’’ and Italian-American Gene Sarazen was 5’5’’.
In those days, people in general, were just shorter and therefore they were built closer to the ground. These physical characteristics had an impact on how the game was being played. The look of the swing was different back then, as well. Whereas you see the players of today take the club back on the target line and into a fairly upright position, players like Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen took the club more quickly inside the target line. This results in the club being swung up and around, with it finishing not as much over the shoulders. Since the heel came pretty high off the ground and the club was often dragged back with the hands in a long sweeping motion, their swings looked flatter. And, because the downswing and follow-through had more of an early hip turn and less leg drive, they looked like they sort of slapped the club through the ball.
Another real difference between the players’ swings back then and what we see now takes place in the pre-shot routine. The set-up and aiming procedure used by the early Scots and British was done so as to curve the ball from right to left. That is, they purposely aimed out to the right, often with either a closed or open stance and played the ball low and hooking to keep it below the high winds usually found on links courses. An added advantage to that low rolling ball was that the fairways were not routinely irrigated the way they are now. So, a golfer could get a lot of extra yardage from the roll.
In those days, golfers used hickory shafts. The U.S.G.A. approved of steel shafts in 1925 but a lot of companies still offered clubs in either steel or hickory shafts throughout the 1930s. Hickory shafted clubs tended to turn and torque during the swing. So, the hands were used much more in the swing because feel, rhythm and timing were terrifically important in using these clubs.
Because it was essential to feel the shaft and possess a sense of awareness of the club head, how the golfer placed his hands on the club was different, too. The wrists had to be loose and free for greater movement so the club was held a bit more up into the fingers of the left hand. Both hands were turned over to the right quite a bit more than what’s common today. With this grip, at the top of the backswing, the left wrist would be more bent and in a cupped position.
But, as you might expect, there was more. Even, the manner of dress at that time had an influence on how the golf club was being swung. Restrictive clothing remained in fashion even on the golf course. And, the proper attire was anything but comfortable to swing in! As late as 1931, when my father began playing the PGA Tour, the look called for fellows to wear dress shirts and ties while competing. And, ladies wore long, long skirts and full blouses and sweaters.
In all probability, though, the biggest factor that affected the way people swung the club and played the game was that most everyone was self-taught. The early part of the 20th century in America witnessed many new golf courses and a lot more golfers. But, there weren’t enough teachers and professionals who actually knew much of anything about the mechanics of the game. As a result, thousands of people learned about golf their own way.
Keep in mind, there wasn’t a lot of communication nationwide. There weren’t any movies or television to show them how the great players did it from week to week. There were a few books that specialized in studying the golf swing. But mostly, it seemed that golf instruction was just a jumble of theory and conjecture. As a consequence, even the golf swings of the better playing professionals were rather unorthodox by today’s standards. But, – this is important – those quirky swings did have a heckuva knack for getting the ball in the hole!
Great champions such as Jones, Hagen and Sarazen were all more or less self-taught. The only exception from that era was Tommy Armour. Before immigrating to America from Scotland in 1920, Armour had taken over 900 lessons from different English professionals, most notably from the illustrious George Duncan.
Therefore, given the conditions that “there was nobody around who knew much.” And, those few teachers of the game who might have known a little bit were situated across the pond in the British Isles. So, it isn’t surprising at all that the professional player’s swing of yesterday doesn’t resemble the Tour player’s swing of today. Summing it up, then, a golf swing mastered by a short player in a starched shirt, tie and suit coat, sometimes playing on a wind-swept links course with hard fairways and small greens, had to look pretty extraordinary!
The fact of the matter is, though, that back then as now, basic fundamental skills produce a repeatable efficient position at the moment of truth … when the club head meets the ball. Any golfer of any era, who was or is successful, has had that same good position at impact. Which is: hands leading club head; club face square to the target; swing accelerating through the ball; and, head behind the ball.
And, another fact of the matter is that, then as now, the secret to becoming a good golfer is knowing what to do and then, spending the time to practice so that you become skilled at it. Through research, mass communication and by taking periodic lessons from a knowledgeable instructor, everyone can learn the basic fundamentals that go into making a sound, efficient golf swing.
Without a doubt, though, talent makes a difference. That’s what the Good Lord bestows upon us. But technique, now that’s what we can learn. And, technique can make up for a lack of talent. You may have a lot of talent or a little, but by becoming proficient at the fundamentals of a sound swing, you can surely improve your play. And, no matter if you’re short or tall, young or old, you’ll be able to find certain players on television and on DVD’s who fit your body type and age category. And, if you look close enough, you’ll notice some individual differences, but not so many as existed 100 years ago.
Part IV. Conclusion
Today, there are a total of 9,700 golf courses affiliated with the U.S.G.A. It’s obvious that the pursuit of higher, longer and straighter will never end. As the twentieth century came to a close, the entire face of golf changed drastically with the advent of new technologies. We’re bombarded with advertisements for new types of golf shoes, clubs and hundreds of other golf accessories. The level of scientific research into something as simple as a golf ball can be mind-boggling. With new materials and computer engineering, improvements are being made on golf equipment and fashion trends faster than marketers can publicize them.
As a final point, if golf were merely a game about technology, we’d be set. It’s not quite that simple. Technology will never be a substitute for skill. The fact is, all the equipment in the world can’t change the fundamentals of the game.