golf’s most game-changing innovations throughout history
Technology touches everything human. How we cook, sleep, love, work, and play — including how we play sports.
Stick-and-ball games scored by fewest strokes are probably as old as humanity. They’ve likely been around since, well, humans could swing sticks and count. But the modern game of golf, played with a club across 18 holes, originated sometime around the 15th century in Scotland.
Back then, golfers swung wooden clubs at leather balls called featheries. Today, golfers use state-of-the-art clubs made from space-age alloys. Balls come in durable plastic. Computers analyze our swings and assess our shot patterns. How did golf evolve from a game of smacking clumps of floppy leather in the rolling hills of Scotland to one where courses float on oceans and balls are 200 times stronger than steel? Technology, naturally.
The following is a list — by no means comprehensive — of game-changing tech evolutions within the golf world. From gear updates to strides in course design, the following picks mark milestones in how the sport has grown over the past several centuries.
Before golfers used a peg to tee off a new hole, they used something called a tee box.
Way, way back in the day, golfers lifted balls off the ground with damp soil. For convenience, tee boxes installed at each hole’s tee ground stored some of this mud. Despite getting the hands and clubs dirty, this practice was unhygienic, as well.
Tee devices offered cleaner, classier methods for, well, teeing off. However, using anything but sand stirred controversy at golf clubs, possibly for decades if not centuries. The first tee devices popped up as patents in the late 1800s, which included flat rubber slabs and three-legged contraptions. Today’s tee design (a divot-topped peg that sticks into the ground) came from the Reddy Tee, invented in 1921.
Over the last decade or so, golf tees have seen innovations galore. Thanks to modern engineering, tees now sport larger cups for improved tilt radius, minimalist cups for reduced friction, or springy tips for reduced spin.
Strategic Course Design
Unlike most popular sports, golf isn’t contained in a boxed-in location. The green isn’t a court or a stadium; it’s a complete environment that spans entire square miles in area.
Originally, courses were built within challenging environments. Scotland served as the ideal birthplace for modern golf, too: It features hills and mountains covered in lush grass. And like any environment, golf courses were subject to the geological forces of erosion, whether by weather or by human activity (such as moving dirt around for tee boxes).
Today’s strategic golf course design first started sometime in the early 1900s. The strategic course is credited to several historic designers. The design’s evolution began with artificially constructing various obstacles on the green. Later, namely thanks to Harry Colt, these obstacles were disguised to blend in with the natural environment, fusing golf’s naturalistic aesthetics with human ingenuity.
Modern strategic courses are essentially smart courses, as well. Many contain sensors throughout the green to monitor the soil for salinity and moisture, which helps with lawn maintenance. Still others use GPS to track shots or to automate sprinkler systems for efficient watering, fertilizing, and pesticide sprays.
The Boob Tube
Although golf saw its first surge in popularity during the Roaring Twenties, it didn’t become a popular sport until the 1950s, after the Great Depression and Second World War ended.
In 1954, the Tam O’Shanter Open became the first televised golf tournament ever. Spectators no longer had to follow the golfers around the course to watch the game.
It’s no coincidence, either, that just one year after the first televised broadcast, the sport got its first international super star, too: the camera-savvy Arnold Palmer, who won his first championship at the 1955 PGA Tour. Fitting, Palmer would later co-found the first TV network devoted entirely to his game, the Golf Channel.
In 2012, Golf Channel took the leap from television sets to smart phones through its streaming app. Just as TV brought golf to the masses, streaming apps brought golf to anyone, anywhere, 24/7. Within the first two years of Golf Channel’s app release, the network doubled its video views and site visits.
During the same year golf first became televised, an American company called Putt-Putt would make its company name synonymous with miniature golf.
Small golf courses with fake grass have been around since at least 1912. But Putt-Putt Golf (and its predecessor, Tom Thumb Golf) made golfing more appealing to the public. Typically a game of endurance, opulence, and lifelong skill, miniature golf turned the game into a staple of date nights and Sunday family outings accessible to just about anyone who could lift a putter.
According to the National Golf Foundation, 24 million, or roughly 1 out of 14, Americans played mini-golf in 2018. In comparison, mini-golf is only half as popular in the US as smoking weed, but slightly more popular than buying guns. The game is no longer one of low-status beneath the 18-hole version, either: Tiger Woods owns several branded mini-golf centers across the US with PopStroke.
Polymers (Graphite Driver Shafts, Plastics)
Aluminum baseball bats have been around since the ‘70s, but pro leagues never allowed them. Their introduction would’ve smashed every record previously set in the sport.
On the other hand, golf has always embraced technological innovation. Pro golf associations today largely define clubs by their dimensions and utility, not the materials they’re made from.
Like bats, the first clubs were made entirely from wood. It wasn’t until the latter half of the last century that both clubs and balls were produced with plastic and graphite polymers.
Polymers changed the sport forever. Plastics are cheaper and easier to produce than metals, making golf gear more affordable. Lighter clubs meant lighter bags on the green, and drives could go longer, too. Meanwhile, polymers converted the featherie of times past into the molded ball, which is far more durable and travels much faster than those old leather clumps.
Imagine if the NFL provided motorized wheelchairs fitted with battering rams for disabled defensive linebackers. Or if the PBA permitted bumpers for blind bowlers.
Aside from having one of the largest — if not the largest — reserved gaming area for any competitive sport, golf is also one of the only pro sports where disabled athletes can play alongside abled ones. (At least in the US, that is.)
You can thank golf carts for that.
Golf carts (officially called golf cars) have been around since the 1930s, though they largely served as novelty items at first. Oddly enough, the first golf cart only sported three wheels, which made it difficult to maneuver. In the 1950s, as golf (and automobiles) became more popular, four-wheeled electric models went into mass production. Further, these modern carts were marketed specifically to older and disabled golfers.
Even in the American big leagues, disabled pro golfers may request golf carts during tournaments. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Europe, where golf carts are banned during professional championships.
Additionally, as technology has accelerated every facet of golf, so too has the golf cart gotten faster over time. The typical cart only runs up to 15mph, though newer models can reach speeds of 55mph. The fastest cart on record can peel rubber at 120mph.
There’s a reason golf got its start in Scotland: The country’s temperate climate nourishes grass, and its mountainous landscape provides lots of hills and valleys for a challenging round.
If you tried to set up a golf course in a desert a hundred years ago, you could’ve only made a giant sand trap. Nowadays, you can find lux courses practically anywhere, including the arid sandscapes of Arizona and Saudi Arabia.
The first fairway irrigation system was established in 1925, and watering greens this way contributed to golf’s popularity explosion during the Roaring Twenties. After strategic course design merged with fairway irrigation, courses could be built just about anywhere — including on top of an ocean.
Arguably, golf’s most important innovation may not even be an object. It may very well be a role.
The introduction of the caddie turned golf from a solo sport to a team — or at least a duo — game.
We don’t know when caddies first appeared in golf, but they may not have arrived until nearly a century after the sport’s beginnings. We also don’t know if consulting golfers was always part of the job, or if it developed organically.
Regardless, every iconic golfer today tends to stick with a single caddie, one they trust to help them become champions. Where would golf be now if Arnold Palmer didn’t have Iron Man Avery, if Jack Niklaus didn’t have Angelo Argea, or if Tiger Woods didn’t have Joe LaCava?
Caddies themselves haven’t evolved over the past few hundred years, but tech that helps them improve their game (and their partner’s) has. Phone apps can store detailed maps of hundreds of courses around the world, and ball tracking apps can improve overall strategy. With today’s technology — and the right combo of apps — you can practically replace a real-life caddy (with the exception of having your clubs lugged around). For those who can actually afford a caddy, there are also apps for connecting solo golfers with freelancing caddies.
Despite being around for over half a millennium, golf saw many of its biggest innovations take place in just the last century. Will golf evolve further over the next century, particularly if we experience a third industrial revolution in that time? Only time will tell.