Gear Shifts: A Brief Chronology of Golf’s Game Changers

Golf clubs across the centuries that were real game changers

 

There has been no shortage of attempts at golf club innovation throughout the history of of golf. Some inventions are simply bizarre, and not well understood for their time. Others, however, marked significant change in the development of equipment. The following are some of golf’s most recognized game changers.

 

The Troon Clubs and Period Coins

The Troon Clubs and Period Coins

 

The Troon Clubs

Designer: Unknown
Est. Creation Date: Circa 1600
Impact (on the game):  The Troon Clubs, a set comprising six long-nose woods and two heavy square-toe irons, is considered the earliest known example of golf clubs to exist. Each club is marked with the initials J & C and a Crown. The clubs were discovered in Hull (northeast England) behind a hidden closet in a house being refurbished toward the end of the 1800s. The set was donated to Troon Golf Club by a former member and past Captain. Today they are on long-term loan to the British Golf Museum in St. Andrews.

The woods, which measure between 44- and 48 inches in length, have ash shafts and hawthorn heads that feature protruding lead weights at the back. The black-hued irons have large hosels and heads that are nailed (rather than pinned) to the shaft—a technique popular in the 1700s.

The Troon set has become the benchmark for dating golf clubs.

 

Game Changer: Philp Baffing Spoon

Game Changer: Philp Baffing Spoon

 

The Philp Long Nose Putter

Designer: Hugh Philp
Est. Date: 1835
Impact: Club maker Hugh Philp of St. Andrews was a meticulous artisan who was often compared to the famous Italian violin craftsman Antonio Stradivari. Like Stradivari, who predated him by a century, Philp transformed early club designs into works of art featuring graceful lines and elegant curves while also improving function. His “balanced” Long Nose putters, for example, evenly distributed weight and resulted in a more predictable roll.

Ever since his death in 1856, Philp has been universally recognized as club making’s finest artisan. Described as a “dry-haired man, rather gruff to strangers,” his Long Nose putter designs would go on to be copied—and even counterfeited—by envious putter makers for the next 80 years.

 

 

Mashie

Mashie

The Mashie

Designer: Unclear
Est. Date:
1880s
Impact:
The Mashie is likely to have started the iron club revolution. The head shape is shorter and deeper than the cleek or iron heads and has more taper from heel to toe, giving it a hatchet like shape. This club was the most played of the iron-headed clubs in a player’s bag, used for the majority of the shots—from its maximum distance, down to the shortest of approach shots.

 

McEwan Playclub

McEwan Playclub

 

The McEwan Playclub

Designer: Peter McEwan
Est. Date: 1885
The McEwan family club makers spanned five generations dating from 1770 to 1890 and had a similar reputation in Edinburgh as that of Philp in St. Andrews. The family specialized in the manufacture of Long Nose clubs. The Playclub was developed to counteract the effect of the new “Guttie Ball” (made from gutta percha), which was much harder than the “Featherie” balls that preceded it.

McEwan clubfaces often employed leather, which had a trampoline-like effect that resulted in greater shot distances. While the leather is history, experts often consider modern hybrid and rescue clubs to be descendants of McEwan Playclubs.

 

Mills Aluminum Putter

Mills Aluminum Putter

 

The Mills Aluminum Putter

Designer: William Mills
Est. Date: 1899
Modeled on Philp’s 1850 design, the Mills Aluminum Putter had none of the problems associated with wood heads, which suffered when wet or had pronounced bounce when dry. Many of the best players of the period picked one up almost as soon as it came on the market. This putter had such a profound effect on the game that it forced changes to the handicap system. A turn-of-the-century edition of this very magazine described the Mills Aluminum as the best golf invention since the Mashie.

 

George Nicoll Indicator Irons

George Nicoll Indicator Irons

 

Nicoll’s Indicator Irons

Designer: George Nicoll
Est. Date: 1926
The first matching set of irons, George Nicoll’s Indicator series radically changed the market for clubs. Each iron featured a stamp on the back that provided players an approximate “indication” of how far they could hit it. Bolstering the science behind the indicators, Nicoll constrained each shaft to a uniform weight and flex—breakthrough thinking at the time.

The 1926 Indicators came with hickory shafts. By 1929, steel shafts—which simplified weight, whip, and torque matching—became the standard.

 

Oggmented Irons

Nicoll Oggmented Irons

 

Ogg-Mented Irons

Designer: Willie Ogg
Est. Date: 1928
Carnoustie, Scotland-based William (Willie) Ogg’s design for distributing weight away from the heel and moving it toward the “sweet spot” of the club head essentially launched the idea behind perimeter weighting. Despite the name, his “Ogg-Mented” irons changed the way clubs would be designed right up to today. Gene Sarazen was one of the first to adopt the design. Willie eventually immigrated to the United States, where he became the chief club designer for Wilson Sports. Wilson made several versions of the original model.

 

Concave Wedge

Concave Wedge

 

Concave Wedge

Designer: Edwin MacClain
Est. Date: 1928
The Concave Wedge literally added a new dimension to the game. The deep-faced club introduced a thick steel flange toward the backside base that not only encouraged a low center of gravity but also struck the playing surface first, helping prevent higher-lofted clubs from digging—and thus the club specification known as “bounce” was born. Ever-active Gene Sarazen continued to evolve the design into the must-have club we now recognize as the sand wedge.

 

Ping Anser

Ping Anser

 

Anser Putter

Designer: Karsten Solheim
Est. Date: 1967
According to Golf Digest, Norwegian Engineer Karsten Solheim drew the first sketches of his Anser putter on the back of a 78rpm vinyl record jacket in 1966. He was awarded a patent the following year. By the mid-1970s, more than half of the PGA Tour’s golfers were using the club.

The Anser’s success allowed Solheim to become a full-time club maker with deep enough pockets to purchase his own foundry and heat-treating plant. When his patent on the Anser lapsed in 1984, a number of manufacturers jumped into production mode on putters that employed the same simple physics and mechanics that Solheim used to create the Anser. The putter has been copied by nearly all of the major club makers since.

Question: What is the story behind the name of the putter?
Anser: The name is generally attributed to Solheim’s wife Louise, who suggested the name “Answer,” based on the notion that it “was an answer for the vexing problems in putting.” Karsten rolled with the idea but soon discovered the name presented a problem: It was too long to fit on the putter’s toe. Solheim simply removed the “w”, a solution I find particularly poetic. The letter is “silent” in the original word, so it makes some sense that on putters it’s invisible too.

 

 

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Sean T. Kelly

Owner/Director at LinkedGolfers
Sean T. Kelly is a writer, editor, and content director who has nearly 25 years' experience developing material in print, online, and over the air. His work has appeared on the New York Times "Best Seller List," international magazine covers, and the Today Show, among others. Sean is currently focusing on the intersection of travel, lifestyle, and mobile technologies. He is the owner/director LinkedGolfers.
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