The golf equipment industry was valued at $8.9 billion in 2022.
By 2030, the market will be worth an estimated $12.9 billion.
This indicates that golf is in a very healthy space – more people are taking up the sport, more clubs are being sold and more innovation is featured in the design and manufacturing of golf clubs.
The evolution of golf clubs has changed most dramatically in the past five decades capitalizing on new technology and new materials used to design and build them.
Have you ever stopped and wondered what the evolution of golf clubs has been to get to what is currently in your bag?
Is there any link to what we use today to clubs that were made hundreds of years ago?
In looking at the evolution of golf clubs, we’ll consider the following:
- History Of Golf Clubs
- Persimmon Is Replaced By Steel
- Steel To Titanium
- The Current Generation Of Drivers
- The Evolution Of The Iron
- Steel Shafts
- Graphite Shafts
- Reflecting On The Evolution Of Golf Clubs
Let’s jump into it!
History Of Golf Clubs
We can answer the question of “what golf clubs are made of” fairly simply when we look at the first golf clubs.
With little to no technology, research, or development, golf clubs were handmade.
The materials used were, therefore, fairly limited to certain types of wood initially. These would offer a combination of strength for the head and ease of shaping into a golf club.
In the middle of the 18th century, golf clubs with forged iron heads appeared – the “Niblick,” which was an early form of what we would now consider to be a wedge.
The idea that you would have to visit a blacksmith to get your first golf clubs seems completely alien to us nowadays but the forging process survives in a more reformed way which we’ll visit later.
Persimmon is replaced by steel
Persimmon woods were the only choice for golfers right up until the mid-80s.
Persimmon was an ideal wood to manufacture heads because it offered the strength to withstand the ravages of hitting lots of golf balls but it wasn’t too heavy that it would be impossible to swing the club.
Hitting a persimmon-headed wood gave a satisfying “thwack” sound which is very different from today’s titanium or carbon-faced drivers.
If you look at a persimmon driver today, you will notice how small the head is compared to a modern driver, but this, in turn, offered the opportunity for the golfer to shape their shots more effectively, given the shape of the hole they were playing.
Ironically the persimmon driver was seen as a difficult club to tame if a professional was under pressure coming down the stretch.
They preferred what they deemed to be the safer option and hit either a one or two iron instead – how things have changed now!
But the days of persimmon were coming to an end.
There had been attempts before, but the first commercially successful metal-headed “wood” was launched in 1979 – the TaylorMade “Pittsburgh Persimmon.”
The name might have been slightly misleading as this driver was made from steel – the reference to Pittsburgh is related to the city being famous for its steel industry.
Steel was a generational shift for the golf industry as it was lighter, easier to produce, and stronger than wood.
We also started to witness the change in the size of the driver heads as the lighter material meant making the heads could be made bigger and, therefore, more forgiving.
Whilst not increasing the size of the sweet spot, metal-headed drivers introduced better perimeter weighting, which meant that off-center hits weren’t punished as much as with the old persimmon drivers.
Steel to titanium
In the grander scheme of things, steel didn’t have a long reign as the supreme material for making drivers.
1995 saw the dawn of the titanium age with the launch of the Callaway Great Big Bertha.
The Great Big Bertha began the titanium revolution that continues to this day.
The current generation of drivers
The process of making golf clubs nowadays isn’t too far removed from how Formula 1 cars or aircraft are produced.
Countless hours are spent using computer modeling and wind tunnel testing to come up with drivers that are the most aerodynamic, which the engineers say will help increase club head speed and, therefore, longer drives.
The materials used in the construction of drivers are also changing as manufacturers seek ways to make driver heads faster.
As already mentioned, 1994 saw the introduction of titanium as we have seen was the material of choice for driver construction; however, a few manufacturers along the way tinkered with the idea of replacing titanium with carbon composite.
The pattern continues of making driver heads lighter, faster, and more forgiving as carbon composite has lighter and stronger properties compared to their titanium counterparts.
There were a few driver releases that featured heads completely constructed from carbon composite, but they never really took off – players didn’t like the feel or the noise these drivers made and they quickly disappeared off the shelves of golf shops.
But this didn’t kill the idea off completely, and as a compromise, manufacturers started to produce driver heads that featured a mix of carbon and titanium.
What we see now is a scenario where the crown and maybe the sole of the driver is constructed from carbon composite but the face of the driver might still be made from titanium.
In 2022, we saw the re-emergence of new carbon technology in the driver face from TaylorMade.
The company has stated it has been working behind the scenes for 20 years to produce this face which they claim will allow faster ball speeds off the club face for longer drives.
The driver market is massive and ultra-competitive among the big manufacturers so any edge they can get in the materials they use that potentially adds more distance is likely to help sales.
We can now see that carbon composite will be used more and more in drivers of the future but what about fairway woods and hybrids?
The answer is most likely yes.
Some fairway woods have carbon elements built into them, like the drivers – on the crown and the sole but hybrids don’t just yet.
The evolution of the iron
With the evolution of golf clubs, when we look at the iron market, we see some traditional values are still upheld to produce the current crop of clubs, especially in forged blades which are seen as the epitome of the iron game.
We mentioned earlier with the early Niblick golf clubs how they were forged and made available via the local blacksmith.
By the 1870s, easier forging processes were discovered, which meant iron heads could be mass-produced with better degrees of consistency in the manufacturing process.
Today, forged-bladed irons still represent the epitome of the irons.
These clubs are known as blades because of their thin top line, narrow sole, and no cavity to assist golfers who aren’t the purest of ball-strikers.
The best players in the world use blades because they offer maximum feedback and playability.
The feedback is provided by the fact that these irons are forged; the job here is to find the best steel available, which creates strength but provides that feel.
In the mainstream market, Mizuno is widely believed to offer the best-feeling blades but there are other manufacturers snapping at their heels.
Outside of blades, manufacturers have launched irons that feature hollow spaces behind the club face, which can be filled with foam-like material which help to provide a bigger “trampoline effect.”
This helps to generate faster ball speeds translating into more distance.
Some manufacturers will also employ different materials, such as tungsten which can be placed strategically to alter weight distribution making the club head more stable.
A major change shook up the golf industry in 1925 with the introduction of steel shafts into the production of golf clubs.
Steel offered more durability and strength compared to wood, plus it brought the overall weight down of a golf club.
Steel also introduced more accuracy as the shafts were not handmade and liable to human inconsistencies in the production process.
One final difference with steel shafts was the introduction of tapering and step patterns.
The grip end of the shaft, known as the butt end, was thicker than the end of the shaft that would join the hosel – the tip end of the shaft.
The stepping pattern in the shaft helped manage how the shaft tapered as it reduced in diameter.
Whilst steel is still the main material in use for our irons, wedges, and putters, we seldom see it used for our woods which utilize graphite.
Initially used in the aerospace industry, carbon graphite had properties that made it lighter with the same strength properties of steel.
Launched without any success in the 70s, graphite started to gain traction in the mid to late 80s as steel-headed drivers became more popular.
Adding a graphite shaft to a steel-headed wood meant that overall the swing weight was lighter; therefore, golfers could generate more club head speed and more distance out of the combination.
When we look at woods and hybrids today, we can’t really imagine there being an offering from a major manufacturer that features a steel shaft.
Graphite shafts are engineered now with different materials woven together, offering higher degrees of stability and consistency.
Graphite shafts also come in different weights to suit different skin speeds and can be built to help promote different launch and spin characteristics to help increase distances.
We see a growing number of iron sets being used by many players that feature graphite shafts.
This trend will likely continue as the quality and understanding of what’s required to make a good graphite shaft for irons increases.
Reflecting on the evolution of golf clubs
We can see that the evolution of golf clubs has been substantial, especially over the past 50 years.
We asked at the start of this article whether or not there is any link between the clubs we use today and what was used hundreds of years ago.
In one respect, the answer is a clear no.
The clubs we use now bear no semblance to what early golfers used, as we have demonstrated.
But we can also look at it and say that with all the technology we employ today, we are still asking our golf clubs to do a similar role to clubs of the past.
We want some clubs to hit the ball a long way, and we want clubs that can aid us with accurate approach shots.
With the rate of development, it’s exciting to think what golf clubs will be like in the next twenty years.
We can also see that the size of the golf club industry is massive and growing, leading to further innovations in the evolution of golf clubs.
Whilst that is an exciting prospect, let’s hope the human at the end of the golf club can develop just as fast!
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