The Long-Forgotten, Real Tradition of Golf

Much has been written about the "tradition of golf" and the importance of protecting that tradition.

As in Major League Baseball, much weight is given to historical comparisons between generations of golfers and on the same courses. Much has also been said about the AGA’s "violation" of that tradition by many core golfers. But, are generations of golfers really comparable?

How would McIroy or Woods play against Nicklaus or Hogan if they had to use their unforgiving persimmon woods, wood-shafted blade irons and wound balls? Today’s equipment rewards short game expertise by reducing the premium placed on precise shot-making that was required with persimmon and blades.  

Add to that the better physical condition of many of today’s players and the much, much larger pool of golfers due to the high dollar payouts to players.

The USGA compensates for the better PGA golfers and equipment by changing the courses. Look at photos of Augusta in the1930s compared to 2010. It’s like Boston’s Fenway Park having 60-degree foul lines rather than 90, 100-foot base paths and a 500-foot outfield fence. All to keep the tradition of the game? No, all to try to keep the scores the same.

But perhaps even more important is the forgotten tradition of golf. Until the USGA set up its rules in 1930, golf was a wildly innovative game, played in all kinds of course conditions. As Jeff Ellis so painstakingly shows in "The Clubmaker’s Art," golf equipment had been very innovative for hundreds of years, with all kinds of clubs, shafts, heads and balls being developed and used.

Indeed, the club technology used today was actually invented in the early 1900s, including:

  • - toe/heel weighted putters                                                 (US 1,671,956)   1928
  • - cavity backed irons                                                            (US 1,139,985)   1915
  • - metal woods                                                                        (US 1,582,836)   1925
  • - oversized drivers                                                                 (US 1,526,438)  1925        Scott 
  • - adjustable weights                                                             (US 1,167,106)   1916         Link  Palmer

This explains why every club maker come out with copycat products shortly after something shows commercial success. Karsten Solhiem could not patent cavity-backed irons, nor could Ely Callaway patent metal woods. Both basic ideas were invented over 50 years before, and the patents had expired.

Golf’s real tradition is innovation, not regulation.  Only when the USGA was formed did golf slowly reduce innovation. 

The AGA wants to bring back that innovative tradition, by encouraging new clubs and balls to help the "rest of us."

Indeed, when we announced the AGA/Flogton Project, we expected a flood of equipment and ball ideas from companies and inventors. A simple patent search for "golf" at the USPTO site yields 35,000 issued patents,and that is just since 1976.  And with all the manufacturers complaining about how the USGA shackles their engineering staffs, we thought there were prototypes just waiting to be commercialized.

Yet, even in spite of a $10,000 prize we offered for a long ball (one that would go 250 yards vs. 200 for an average 85 mph swing speed), we have not seen anyone who can improve the driver/ball significantly.  And we’ve spoken with just about everyone in the industry.  We’ve also tested all the balls and drivers advertised as non-conforming only to find their claims wildly exaggerated.