Fathers of invention : Since 1950, new technologies have played key roles in shaping the game we know today – golf technologies
We began with a baseline of 1950, the year this magazine was founded. From there to the present, we surveyed changes in the game of golf to determine the greatest innovations during our existence and the personalities behind them.
What we found was a bit surprising. While the world has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, golf has not. There have been big changes in golf, to be sure. But while society went from 78 r.p.m. records to the compact disc, the dimensions of golf stayed the same. The ball and the cup are still the same size. A championship course isn’t much longer today than in 1950. Grass is cut a little shorter, but it’s still grass.
Certainly, huge changes have occurred in golf clubs, but they’re still clubs. The average handicap hasn’t dropped appreciably. Yes, we now use satellites to measure yardages, space-age fabrics keep us dry and entry signs are carved in stone by lasers. But golf carts are still earthbound, and so is the game as a whole.
Which, upon reflection, is comforting. Even the biggest changes have been made with respect for the game. Tradition means something, even to the most far-reaching visionaries.
Dr. Glenn Burton
Bermuda grass and gamma rays
Native Nebraskan Glenn Burton started with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1936, breeding pasture grasses in tiny Tifton, Ga. A decade later, armed with a $500 U.S. Golf Association grant, he tackled Bermuda grass and slowly changed golf throughout the South. He developed his first fairway turf, called Tiflawn, in 1952. It led to 419 Bermuda, released in 1960 and still in use on fairways today. His first putting-green turf was Tiffine in 1953, which led to Tifgreen in 1955. Ten years later, Burton discovered patches of Tifgreen had genetically mutated into a fine-leafed Bermuda. He dubbed it Tifdwarf. It became the standard for greens in the Deep South over the next quarter century. Never satisfied, Burton created other mutant dwarf Bermudas using irradiation with gamma rays. The best of those were Tifway II and Tifgreen II. Now age 90, Burton is officially retired, but still works part-time at Georgia’s Coastal Plains Experimental Station, where it all began.
ABYU dropout and Vietnam vet, Faris McMullin bounced around various professions until settling in Boise in 1986 to create fly-fishing gear and golf clubs. He experimented with composites, and developed shafts for both Ping and Cleveland Classics.
In 1991, local club manager Ernie Deacon asked McMullin to devise a substitute for metal spikes. Deacon wanted something his customers could use on frozen greens during winter golf.
McMullin’s answer was a swirl of polyurethane. Deacon’s wife, Lois, came up with a name for the alternative cleat: Softspikes.
The non-metal spikes worked not only in winter, but in summer, too, and were comfortable to boot. So Softspikes were introduced nationally in 1993, and triggered a trend that has smoothed out greens and preserved clubhouse carpets nationwide.
McMullin, a corporate officer and part owner of Softspikes, has 23 different patented golf cleats. “Ernie and I co-invented the first one,” he says. But later versions, such as the Black Widow (left), are McMullin’s alone. He also shares two patents on Adams Tight Lies clubs and has patented a putter.
He could relax now, but Faris continues to tinker with ideas. Presently on his drawing board is a concept for a new type of golf bag. But golf is not his bag. “If I have a passion, it’s fly-fishing” he says. “I only took up golf in 1988.”
The two Jakes: In 1968, Jacobsen Manufacturing billed its Greens King (right), the world’s first riding triplex greens mower, as a time saver. In 1979, a New Jersey superintendent started the trend of using a triplex to mow fairways. So in 1988 Jacobsen developed the world’s first lightweight fairway mower (left) with five reels.
Dr. Joseph Duich
A particular bent
For 35 years, Joe Duich was to cool-weather grasses what Glenn Burton was to warm-weather ones. Trained in agronomy at Penn State, Duich was on the team that developed Penncross creeping bent in 1954. After obtaining his Ph.D. in agronomy in ’57, Duich devoted his career to teaching and developing turfgrasses. He retired in ’91. He bred several generations of bent grasses, most recently the Penn A and G strains, both exceedingly fine-leafed grasses, state of the art on greens. The university receives royalties from seed sales, so Joe Duich has probably made more money for Penn State than even Joe Paterno.
Tee ’em low and let ’em go
New terms: In the 1970s, woods with bottom rails became “utility clubs.” Gary Adam’s TaylorMade driver ushered in the oxymoron “metal woods.”
Nonstop to St. Andrews: When Boeing unveiled its intercontinental 707 Stratoliner in 1957, every green in the world was suddenly within reach.
Shakespeare’s best composition
Before he became Technical Director of the USGA, and determined which clubs and balls conform to the Rules of Golf, Frank Thomas crossed the Indian and Atlantic Oceans from his native South Africa, studied engineering at Western Michigan and, in 1969, made the biggest innovation in golf shafts since steel replaced hickory. Working for Shakespeare Co., Thomas created the game’s first graphite shaft. A matrix of graphite fibers in resin, it proved to be lighter yet stronger than steel. His company debated on whether to patent the graphite shaft. By the time he filed for a patent, it was too late. A salesman had publicly unveiled it, and rival shafts were hitting the market. Thomas sent prototypes to the USGA for assurances that it conformed to the Rules of Golf, but, interestingly, the USGA never ruled on it.
Dr. Richard Rees
A real-life tale of Flubber
Transplanted Welsh chemist (with a Ph.D.) Richard Rees came to the states in 1958, via Canada, to work for DuPont in Delaware. In 1961, while trying to develop a transparent version of polyethylene plastic, he discovered an elastic substance that, when rolled into a ball, proved to be bouncy. Rees added white pigment and created solid dimple-less golf balls. DuPont’s local club pro tested them. He didn’t like the feel or sound, but noticed they didn’t scuff, and suggested the material would make a great cover for a golf ball. “It was happenstance that the stuff was durable,” Rees says. Over several years, he developed it into a cut-proof cover called “surligomer” (for surface ligomer), a name a co-worker changed to Surlyn. The Ram Corp. introduced the first Surlyn-covered cutproof golf ball, the Golden Ram, in 1968. It was an immediate success. Richard Rees’ discovery took the smiles off of golf balls and put them onto the faces of duffers.
Earth, wind and rain
RAINGEAR: In 1976, Bob Gore stretched DuPont’s Teflon into a film, laminated it to fabric and came up with Gore-Tex, a waterproof, breathable fabric.
Instant feedback: Sony’s 1975 Betamax video recorder first made it possible to instantly review golf swings, but rival JVC’s Video Home System (VHS) ultimately sent Betamax the way of the stymie.
Satellite systems: Golf uses two types. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that triangulate with old spy satellites are used by architects in plotting holes and by golfers in determining yardages. Satellite controllers are an element of automatic, state-of-the-art irrigation systems, introduced around 1960.
Two easy pieces
Brooklyn native Bob Molitor is no relation to baseball great Paul Molitor, but the longtime head of research and development for Spalding & Bros., was a great utility player. A chemical engineer, he joined Spalding in 1957. Over the next 35 years, he created all sorts of sporting goods, including the yellow tennis ball. He owns 28 different patents, most involving golf. His greatest achievement was developing the first two-piece golf ball. To do it, he invented a compound to make a solid core and a special urethane blend for the cover. First on shelves was the Executive I ball. A later version, using Surlyn as the cover, became the Top-Flite. Now retired, Molitor recalls the impact of his golf ball improvements. “In 1959, we broke out the champagne when we sold 40,000 dozen one month,” he says. “Today, Spalding makes more than that every day.”
The game’s biggest cannon
Ely Callaway is not one to toil in a laboratory. His genius is in marketing. The former Burlington Industries president bought a modest hickory-stick wedge company at age 64, lost money for five years, and decided he needed to produce user-friendly clubs. In 1988, Callaway engineer Dick Helmstetter came up with the bore-through shaft, connecting a shaft directly into a clubhead. That allowed a heavier clubhead with a lower center of gravity. Using Isaac Newton in its ads, Callaway’s sales hit $10.4 million in 1989. Then Helmstetter and fellow engineer Glenn Schmidt came up with an oversize driver with a great big sweet spot. Ely provided the sex appeal by naming the club after the huge German cannon of World War I–Big Bertha. He also gave it a great big price tag. Big Bertha became the biggest selling club in history. Ely later came up with the HeavenWood and Big Bertha irons and did $495 million in sales in the first six months of 2000.
DOOMED CADDIES: A clean, quiet battery-powered golf cart made it possible for First Golfer Ike Eisenhower to resume playing following his 1955 heart attack.
Stand IN: Rick Reimers, of Sun Mountain Sports, created The Eclipse, a golf bag with an automated leg system, in 1986.
BACKPACKING: T.J. Izzo’s 1990 novelty, the double strap for carry bags (middle), is now as common on college golf teams as khaki pants.
Pope of Slope
After failing in his 1965 tryout as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, Dean Knuth attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He spent 11 years in the Navy, then studied computer-systems technology and devised a new way of calculating course ratings using degree-of-difficulty factors instead of yardage. That led to an invitation by the USGA in 1978 to join its handicap research team. After adopting his course-rating system, the USGA made Knuth its Director of Handicapping in 1981. Within a year, he had devised the Slope System, with its portable handicap. Its key was the Handicap Index, which is applied to a chart (Course Handicap table) that determines how many strokes are needed on any set of tees at any golf course. Knuth, who later spearheaded the USGA’s tournament score-tracking system to sniff out sandbaggers in local competitions, is now a marketing executive in the private sector.
Tiny but big
Grip it and rip it: No one recalls who first replaced the snap on a golf glove with the Swiss invention of Velcro, but Tony Antonious patented the Velcro tab that made gloves adjustable to every hand.
Groovin’: Did square grooves add too much spin to balls? After a contentious legal battle and settlement, they remain today.
His light bulb was always on
If golf has a Thomas Edison, it’s likely the late Karsten Solheim. Norwegian born, Solheim moved to the U.S. at age 2. During World War II, he helped design the first jet airplane, and during the Korean War, he helped design the Atlas guided-missile system. In the 1950s, as a GE engineer, he designed the first rabbit-ears antenna for TV sets.
In 1958, working in his garage, Solheim created a heel-and-toe-weighted putter to cure his putting woes. After transferring to GE’s Phoenix plant, he was soon persuaded to market his putter. Its distinctive tone gave it its name: Ping. Sales were steady for years, until Julius Boros won an event in 1967 with a Ping Cushin putter. That coincided with Karsten’s Anser putter, and orders poured in. Solheim resigned from GE and established Karsten Manufacturing.
Even before that, Solheim had invented the cavity-back, perimeter-weighted iron. In 1969, his plant began producing Karsten I Irons. They were investment-cast in molds, not forged from steel. They were dull, not shiny. They were custom-fitted. But golfers fell in love with those ugly clubs. By the early ’80s, Pings had become the most widely used irons in golf.
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