Like so many aspects of modern life, the amount of technological advancement that golf clubs have undergone in recent decades has been astounding. Golf clubs have gone from being made primarily of natural materials, with wooden shafts, heads of wood or iron (depending upon the club) and leather grips, to the high-tech wonders of today.
Modern clubs are constructed of space-age materials that were still the stuff of science fiction, even when the U.S was preparing to send a man to the moon: drivers and fairway clubs with graphite-composite shafts and heads made of a combination of titanium and graphite, irons with club heads that are fabricated from a combination of advanced steel alloys, titanium, and tungsten. The use of these advanced materials is supported by computer-aided design tools which can analyze and evaluate every aspect of the club’s performance.
Before the advent of sophisticated computer-aided design software and the availability of advanced materials and fabrication methods, club designers often resorted to what was, frankly, deception to be able to claim that their irons hit the ball further than last year’s model and/or the competition’s clubs. What did they do? They merely strengthened the lofts on the irons. Look back at a set of irons from as recently as the late 1990s and compare the lofts to a modern set – the lofts on irons have been strengthened by anywhere from 2° to 4°. It’s a quick and easy way to pick up yardage, but not really a technological advancement.
With the strides that have been made in club design, from hickory and leather to graphite and titanium have come limits on golf club design, imposed by the USGA and the R&A, the governing bodies which set and enforce the rules of golf all over the world.
Club Design Rules
There are rules and regulations governing every aspect of the design of a golf club, from the grip to the head, but the feature of a club which has, by far, the most influence on ball flight is the club head.
The basic guidelines for club head design require that the head be “plain in form” and must not deviate from shapes that are “traditional and customary” (so no novelty wedges shaped like a foot), and driver heads are limited to a volume of 460cc. On a more technical note, the rules limit a driver’s MOI, or resistance to twisting – which affects forgiveness on off-center contact, and coefficient of restitution (COR), or springiness – which limits how much energy the club head can transfer to the ball.
Given these limits, what are club designers doing to improve performance – what are they even able to do? What they have done is push right up to the edge of the envelope in the qualities that are regulated, and then started looking for areas of performance that haven’t been exploited yet. The two most important features of a golf club, to most golfers, is the ability to hit the ball far, and hit it straight, and the latest advancements are aimed squarely at the achievement of those goals.
Club faces can’t be made any “hotter”, so the club makers are optimizing and fine-tuning the aerodynamic qualities of the heads of drivers and fairway woods to reduce drag and help the weekend warrior swing the club faster, because higher club head speed means more energy delivered to the ball – legally – and more distance.
The vertical-axis MOI of a driver head has a direct effect on the forgiveness of the club because a higher resistance to twisting means that off-center hits are going to go straighter. Club makers can’t exceed the 5,900 g-cm2 limit imposed by the USGA, but they can fine-tune the qualities of the club face to enlarge the “sweet spot”. The result of this tweak is better performance across a larger area of the club face for those of us who don’t get that dead-center contact on every drive.
Another area of improvement that has been realized due to the advancements of modern technology is club head adjustability. Just in the last five to ten years adjustable hosels in drivers and fairway woods have gone from high-end swag to basic feature. The ability to adjust a club for the best fit with individual swings is allowing golfers to take the best advantage of the performance gains that all the other advancements offer.
The “big dog” – the driver – isn’t the only golf club that is benefitting from the new technology; in the last few years club manufacturers have also raised the stakes on the design of irons. Callaway Golf has been a consistent manufacturer of some of the largest driver heads in the industry.
The use of a combination of lightweight, high-strength materials like titanium, and dense, heavy materials like tungsten within the overall framework of a cast or forged steel head allows club designers to fine-tune weight distribution for improved forgiveness. Design features such as slots in the sole or around the perimeter of the club face have allowed club designers to push the COR of even irons ever closer to that .83 limit, resulting in more ball speed off the face, and thus more distance.
While most of us think of the driver as the “distance” club, more distance (with accuracy) from an iron means that golfers can reach a green from further away with a high-lofted club. The steep landing angle that results from a high trajectory is the key to holding the green, and holding greens is a key factor in shooting low scores.
The basics of the game of golf haven’t changed since the first bored shepherd swatted a stone toward a hole in a pasture with his staff – hit fairways, hit (and hold) greens, make putts. The biggest leaps in performance may be behind us, but even with the limits imposed by the rule makers the modern tools with which golfers strive to achieve those time-honored goals are being fine-tuned to a level that would astound the golfer of even 30 years ago. The golfer of today is the lucky recipient of all that technology.