From hand-carved lumps of wood to expertly crafted tools: a history of the golf club

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Winston Churchill once said, “Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

Well, if he could see today’s golf clubs, he might want to rephrase that a little bit. I’ve covered some fantastic golf clubs here on Birdieable, from the best golf clubs for beginners to more advanced, expert gear. What’s fascinating is that nowadays, you can pick up a TaylorMade driver with an adjustable face and the ability to change the loft you get on the ball, essentially adapting to whatever conditions you’re playing in! A far cry from what Churchill was used to.

It’s interesting to look back at the history of golf clubs, because they weren’t always such hi-tech gadgets. Although the history books show the Chinese played a very golf-like game over a thousand years ago (with bejewelled clubs, no less!), the Scottish are credited with inventing the sport in the 15th century, and back then, clubs were barbaric.

People would often just carve their own out of wood, although as the game took off, the players soon turned to skilled hands to produce equipment fit for dominating the course.

King James IV of Scotland commissioned a bow-maker in Perth to craft him a set of golf clubs in 1502. This was the first recorded instance of a set of clubs being made especially for golf, and proved to be the starting point for a golf boom.

 

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These early clubs, a little like the ones in the photo, were made from tough wood, with the head of the club bound to the shaft by leather straps. You can imagine how different they must have felt compared to today’s clubs!

 

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Back in the days of King James, they wouldn’t have used numbers to describe their golf clubs. Each one had a specific name that described what is was used for: names like longnoses, niblicks and spoons.

They may not look like much now, but remember that back then, even the golf balls were different. Around 1618, and for two hundred years after that, people played with a ball stuffed with feathers – the “featherie”.

What this meant was that even when metal became more readily available, people erred away from it because they didn’t want to damage the balls they were using.

 

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Forged metal golf heads eventually worked their way onto the scene, but although people experimented with steel shafts since the late 1890s, the R&A only legalised them after the Prince Of Wales used them in 1929. And even then it wasn’t until 1931, at the US Open, when Billy Burke became the first to win a major tournament with steel shafted clubs.

Steel had its advantages over the old wooden shafts that had been used for centuries. For one thing, it didn’t snap like hickory or ash. For another, it was very uniform: you could make a matching set far more comfortably than hand-carving your clubs out of wood.

 

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But steel, of course, is heavy – and didn’t lend itself well to optimum golf play. In 1973, the graphite shaft was introduced, and offered golfers the chance to pay with the same uniform clubs at a far lighter rate.

These days, the futuristic clubs are made from materials with names like titanium and zirconia, crafted using the very latest in computer technology and scientifically developed for optimum distance and accuracy.

No longer are they hacked from the nearest tree, but rather designed in a way that makes them look like aliens have compacted a Ferrari into a handheld weapon to take on your afternoon stroll.

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But of course, no matter how fancy your modern clubs are, they’ll be just as bad as a lump of old wood if you don’t practice to improve your golf game. As Robert Browning said, “The trouble that most of us find with the modern matched sets of clubs is that they don’t really seem to know any more about the game than the old ones did.”

 

 

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