If you were playing golf back in the mid-19th century, you would have been using clubs with long wooden heads and wooden shafts while hitting extremely expensive balls called "featheries" made from leather stitched together and stuffed with goose feathers. That's basically how golf was played from its earliest origins in the 15th century until the 1850s.
Things have changed dramatically over the past 150 years or so and particularly in the past 20. These days, golfers hit cavity-back irons, huge metal-headed woods with graphite shafts, hybrid clubs that look like a wood but play like an iron, use two-piece surlyn balls that don't cut, and they wear lightweight shoes with plastic spikes. When they're not riding electric carts, golfers might walk behind three-wheeled "electric caddies" or carry lightweight bags with dual straps that stand by themselves and use fancy GPS devices or binocular-like rangefinders to find the exact distance for each shot.
Technology has definitely taken over the game of golf.
If you're younger than about 25, you won't remember woods actually made out of wood or balls that could be ruined with a cut because of one bad swing. Nor will you recall the large leather golf bags you had to lug around or the heavy shoes with metal spikes in the bottom.
Every year there's something new to buy at the golf shop, but things have somewhat stabilized with fewer major advances over the past decade or so.
The heads on drivers almost doubled in size over a 10-year period but were capped at 460 cc by the USGA and the R & A in 2004. Also the length of drivers, and all clubs except putters, has been capped at 48 inches. Golf balls have restrictions on the spin rate to keep them from traveling even farther than they already do.
Driver heads are enormous compared to the woods your father played with. Top drivers made by TaylorMade, Nike or Ping cost around $400. Putters come in all shapes and sizes, and the traditional blade putters have been replaced with ones with a lot of hardware behind the heads, such as the two-ball or spider putters. You won't find them for 20 bucks anymore and can easily spend over $100.
Golf shoes, which used to be more like the ones you wore to church only with spikes in the bottom, are now more like athletic cross-trainer shoes with plastic spikes. While they usually run between $50 and $100, you can spend as much as $230 on a pair.
East Bay head pro Kean Ridd has been playing golf for more than 50 years and has seen plenty of changes. He grew up playing persimmon woods and forged irons and now, at the age of 62, he still can shoot par, due in part to technological advances.
"I'm 60-plus years, and I hit the ball as far as when I was younger," he said. "If I went back to the old persimmon woods, I wouldn't hit it near as far."
Ridd believes the balls make a big difference today but that the investment-cast iron heads with their "much bigger sweet spot" and metal woods with graphite shafts and titanium heads are making the ball go farther and giving golfers more enjoyment.
Ernie Schneiter, who was one of Utah's top golfers 40 years ago and is still going strong, working as a golf pro at age 78, laments that some of the fun has been taken out of the game because of technological advances, although he acknowledges, "it's probably more fun for the average golfer."
"One of the really great things that has been lost is the feel of hitting a persimmon wood with steel shaft driver," he said. "Nowadays you hit a driver and it sounds like a hubcap coming off."
Schneiter believes that a quality forged iron from 50 years ago can be still hit by the better golfers just as well as the new ones. Again, the difference today comes with the way clubs are made more forgiving for the average to below-average golfers. "They are so much easier to hit," he said. The change in golf balls has made a big difference, particularly for the better players. Schneiter points out that a person with an 85-90 mph swing may gain an extra 10 yards, while a top golfer with a 120 mph swing will gain as much as 50 yards more off the tee. According to patentlygolf.com, a featherie ball of the mid-19th century would cost approximately $100 in today's dollars. Golf is expensive, but can you imagine spending $100 for a single ball? These days, the best golf balls the Pro V-1s or Nike One Platinums cost between $3 and $4 apiece, although you can still find balls for less than a dollar apiece.Because of recent restrictions on golf clubs and balls, we're not likely to see the acceleration in changes to golf that we've seen over the past century. But you can bet the golf industry will find something new for us to buy in the coming years. "It makes you wonder what's going to come next," said Ridd.
Golf inventions over the years
1876 Non-wooden clubheads
1899 Rubber wound core ball
1905 Dimple pattern balls
1910 Metal golf club shafts
1922 Golf tee
1928 Sand wedge
1959 Heel and toe balanced putter
1960 Two-piece ball
1968 Graphite shafts
1968 Surlyn (cut-proof) covers
1969 Cast cavity back irons
1980 Metal woods
1989 Neckless metal wood
1990 Dual golf bag strap
1992 Plastic golf cleat