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How technology has entirely changed the face of golf

Picture yourself sitting at home watching a sporting event. 

No matter what sport or league you're tuned into at the time, there's a good chance that you'll see a golf equipment commercial come on during a break in the action. And that commercial will no doubt guarantee you of becoming a better player with the new club, ball or grip that's being hawked. This is by no means a new trend. Everyone from Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have told the general population that it can get better by playing with their new product. But over the last 15 years, the technology and equipment has advanced at a rapid rate for players of all skill levels.

The Ball

Golf has been around since the 15th century, so it's had a lot of time to progress over the last 600 years. And as Nike pointed out in a series of ads last year, it really has come quite a long way.

It's hard to believe, but golfers originally used rounded wooden balls for most of the early days of the game before the Featherie - a leather pouch stuffed with goose or chicken feathers - became the norm. Though the Featherie was much easier to hit than its wooden predecessor, it didn't come without its share of issues. The ball didn't stay rounded after being whacked around the course, plus any exposure to the elements - water in particular - would warp it. The manufacturing process was also difficult, which led to high prices as a result of the most talented craftsman only being able to shape four or five balls in a single day.

In the mid-1800s, the Gutty ball came along and revolutionized the game. The dried sap it was made from gave it a rubbery feel, and when exposed to heat it could be shaped perfectly in the hands of a skilled maker. Plus it was far cheaper to manufacture, allowing people of a lower income to get involved in the sport. More innovations followed over the next 150 or so years to the point today where there are literally hundreds of different balls available at your local golf store - all designed to fit your swing speed, ideal ball flight and other factors that simply weren't possible when you were hitting a pouch of feathers.

Of course, the sticks players use to hit those balls have changed over the years as well.

The Clubs

Nike also tackled the clubs in their ads last year (see above), and while the general shape of the golf club has remained relatively similar over the years when compared to the ball, the technological advances to the golf club itself have been absolutely massive. 

Hickory wood shafts dominated the game early because of how light they were to use, but their weight also made them fragile. In the late 1920s the USGA and R&A changed their policies, allowing for steel shafted clubs to be used in competition and, later on, graphite. Clubs made for professionals and recreational players in 2015 are all done using steel or graphite, but there are many associations around the world that still play tournaments with hickory clubs and era specific golf balls.

The most noticeable difference with clubs is seen through the club heads, which have gone from relatively normal sizes to the patently absurd. Its led golf's governing bodies to limit all drivers to 460 cubic centimeters. As an example, take a look at the difference in club head size between the two drivers pictured below.

These days, clubs are designed and modified for every type of player regardless of skill level. If you're so inclined, you can have your swing analyzed so you can select clubs that perfectly fit your swing speed and dozens of other factors. Some clubs are now even being made to be adjusted on the fly, so if you need a little more loft - or if the shot calls for a baby draw that you hit all the time in your head - you can tweak the club.

The Effects

The advancements in technology - combined with pro golfers actually being in good shape these days - has led to an explosion in distance. With the way the golf ball is designed these days, it simply flies way further than ever before and the club changes have made mishits far less penal than at any other point in history. 

Fifteen years ago, John Daly was the only player on the PGA Tour to average over 300 yards in distance from the tee, with 71 other players coming in at 275-plus. Last year, 25 players averaged over 300 yards and only four of the 177 eligible failed to crack 275.

In 65 years, we've gone from Ben Hogan - arguably the longest hitter and finest ball striker in the world at the time - hitting his 9-iron roughly 115 yards to today when players like McIlroy routinely hit a 9-iron from 175 yards without any issue.

While the advances have been great for club sales and television, the golf courses have suffered. Over time, the spike in distance has rendered many courses - including classics - obsolete. The best case scenario for a lot of these places is that they have the money and the available land to keep up with the surge. But not every course is like Augusta National, which grew only 180 yards from 1940-2000 but has shot up an additional 450 yards in the last 15 years thanks to the power influx. In the process, it's changed the way that Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie intended it to play.

It's hard to say where golf goes from here, but based on its history, you can bet that more innovation - and distance - is on the way.

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