T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair .
As we all know, golf has many intricacies. One of those comes from the most important pieces of equipment you need to play the game -- your clubs.
Did you know that your clubs weren’t always numbered? Instead, they had names like the "mashie" and the "niblick." In fact, not only that, but clubs didn’t always come in the complete sets that we have come to know today.
We wondered: When and how did the transition from named clubs to numbered clubs come about?
We turned to golf historian Fred Beltz for an explanation.
"Prior to 1850, when the golf ball used was the feather ball, almost all golf clubs were wooden," explained Beltz, a member and Club Historian at Oak Hill Country Club, site of three U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships (including 2013; Beltz is the co-historian of that tournament), one Ryder Cup, a Senior PGA Championship and two U.S. Amateurs. "They were rather delicate, long-nosed and swung with a relatively flat swing; if irons were used at all it would have been as a trouble club where the situation would have damaged the early wooden 'play' clubs."
Right around 1850 and with the advent of the gutta percha ball (a "guttie"), Beltz told us, is when irons began to take on a more important role, "partly because hitting a 'guttie' was akin to hitting a rock and the wooden play clubs were too easily broken. Partly too because of Allan Robertson, a very early golf professional, who developed a highly successful short game using irons which was quickly imitated by other competitors."
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At this point in time, clubs were unmarked and neither named nor numbered. Instead, they were referred to more by their usage.
"A 'cleek' for fairway shots and a 'rut' iron for trouble shots," Beltz said. "As irons became more popular and the number of club makers increased, there was a need to differentiate who made the club for marketing reasons and also to differentiate the more subtle differences as the number of irons in the bag (if a bag was being used) multiplied."
At the end of the 19th century, not only were the usually recognized names for clubs (putter, to niblick, mashie niblick, spade mashie, mashie, mid-iron, spoon, brassie and driver) in use, but then all sorts of utility clubs became common -- the jigger, the sammy, the chipper, the lofting iron, the sky iron, semi-putter and many others.
Beltz told us that up until the 1920s, players accumulated their clubs as a collection of what worked for them and obtained them from various club makers. Players bought and used what worked and the club names were more of a guide than a precise statement of loft and weight, with one club maker's mashie more similar to another club maker's spade mashie and so on.
"Back in the day when you might stop at a rummage sale to find a dozen hickories in an old canvas bag there might be three, four or five club makers represented -- there was no such thing as a 'set of clubs,'" Beltz said.
In the early 1920s, Spalding began to market their Kro-Flight brand of “related” clubs where there was a defined relationship of loft, weight and shaft length from one club to the next, Beltz explained.
Quickly other club makers like MacGregor and Wilson picked up on this trend and began selling their version of related -- or "sets" -- of clubs. By 1925, the idea of “matched” sets where the flex properties of the clubs were also matched hit the market and with it the idea of buying a “set” of clubs took hold.
"It was important for club makers to express the differential between each club, as well as to express the cutting edge technology that the matched clubs offered," Beltz said. "Their solution was a numbering sequence for the irons, but not wanting to alienate the more traditional buyer both the club name and number were stamped on the club. It was even a common practice to number the putter as the '10' club. During the quarter century between 1915 and 1940 the named clubs became name/numbered and then just numbered.
"For whatever reason, this phenomenon was even slower with the woods and finding fairway woods labeled as brassie and spoon even into the middle of the 20th century was not uncommon," Beltz added. "There was a clear trend to make the clubs look alike and look like a progression from less to more loft but other than that, the trend with fairway woods was very slow."
Beltz's guess is that brass sole plate on the woods is what helped perpetuate the name. It wasn't until woods became 'metal woods' that the names began to fade away -- with the very popular exception of two particular clubs.
"The driver has always been the driver due to the machismo associated with its name and the putter (except for a short period in the mid-1920) has always been the putter -- no machismo there, Beltz said. "So your guess is as good as mine!"
Fred Beltz resides in Rochester, N.Y. and is host of the Heritage Classic, an annual hickory golf outing at Oak Hill. Beltz is also a partner in the financial services firm Beltz Ianni & Associates.
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