OAKMONT, Pa. -- This week, the 2016 U.S. Open will be held at Oakmont Country Club, roughly 14 miles northeast along the Allegheny River from the namesake city of one of golf's most transcendent clubs -- the Pittsburgh Persimmon metalwood -- which ushered in the transition from wood to metal-headed drivers almost four decades ago.
The late Jim Simons, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Butler, was one of the first professional golfers to use the Pittsburgh Persimmon on the PGA Tour, and he used the club to win the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am in 1982.
"It was a big stir, like 'Oh man, this guy's using a metal wood,' " said Chandler Carr, a product manager in TaylorMade's Product Creations Department. "They didn't even know what to call it at the time. Was it a wood? Was it not a wood? They called it the Pittsburgh Persimmon, kind of blending steel and wood together and using that name was something that people could kind of relate to."
Golf, a game that has been around for centuries, has undergone tremendous changes, especially over the past four decades, as technology has revolutionized the tools of the sport. The design and production of golf clubs have become a science and the mass production of clubs has made the the latest technology available not only to the pros, but also to the casual golfer.
Before the Pittsburgh Persimmon hit the market, there was a standard recipe for the creation of drivers -- a rubber grip, a steel shaft and a wooden head.
"That was kind of the formula for success," Carr said.
In 1979, TaylorMade CEO Gary Adams changed the game, casting a stainless steel club head. The steel allowed for club heads to be bigger with a larger sweet spot and it made the club more forgiving due to the strength of the material, Carr said. A golfer's room for error became much larger. Upon impact, a golf ball is more resilient off the face of a metal club compared to its wooden predecessors.
"It opened up the door and pioneered the way for where we're at today with bigger club heads, the exotic materials we're using," Carr said.
Golf club technology has advanced to the point where some club names sound futuristic and foreign, seemingly light years away from the handcrafted, hickory-carved clubs that once dominated the sport.
Australian golfer Jason Day, who ranks No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, has hit his tee shots with a 44.75-inch TaylorMade Burner SuperFast 2.0 TP driver that features a 10.5-degree angle and Matrix Ozik TP7HD graphite shaft, according to Golf.com. While there's a significant gap between Day's skill level and that of the average golfer, there's little difference between the clubs in his bag and ones available for purchase to the general public.
"From a performance standpoint from 'Hey you're buying one off the rack' to one that Jason Day is using, they're identical," Carr said.
The only difference is that professional golfers must have their clubs tested to make sure they conform with USGA regulations and don't provide an unfair advantage.
The USGA is focused on striking a balance between club advancements and rewarding the skill involved in playing golf, according to John Spitzer, a managing director of the USGA's test center.
"My role in equipment standards is to maintain the fact that skill is the dominant determinant of who wins an event, whether it's the U.S. Open or whether you and I are playing for a soda or beer," Spitzer said. "Ultimately you still have to swing the club and you want to get it as close as possible so we want skill to be the dominant reason that someone succeeds, not technology."
It's not just the clubs that have changed the game, but golf balls as well. The Haskell golf ball, invented by Coburn Haskell and Bertram Work in 1898, had a solid, rubber core and added 20 yards to every golfer's game "overnight," according to Victoria Student, a historian at the USGA. Student described the Haskell ball as one of the greatest breakthroughs in golf technology.
"You can see sort of the direct relationship between new technology, golf course architecture and also the popularity of golf," Student said. "Golf explodes after the Haskell ball is introduced."
Part of that surge extended to the golf manufacturing industry. There's no shortage of competition among golf club and apparel manufacturers, including Callaway, Nike, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist, to name a few.
"Any sort of competition is healthy and if we were just by ourselves making golf clubs it would be easy to say 'OK, this is the one driver for everybody and go hit it,'" Carr said. TaylorMade, Carr's employer, is one of the many companies looking to claim a slice of the golf industry's annual $70 billion economic footprint, as reported by Forbes.
Not bad for a sport that potentially has roots dating to China's Song Dynasty (960-1279), when a vaguely similar game known as chuiwan (or, "ball-hitting") was played. The modern game of golf can be traced to 15th Century Scotland, where the shafts of clubs were made of hickory or lancewood, with the grip covered in leather to improve the golfer's grasp of the club, according to "A Few Rambling Remarks on Golf," written by W. & R. Chambers in 1862.
The head of the club was made of "well-seasoned apple tree of thorn, weighed down with lead and the face of the club designed out of horn," with Chambers later adding "without lead a club would be powerless."
Modern-day golf club manufacturers would respectfully disagree.
"There's no limit as to what we can use on a golf club," Carr said, citing combinations of titanium, steel, aluminum, tungsten and graphite used in clubs.
That was the thinking behind the Pittsburgh Persimmon and that forward-thinking, performance-enhancing mindset continues today.
"When we came out with the first metal wood in '79 with Gary Adams being the CEO at the time, basically he said, 'Hey, we're here to try something new, try something different, and here's the performance gains because of that,'" Carr said. "So at the end of the day, if it's not measurably better we're not going to bring something to market. That's kind of our mantra."
This article was written by Andy Wittry from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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