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The future is here in equipment design

The final phase has been the adaptation of computer aided design (CAD) to club design. This has led to some odd designs, but all the major manufacturers use CAD these days. Using finite element analysis you can go a long way to simulating performance before manufacture.

The peripherally weighted irons in widespread use today, designed to "expand" the sweet spot on the club face, are a recent and effective attempt to do something which designers have tried to do since 1900, in one way or another.

The benefits from changes to the design of clubs have been less spectacular in recent years, with arguably the major effect being on the psychology of the golfer. If you have the latest "Whammo" monster driver, you just know you're going the hit the ball as far as Greg Norman. Objectively, the improvements have been more modest.

And finally, the golf ball and its effect

You can look at the history of golf in three eras, based on the type of ball used. The design of clubs has tended to follow improvements in golf ball design.

From its beginnings to the mid 1800s, the "feathery" golf ball was used. This was made from leather in three pieces (two disks and a rectangular strip) stuffed with "one Top-Hat full of fine feathers"!

Perhaps because it was easy to damage these balls and they were hand made and expensive, golfers mainly used wooden clubs (easier on the ball), though iron headed clubs were used to get the ball out of cart ruts. The shafts of all these clubs were made out of local European woods like Ash. The heads of the wooden clubs were long and thin, and they were known for this reason as "long-nose woods". Another reason for their prevalence may have been their relative ease of manufacture.

The first big change came with the "gutty" ball around 1850. This was made from a solid molded rubber called gutta-percha. It was much stronger than the feathery, and a range of iron clubs were introduced, as they gave the golfer better control over the ball and the ability to hit it out of difficult lies. The introduction of golf into America in the early 1800s lead to hickory wood being used in the shafts of the clubs. This was found to be far more durable than other woods and it became standard until steel shafts were introduced in about 1925.

The next revolution in ball design came around 1905 with the patented "Haskell" ball, which is a composite of a solid core wound with thin strips of rubber. Some modern balls (the expensive ones) are made this way today. This ball performed much better than the gutty and could be made cheaply compared to earlier balls.

The surface shape of the ball was also an area of considerable experimentation. Early gutty balls were smooth. Users found that they flew further once they had developed nicks and cuts from play. They started to pre-score their golf balls to achieve this effect. It didn't take the manufacturers long to apply patented surface shapings to the balls.

Initially these surface moldings took the form of grooves and later bumps. The "bump" design was known as the bramble pattern, probably due to a resemblance to the blackberry. Around 1910, balls with small dimples were devised. These flew further than the bramble pattern balls. Initially the dimples were square but the golf ball makers found that round dimples in the ball surface made it fly even further and this has been the standard since about 1920.

Along with this ball, club makers found that you could get better backspin and better distance if you put grooves on the club face. Some of the early grooved clubs had very wide deep grooves. These were deemed to give the player an unfair advantage and the width of grooves has now been strictly limited.