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19th and Early-20th Century Golf

19th and Early-20th Century Golf

19th and Early-20th Century Golf

How the evolution of golf balls — and the game’s growing popularity — helped modernize the materials and design of the clubs that knocked them around the links in the sport’s springtime. 

Another part in an ongoing series by our author on the history of the game from 2nd Swing Golf Blog.

As golf began to enjoy an increase in popularity due to the invention of the more durable and cheaper gutta-percha ball — known as a gutty — (and made from the latex-like heated, shaped and hardened sap of the Malaysian sapodilla tree) an explosion of golf club makers and new models erupted.

In 1848, Rev. Dr. Robert Adams began selling his gutty golf balls with intentional nicks and stamping since it was accidentally discovered that golf balls flew farther and smoother with rough and dimpled exteriors — with several coats of paint applied after.

(Adams was later eclipsed by Coburn Haskell, who with his superintendent friend at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Cleveland, invented then used mass-production methods for his new rubber wound and core and balata covered golf balls, which are similar to those today.) 

classic clubs

The first mass-produced modern-style golf ball with a rubber interior and hardened, dimpled exterior — straight outta Cleveland.

Prior to the gutty and Haskell, for more than 200 years the featherie ball was what golfers used. Made into a cowhide sphere stuffed with goose feathers, the featherie ball was about the size we use today. It had surprising spring and distance, but alas it was a ball that tended to come apart easily, especially if it got wet. Handmade, these balls were very expensive, limiting the number of golfers who could afford them.

Meanwhile, gutta-percha is a natural rubber that can be heated and molded into the shape required for a golf ball. Guttys could actually be re-molded back into a like-new shape if they got beat out of round or lost chucks. This was a monumental leap in cost savings for golfers.

And the balls were very lively and rolled for more distance than the featheries. Originally made with a smooth surface, it was soon discovered that guttys flew substantially better after they got nicked up a bit. (As a matter of fact one of the jobs of caddies was to hit the guttys a few times to put some small cuts in their surface before the golfer went out to actually play with the balls.) This led to the invention of dimples on golf balls.

classic golf clubs

A handmade featherie golf ball. Not fun or cheap to lose — or destroy.

The golfing population took off and soon many new clubmakers appeared to address the demand.

Long-nose woods still were favored, and that type of club made up the majority of the small “sets” that golfers carried. However, gutty balls stood up to the bashing an iron head could dish out and soon golfers found the increased need for an iron type club (called a cleek) that allowed them to hit a wider variety of shots.

classic golf clubs

A cleek iron golf club circa the late 19th Century had a hand-forged (literally) iron head and hickory shaft. Cleeks are long obsolete clubs but often considered the modern equivalent of a 1- or 2-iron.

Two of the first renowned clubmakers of cleeks were cousins Alex and Archibald Carrick in Scotland. They produced some of the most beautiful early iron heads starting about 1845.

A Scottish blacksmith, John Gray, was famous for his “rut iron” that he hand forged on an anvil around 1850 or so. These clubs had very small heads with a heavy hosel and firm wooden shaft. Used to extract a ball from cart and wagon tracks on the early rough golf courses, you don’t see this type of clubhead design today.

This John Gray rut iron circa the 1870s sold at Christies Auction House for an undisclosed sum.

This John Gray rut iron circa the 1870s sold at Christies Auction House for an undisclosed sum. Does the head shape remind you of any modern-day clubs you would use to get out of jam?

Woods were evolving from the elegant swan neck long-nose clubs to the newly designed “bulger” head. This head was shorter from heel to toe, with a deeper face, not unlike the type of wood heads that we use today. As the game grew, larger companies began to emerge.

classic golf clubs

The bulger-style wooden clubhead came about sometime in the mid-1800s. It was the result of trying to keep clubs intact while playing the new, heavier gutty and balata rubber and sap balls versus the featheries of the past.

Professional baseball player A.G. Spalding started his sporting goods company in 1876 — and by 1893, he was selling Scottish-made golf clubs. Proving to be a success, Spalding & Bros. began making its own clubs in the mid-1890s. A.G. Spalding then hired world-famous British and U.S. Open champion Harry Vardon to promote his clubs and balls. Later, Spalding clubs would be used by golf hero Bobby Jones to win the Grand Slam in 1930.

classic clubs

The legendary golfer Harry Vardon of Jersey, Great Britain, (whose golf club grip style is used to this day) in 1914. He was one of the very first world-class athletes to sign a sponsorship and endorsement deal with a sporting goods manufacturer.

Former Scottish blacksmith Tom Stewart would start his golf company in 1893. Stewart would produce with his sons some of the finest handmade clubs seen to that day, or any. (Some of Stewart’s irons made their way into Bobby Jones’ bag, along with with his Spaldings, for the ’30 Grand Slam run.)

MacGregor Golf Co. was a spinoff of a wooden shoe last company in Ohio (what you often put in fine shoes to help maintain their shape). Partner John McGregor, a Scotsman, enjoyed golf; and by 1897, the shoe lasts were giving way to the newest persimmon woodhead designs.

classic golf clubs

A wooden shoe last. MacGregor Golf Co. derived from an Ohio shoe last company.


A forge shop was then set up to produce the first hickory-shafted MacGregor irons. Later, the spelling of McGregor’s name in the company title was changed to “MacGregor” in order to make it sound even more Scottish.

We’ll talk more about these bigger companies, their products, and players in the next story about classic clubs of the 20th Century.

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