Among a lot of us old guys, the question often arises as to how much modern equipment has changed the game – including our own abilities to strike the ball. Some say only the best players would notice any difference, some insist that golfers of all abilities hit the ball as well or better than they did forty years ago, despite the inevitable decline in muscle power, fitness, and concentration. The newer equipment, they say, has at least kept us in the game.
The chart below (thanks to fellow golf nut Jeff Martin for posting) provides a very interesting comparison to “old” golf equipment versus today’s. I put “old” in quotes because I’m not talking about really old (1920s) or ancient (1890s), but, as you can see, a 1950s persimmon wood driver and a wound balata ball. With today’s driver and solid core ball (I assume “muktilayer” is a misprint for “multilayer”), Tour Pro Chad Campbell drives it further, higher, and straighter than he would have if he’d been playing with Hogan, Demaret, and Snead in their prime. His total length, hidden by the FB logo, is 292 today, with only 12 yards average off centre.
For those of you born after 1980, when metal woods first burst on the scene, persimmon was the type of wood most often used in driver and fairway wood heads… initially in a solid, molded block; then from the mid-50s, commonly seen in a laminated construction, with several thin layers of wood glued together and then molded and varnished. Balata balls were in favour till the mid 1990s, and were fairly quickly replaced in Tour players’ bags when the solid core ball was perfected by Titleist and Callaway. (When I was a kid, even a slight mishit would leave an unpolishable blemish on your balata-covered ball. A slice, which was much more common with the old clubs, would leave a gaping “smile” on the cover. A skulled iron or wedge would almost cut the thing in two. But at .35 cents a ball 50 years ago, they were slightly more affordable to replace.)
For several years, I kept a number of my old wooden woods in the basement, perhaps waiting for the apocalypse or the announcement that metal clubs cause cancer or herpes or something. But eventually I put them in the blue bin at the curb, and I could kick myself squarely between the legs for doing so today. I’d love to try to hit my old Wilson Staff persimmons again.
As I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, officials at the Colonial event in Fort Worth recently gave a few Tour pros a few of Ben Hogan’s old clubs from 1950 to try hitting on the range. Apparently they were spraying the ball all over the place, and could barely get a ball using Hogan’s 1-iron off the ground. Their distance was greatly curtailed as well. The universal response was one of awe that Hogan and his colleagues could ever have played golf with these instruments, and no thanks, you can put them back in the glass case.
In any event, while Tour pro’s clearly have a huge advantage with today’s lighter clubs, longer and straighter shots, and spin control, I’m not 100% convinced that the average or poor player is really that much better off, or shooting lower scores than we might have done in the 70s or 80s.
Speaking personally, my handicap has gone up 6 or 7 points in the last 20 years. My best drives are a good 15 yards shorter, and on average 25 yards shorter. My 7-iron, which was a dead-certain 150 yards from age 15-55, now gets me 135. All my shots, when properly hit, are certainly straighter, but I used to love to draw the ball and that’s now harder to do because the clubheads and the balls are designed to be more self-correcting.
The trouble is: I’m just a worse golfer than I used to be, and no modern equipment is going to fix that. I’m sure that 90% of the problem is between my ears, and the other 10% is the fault of shoulders that don’t turn, hips that don’t swivel, knees that don’t slide, a body that pulls up as the swing starts down, and various ball-striking techniques (especially from 50 yards in) that used to be second nature but have either vanished from my mind or simply cannot travel from brain to arms.
I’d love to say that I’ve either cheerily given in to advancing age, or just learned to grudgingly accept it, but as my sons and my golf buddies will tell you, I’m fiercely defiant and in denial about this decline, and convinced I can get it back before I drop dead in a bunker somewhere.
That’s why I continue to buy new equipment, the latest balls on the market, and the occasional sucker products from infomercials.
None of it works, but I’m determined not to believe it.