From the original crude sticks to hickory-shafted clubs, through steel, titanium and carbon-fiber drivers, the game’s “arms race” shows no sign of slowing.
In fact, it has gone into orbit. Literally.
In the constant battle to beat the competition, to help players hit the ball further than ever before, one company has gone to space to develop its latest clubs.
Its recent King LTD driver even features a “spaceport” — a see-through window on the sole of the club allowing the golfer to view its inner makeup.
The battle for supremacy shows no sign of letting up, particularly in Carlsbad — golf’s equivalent of Silicon Valley — where big names such as Callaway, TaylorMade, Cobra Puma and Titleist are based.
“There are a lot of very smart people working and thinking about golf clubs every day,” Cobra Puma’s vice-president of research and development, Tom Olsavsky, told CNN.
“It can be very interesting if you go to lunch somewhere outside the building. You have to look around and make sure there are no competitors.
“We definitely feel like we’re in an arms race. We’re always challenging ourselves to beat the other guys.”
Despite a reported downturn, the golf industry is still worth about $70 billion in the U.S. alone.
In drivers, distance is still the holy grail, followed by forgiveness. Some sacrifice one over the other, some try to do both.
The marketing departments go into overdrive. Sexy slogans are crafted.
Callaway gave us “Forgiveness Meets Fast” and “Built for Outrageous Speed,” then there’s Cobra’s “The Ultimate Distance Machine,” Titleist’s “Distance Without Compromise,” PING’s “Faster. Straighter. Longer” and TaylorMade’s “The Definition of Distance.”
New club, new combination of buzzwords. New price tags. TaylorMade’s latest M1 driver came with a recommended retail price of $499, while Callaway’s XR was $349, Cobra’s King Ltd. and Titleist’s 915 D3 were $449 and Ping’s G LS Tec was $399.
It’s a far cry from even the modern birth of the game’s arms race almost four decades ago, when the first steel-headed “woods” were introduced.
In 1979, golf salesman Gary Adams launched TaylorMade with his original metal wood, dubbed the “Pittsburgh Persimmon” in honor of the type of timber long used in traditional woods.
The takeover of metal woods was more of a trickle than a torrent — it wasn’t until 1988 that a player using a metal wood won a major, when Curtis Strange lifted the U.S. Open with a TaylorMade Burner driver.
Two years later, Ely Callaway — a former soldier, textiles executive and wine maker — tapped into the skills of workers from the fading aerospace industry in Carlsbad, California and launched his iconic over-sized Big Bertha metal driver.
The race was on. Persimmon would soon be obsolete.
However, it’s not a free-for-all.
Myriad rules — laid down by governing bodies the United States Golf Association and the R&A — are in place to curb technology.
To conform, clubs must not exceed 48 inches long, while the head of a driver must not be bigger than 460 cubic centimeters. Plus, there are strict laws that govern the “spring” of the face.
Although there is a whacky world of non-conforming designs out there, the game’s big-name manufacturers are working feverishly within these parameters.
In 1980, when persimmon ruled, the biggest hitter on the PGA Tour was Dan Pohl with an average driving distance of 274.3 yards. In 2015, 40 players on the PGA Tour recorded an average of more than 300 yards, with the leader Dustin Johnson at 317.7 yards.
“The clubs are indisputably better,” former Golf.com managing editor Eamon Lynch told CNN.
“But no one is more willing to believe in the promise of a technologically advanced, store-bought solution than a golfer with a crappy swing.”
So what’s next? Manufacturers have differing views on where their focus should be, with moveable weights, face technology, head shape and weight all key battlegrounds.
Most seem to agree that a club’s center of gravity — which affects launch, spin, feel and ultimately distance — is the priority in the next few years.
“Some companies spend a lot of time talking about aerodynamics but we see that as a very small gain because club heads are already pretty aerodynamic,” Cobra Puma’s Olsavsky says.
“We believe the trend is low and further-back center gravity (CG). Better use of materials, investing in carbon fiber crowns and improved CG is where the industry is headed.”
Whether the gains will be incremental, or whether there will be another big leap forward, depends on your time frame.
“If you buy a driver every year, yes, you would see more incremental changes than innovative,” Olsavsky adds.
“If you don’t buy a driver very often — say every four, five or six years — the change will be pretty revolutionary and you will notice a big difference.”
For the pros used to switching in and out of the best equipment, marginal gains are important.
“Callaway only bring products to me when they know it’s going to perform better than what I’ve got at the minute,” Willett told a Callaway prodcast.
“I did a lot of testing with the XR driver at home over the winter and put it in the bag right away. It did exactly what they said it would for my game. It gave me more ball speed and control of my ball flight and it was a win-win.”
Not all amateur golfers are convinced.
“If they kept adding an extra five yards every time, we’d all be hitting it 350 yards by now,” says Ed Light, an eight-handicap golfer from Cranleigh in Surrey, England. “For the price of a new one these days, I tend to think the money’s better invested in good quality lessons.”
Nick Russell, a member at Surrey’s Walton Heath club, added: “I think technology has helped, but it’s not distance I’m looking for as modern clubs and balls all go a long way; it’s forgiveness, with a club that sits well and is pleasing to the eye.
“I am maybe 10 yards longer now than 10 years ago, probably due to technology, but I arguably swing it a bit better too so it’s hard to judge.”
The elephant in the room in terms of distance is ball technology.
Similar amounts of R&D time and money have taken the ball from a hair or feather-filled leather orb to a sleek, dimpled urethane-covered missile.
But many, including Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, believe ball development should be reined back to ensure courses are not made obsolete by players hitting longer.
The club makers, however, will continue pushing the envelope. Even into the final frontier.