The Early Years c1450 - 1895
The first written record of golf dates to 1457 when King James II of Scotland banned it because it was interfering wth his soldiers’ archery practice. Thankfully this law was repealed, but for several hundred years thereafter the game was largely confined to the east of Scotland, with its coastal areas of naturally short grass known as “links”.
Golf at St.Andrews c1700
From the 15th to the mid-19th century golf equipment remained relatively unchanged. The clubs had long wooden heads and wooden shafts. The balls were made from leather stitched together and stuffed with goose feathers. These “feathery” balls cost a modern equivalent of £50 each, so playing the game was expensive. A Featherie Ball and Driver c1850
In 1848, a Reverend Paterson of St.Andrews experimented with balls made from a hardened rubber called gutta-percha. These could be made easily and cheaply, and within a decade they had replaced the traditional “feathery” ball.
Line-Cut Gutta Percha Ball c.1880
Patent 2683 by Thomas Johnson in 1876
( Non-wooden Golf Club heads )
The first ever golf equipment patent was granted to Thomas Johnston of Edinburgh covering the making of golf club heads out of a very hard rubber substance he called “vulcanite”, rather than wood. Today , only a dozen of these clubs are known to exist and they are extremely valuable.
Patent 5042 by Willie Park Jnr in 1889
( Concave Faced Iron Golf Club)
Thirteen years went by until the second patent for a golf club was filled by a champion golfer called Willie Park Jnr. This was for an iron headed club called a “lofter”, which had a curved concave face (Patent 5042). It is estimated that a few dozen of these clubs still exist today and they are sought after by collectors.
Between 1890 and 1900, over 125 golf club patents were granted in Great Britain, and over 20 were granted in the United States where the game had recently been adopted. These numbers are only the patents actually granted, and it is believed that over ten times these numbers were applied for. Succesful applicants which had great impact on club design include:
Patent 19,684 by Thomas Carruthers in 1890
( Joining Iron Heads to Shafts )
This was for iron headed clubs only and covered “running the end of the wooden shaft right through the socket and out of the heel”. Although Carruthers made many thousands of irons this technique did not catch on because the end of the wooden shaft was prone to getting wet and rotting. The technique was revived in the late 20th century particularly in such irons as the Callaway Big Bertha series, and virtually all modern irons have this feature.
Patent 3794 by Robert Anderson in 1891.
( Joining Wooden Heads to Shafts )
From early times the heads of woods had been glued and bound to shafts by an ancient technique called a “scare” . Anderson proposed boring a hole completely through the head into which the shaft was fitted. This quickly became the dominant method and prevails today.
Underside of head showing bottom of shaft
Patent 20,914 by Willie Park Jnr in 1894.
( Offset “wry-neck” putter )
Willie supposedly discovered the benefits of having the putter head offset to the rear after a cart had run over and bent an old club. Within a few years many professional and amateur players were using the “Park Patent Putter”. The top three finishers in the Open Championship of 1898 all used it, namely Harry Vardon, Harold Hilton and Willie Park Jnr himself. The benefits of a rear offset putter remerged with the likes of the Ping Anser.
Park Offset Putter 1894
Patent 23391 by Braddell in 1894.
( Metal headed “woods” )
Braddell’s of Belfast made Drivers and 3-woods with heads of soild aluminium, combined with faces of rubber or leather. Nearly 10,000 were sold between 1895 and 1905 and they were quite popular.
Braddell Metal Wood 1894
Patent 13535 by William Mills in 1895.
( Metal headed “woods” )
The Standard Mills Company of Sunderland sold over a millions clubs with solid aluminium heads between 1895 and 1939. Their model range included clubs for every purpose, but it was their putters that were most popular. They brought a scientic approach to clubmaking and every single head made was marked with its weight, loft and lie angle.
Mills Aluminium Putter 1895
Wooden headed Drivers and Fairway clubs would still prevail for most of the 20th century because the hosels of the solid aluminium heads were prone to cracking.
Ironically, the singular most important design feature in club design was never patented. This occured in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s when club makers started making wooden headed clubs with faces that curved outwards slightly rather than being flat. This type of driver was called a “bulger”, and its invention was credited after some debate to an amateur player called Henry Lamb. This feature has been scientifically proven to reduce hooking and slicing through a mechanical effect called “gearing”. All woods today are still made with bulging faces.
Driver with Bulger Face c.1890
Click to Continue the Story of Golf Equipment Development : The Rise of Golf 1895 - 1950