Technology’s steely march and hickory’s game revival

The gutta balls entered in the mid-19th century, only to be replaced by rubber core balls in 1898.
Decades old set with wooden head  & brass cladding
Decades old set with wooden head & brass cladding

CHENNAI: Those who have been introduced to golf by the immortal writings of the veritable PG Wodehouse would be familiar with ‘mashies’ and ‘niblicks’.

One might have even seen a golf club with wooden shaft and eroded wooden head (often made of hickory) framed and displayed proudly in an industrialist’s office. Originally, hickory sticks were the norm while balls were of feather.

The gutta balls entered in the mid-19th century, only to be replaced by rubber core balls in 1898.

Like in every sphere of life, technological developments have changed the way the golfers equip themselves. Innovations have been rapid in the last three decades.

Wooden shafts have given way to steel and titanium, only to be replaced by graphite reinforced composites. Inroads made by technology were so immense that the R&A and USPGA had to step in to regulate the equipment use.

Self-correcting designs in club heads are barred and the overall size of a club head is limited to 460 cc. There are regulations governing all aspects, from the flex to the length of the shaft and the grooves of the striking surface, to prevent technology swamping skill.

With multiple brands offering a wide range of products with a lot of technical claims, the choices are vast and are confusing if not confounding.

Upgrade, a game plan

A few traditional golfers continue to use their 30-year-old sets, happy with a couple of pars and a birdie on the course. The more competitive ones are forging ahead with both improved skill sets and better equipment.

Suresh Venkatraman, who plays in the Bombay Presidency Golf Club, says, “It is imperative you upgrade if you want to give yourself the best chance on the course, given the number of tournaments we have.”

A customised set, factoring in one’s swing, physique and age, is the basic starting point. Franchisers today evaluate your swing, the force generated and the way you address the ball and suggest which shaft and blade are best suited for you. It need not necessarily be a single, brand, mass product anymore.

“I realised there was a driver that could get me 240 yards. A session of customisation brought home the fact that I needed a different putter. I am now confident of bringing down my handicap further,” adds the 58-year-old Venkatraman.

Amateur golfers have benefitted a lot from the technological shifts in driver heads. The sets of yore had a small sweet spot that required great precision in the contact. The modern clubs have a larger area of the same, thereby being ‘more forgiving’ and enabling a free and hearty swing.

“Today, the driver heads are tapered, ensuring optimum result for those who swing correctly and connect well,” says Jayanan S Satagopal, a scratch golfer.

Customised club is the go-to idea these days, as experienced by actor and former TNGF Lady Captain Rajie Sarathy, who combined the features of a Titleist 300 and Titleist 400 to suit her mode of play and gained carry and crucial yardage in her iron shots.

It is not merely the clubs that need to be upgraded. Often, the smallest of things matter.

“Changing grips are often enough, can make a big difference to one’s game,” observes Jayanan, who is the go-to man for anything on golf equipment and its history, from the ancient hickory wooden sticks to the latest flex shafts.

While the surge for products is on the rise, not all are bitten by the urge to get the latest. Kanwaljit Asla, a sprightly golfer, feels that the focus on newer equipment is being overdone and says that he prefers to depend on his mind and body for better performance.

Corroborating his take are the Hickory Golfers, a group of players worldwide committed to playing the sport the way it was in the 19th century, using nothing but clubs with wooden shafts.

This group enjoys the slower pace and is rediscovering the forgotten pleasures of the sport.

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