Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Evolution of Irons

Last time we looked at the evolution of the golf ball, so continuing this series on the evolution of golf... we're going to take a look golf clubs, and more specifically, irons.  


People have been hitting balls with sticks for a long time. When that activity turned into what would be called golf in the 1400s in Scotland, the evolution of the golf club and golf club history began. In the beginning golf clubs were made from available materials (wood) and by available craftsmen (anyone). There was no standard for design or set make up. Play and rules were haphazard and most clubs were hand made often by the players themselves.


Around the early 1500s the set makeup began to be established. King James the IV had a set made for him and William Mayne was appointed the Royal Club Maker. A set of clubs at the time consisted of a set of play clubs (longnoses) for driving, fairway clubs (or grassed drivers) for medium range shots, spoons for short range shots, niblicks (similar to today's wedges) and a putting cleek.

Most players used wood clubs even though iron was more accurate and controllable and hand “forging” was possible. The shafts of these wooden clubs were made from local European woods like ash or hazel. The heads of the wooden clubs were long and thin, and they were known for that reason as “long-nose woods”. They were made of “hard” woods like apple, beech, and pear.

Early “irons” were made by local blacksmiths until around the late 1800s. As a result they were very crude and heavy with massive hosels and were very difficult to use. That and the fact that they easily damaged the featheries led to their limited use.


The advent of drop forging in the late 1800s meant better iron clubs could be massed produced in factories. Wooden headed clubs were usually hand made by the local professionals until perhaps 1910, when factories began to take over due to the demand. Early golf professionals were prized as much for their club making skills as for their golfing skills. In some cases more.

The period from 1900 to 1930 was marked by many innovations in club design. The early sand wedge was invented by Gene Sarazon and it’s design is still used today. One of the most important changes was the move from smooth faced irons to the grooves we use today. Clubmakers realized that you could impart more backspin on the ball with a grooved club. Increased backspin led to more distance and control. New alloys and optimum materials were experimented with but no other major changes took place until the 1990s.

Although blacksmiths such as Thomas Horsburgh had experimented with steel shafts since the late 1890s, they were slowly adopted. The R&A only legalized them after the Prince Of Wales used them on the Old Course, St Andrews in 1929. Billy Burke was the first to win a major tournament with steel shafted clubs when he won the US Open in 1931. The obvious advantage of steel shafts was accuracy and durability. But they required an entirely different swing technique. The slow, languid, handsy swing of the 19th century and hickory shafts was replaced by a more precise and controlled body swing. Club head speed could now be maximized without requiring precise timing. The modern swing was born.

Into 1930s there was many variations of clubs available using both modern and traditional materials. It was common to see golfers using 20-30 clubs of varying styles and uses. To get a handle on the numbers of clubs a player could use (and give the caddies a break), the R&A introduced it's 14 club rule in 1939. The traditional names of brassie, mashee, niblick, etc. would also be replaced by the standard numbering system in use today.

After World War II, the evolution of the golf club has been dominated by scientific research. New methods of construction and new materials have been introduced. The casting method was introduced in 1963. This made clubs more easily manufactured and therefore more affordable for the average golfer. Professionals and advanced players however still continue to use hand forged clubs because of the increased 'feel' and therefore control.

The first graphite shaft was introduced in the early 1970s. Early graphite shafts, although lightweight and theoretically stronger, were inconsistent and prone to too much torque or twisting. Since then, manufacturing procedures have made those problems pretty much a thing of the past.

Since cavity irons backs with perimeter weighting were introduced by Ping in the late 70s there have been no major iron innovations. Most manufacturers have been fine tuning that technology. The good news is today's wide selection has provided many options for golfers. However, with so many choices it's easy to wonder what is right for you. 


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This post is part of our "Evolution of Golf" series which takes a look at various components of the golf industry and evaluates the changes they've experienced over the years.