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Most impactful innovations in golf

  By George Promenschenkel

A recent forum post by a Carmelo Anthony fan got me thinking about the how the game of golf got to the point it is today. Respondents posted a number of very good candidates: the hybrid club, the 460cc driver, the sand wedge, and more.

A surprise in the thread on golf's top innovations in the past 100 years was the number of people who included the backpack or two-strap carry bag in their lists of the top inventions/innovations in golf over the past 100 years. Not to dismiss the impact of the modern strap systems for carry bags, they have undoubtedly saved many backs and just generally made the game more enjoyable for others, but I don't feel that it's revolutionized the game. It has made it more comfortable to be sure.

The golf tee would have made my list, but the modern tee is between 110-120 years old and thus missed the cutoff. Before the tee was developed, players placed their golf balls on little piles of sand to begin play on a hole. Imagine trying to hit a 460cc driver off a pile of sand! No thanks.

The game of golf has changed tremendously in the past 100 years. Here are the innovations that I think most changed the game.

Number Five: TV and the PGA Tour

A number of posters cited televised golf as one of the best innovations. It has undoubtedly had a huge impact on golf, but I would argue that televison is a separate innovation that has been applied to golf. It's difficult to separate the effects the two have had on golf, and in fact, they've worked hand in hand to promote the game (or at least the PGA Tour), but would television bother with the sport if the PGA Tour had not worked to make the game "ready for primetime."

Television didn't create the "golf program." The old Bobby Jones series predates television, having run in cinemas originally. Golf does present television with some special issues: small ball, high speeds, large playing area… The quality of TV golf is still improving, but with today's HD television and other innovations we can finally follow the ball flight more often than not during a broadcast.

Even if it hasn't revolutionized the game by itself, television has certainly contributed to golf's growth over the past 40 years. Televised golf has helped millions discover the game and it's helped bring in tons of sponsor cash, but golf as a product has been largely packaged by the PGA Tour.

Love it or hate it. The PGA Tour has done as much to change the face of golf over the past 40 years as any equipment change. The PGA Tour branched off from the PGA of America in 1968, during the heyday of Palmer, Trevino, Nicklaus, and Player. In 1968, Billy Casper was the top money winner, earning $205,169 (more than $40,000 more than either Frank Beard or Lee Trevino would win in 1969 or 1970, respectively). In 2008, Vijay Singh lead the money chase with $6,601,094 (more than $4 million less than Tiger made in 2007 and the lowest total for the top grosser since 2001). So, 40 years ago, Billy Casper made just 3% of Vijay Singh's winnings last year. Inflation doesn't come near explaining that kind of difference.

Television had a lot to do with that increase, but so did the PGA Tour, which negotiates the television contracts and makes sure that the golf is covered in an appealing fashion. As the week-to-week cheerleader for professional golf in this country, the PGA Tour has promoted the game to a very strong position.

Number Four: Men of Steel

Graphite shafts have helped pushed drives to averages approaching 300 yards on the major tours, but it was the steel shaft that first brought the promise of consistent play and longer golf shots to the game.

Hickory shafts were resilient enough to withstand the stresses of golf, but they were very flexible and required more skill to use successfully. Imagine all the variation in the wood and the different flexes they would produce. Great skill was required to manufacture a well matched set of clubs.

With the advent of steel shafts in the early 1900s, the variation in a set of clubs was greatly reduced. Shafts became available in different flexes accomodating more aggressive swings and longer golf shots. By 1931, TrueTemper shafts were already the number one choice of pro and amateur golfers. While the lighter weight of graphite has surplanted steel in woods and hybrids, steel shafts remain the popular choice in irons because of its consistency and feel. Manufacturers continue to find ways to make them lighter and more flexible, which means steel shafts could remain a major part of the game for another 80 or 90 years.

See the rest of George's observations:




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