The Evolution of GOLF EQUIPMENT AND THE TEACHER
As late as the mid 1970s, technology in golf clubs and balls was so primitive that equipment played a very small role in the development and improvement of the average golfer. Most golfers knew the key to improving was to improve their skills. Looking back just 30 years, the most prominent proponents of technology and clubfitting, Carl Paul, Ralph Maltby, and Karsten Solheim, were looked upon as mere salesman. We know now that they were the forefathers of the technological boom of the last 20 years. Has this boom had a negative or positive effect on professional golf instructors? You could make an argument for both sides. There is no question that the advancement in clubs and balls has made the game easier for today’s beginners to start the game and for experienced players to improve. To say that one should ignore the benefits of technology would be to ignore human nature. The instructor is fighting a losing battle when underestimating the mental satisfaction of hitting a golf ball and watching it fly a long way down the fairway. Hardly anything in sports matches the feeling of satisfaction of a long tee shot with the modern-day longer drivers. Today’s teachers have to accept this part of the game and learn to satisfy the customer. After all, golf is a game, and the object of a game is primarily to have fun.
Distance is not the only product of new-age technology. Accuracy has improved, as well. The age of offset heads, higher quality shafts, and improved knowledge of lie angles has made the game easier to teach. The center of gravity of clubheads has moved much lower in recent years. This adds backspin, instead of sidespin, which makes for more accuracy. Graphite shaft quality and technology have improved tremendously since the early 1990s. This also gives golfers of all abilities the benefit of improved accuracy.
Lie angle improvements came from better education, not better technology. Manufacturers finally realized that the average iron club was too flat for 90 percent of the golfing public, and now make them more upright. Arguably, this has done more to improve ballstriking with irons than anything else in the last 20 years.
Fitting Plays a Role
It is the opinion of many instructors that, not only has the technology of shafts and heads made the game easier, but the huge advancement in clubfitting has also made the game more enjoyable because the average golfer has better fitted equipment. Although engineers knew how important it was to match golfers with the right equipment for their swing and size, most of the manufacturers balked at the extra expense of custom fitting. As more and more golfers demanded better service and better-fit clubs, more of the larger companies had to react to the expectations of the golfing public. This added many opportunities for the golf teacher. The combination of a good instructor and a knowledgeable clubfitter is very powerful, and can offer a great service to the average golfer.
Larger clubheads have also played a role in making the game easier to teach. Most of the hype surrounding larger heads is pure advertising and gimmicks. But, golf is a game of confidence, and if something in a golf club gives the user more confidence, then that is good. The ball size has stayed the same, but looking down and seeing the larger clubhead in relation to the ball size can’t help but give the average golfer the feeling that it is hard to miss.
In order to gain greater market share and to motivate people to buy new clubs, many companies started making lofts stronger and clubs longer. In a lot of ways, the gains in ballstriking through better metals and better designs were offset by the difficulty of trying to swing longer and stronger-lofted clubs. There is no such thing as standard in the golf industry, but the average iron is one inch longer and four degrees stronger than in 1969. Therefore, your father’s 5-iron is now your 7-iron. Of course, the ball goes farther, but this is more the result of the length and loft than technology.
This process has made 1- and 2-irons obsolete, with 3- and 4-irons not far behind. This applies to woods, as well. The average length of a driver was 43 inches for decades. Now, it is impossible to find a driver less than 44 inches for men, and even a driver as short as 44 inches is not common. Most of the bestselling drivers are 45 to 46 inches, a 3-inch difference from years past – wow! Remember, satisfaction from distance is powerful. Believe me, the companies know that.
What is the problem, you say? Well for the golf teacher, longer clubs mean flatter swings. Longer clubs make it more difficult to teach posture, and also to teach consistent posture from irons to woods. It has also made the game more difficult for juniors and ladies, because flatter golf swings require more athletic ability and flexibility. The majority of new golfers are baby boomers looking for recreation and fun when they retire. They are not typically your most fit or athletic students. In this regard, teaching the swing has become more difficult. Try telling your 25-handicap student that his 45-inch driver he just paid $500 for is not a good club for him.
The teacher is put into a difficult situation. After all, the ad in the magazine said this new high-tech club would make him hit the ball better than his old club, but longer and less-lofted clubs are more difficult to hit straight. Remembering only the long ones makes the student’s expectations unrealistic. For that kind of money, he or she should hit it great every time…right? Therefore, the student gets discouraged and more difficult to teach.
For those teachers not familiar with this, try something. Ask each of your students if they know how long their driver is. Very few do. They know the clubhead is bigger because that is what they were sold on. But most didn’t realize how long the club actually was. Another facet of this argument is to understand that the larger heads are actually longer from heel to toe. Therefore, they are more difficult to square up at impact.
Making the larger clubheads with a closed face is another way to help the golfer square the bigger head. The downside of this is that closed-face woods cause higher launch angles, and therefore, higher-trajectory shots. The issue here is that most golfers will then go to stronger-lofted heads to keep the ball down, but this hurts their accuracy because the less-lofted clubs cause more sidespin.
Other Factors to Consider
Another problem with modern equipment is the golf courses themselves – refer to Jack Nicklaus and Hootie Johnson. A lot of our most beautiful and playable courses are now too short. New courses have been built longer, thereby making it more difficult for the new player. For a lot of us this is fun, but the game is built from youth and new players taking up the game. It can be very discouraging for the average new golfer. Hopefully, we will see the recent trend in new executive courses continue. Golf courses built in 1990s were built to accommodate the advancement in equipment. This accommodation to the equipment creates fewer golfers. Anything that hurts the game or creates fewer golfers hurts the teacher.
Technology is not cheap. The outrageous cost of clubs has hurt the game. We have shut out golf to a whole segment of society with $500 drivers and $150 putters. Most new players feel they are at such a disadvantage if they cannot buy that titanium driver. Kids today feel like they can’t play unless they have the same clubs as Tiger and Phil. Do you really have to buy $50-a-dozen balls to play your best golf? Unfortunately, some people believe that. Interestingly enough, a popular consumer advocacy group tested golf balls recently. Almost all of the top ten rated balls were the least expensive of all the dozens of different balls tested! Some of the most expensive rated out at the bottom. Try selling that notion to your student. All of this brings us to the most disturbing and dramatic point of all. Thirty years ago, when skill was the only way to play better, teaching was in the dark ages. There were very few knowledgeable and quality golf teachers in that era of primitive equipment technology. Even though teaching has made leaps and bounds in the last 15 years, equipment now dominates the game.
To the general golf public, it is far easier to “buy” a golf game with equipment than to take lessons. It is more exciting, more convenient, takes less time, and is too tempting to just go buy the new technology than take a lesson and practice. This is by far the biggest obstacle to the growth of golf teaching. Convincing the golfer that two series of lessons will do more for his or her golf game than that new oversize driver is very challenging. A large majority of people that do take lessons have tried the technology route and given up. How many people decide after all the equipment purchases that they just can’t afford lessons? Most people would say this is a negative view, but sometimes, reality is not always pleasant. The modern-day golf teacher has to walk a fine line between lessons and equipment.
One key point to keep in mind is that fitting is still more of a factor for good ball striking than technology. After all, if that $2,000 suit doesn’t fit you, it won’t do you much good. Same for a golf club. Your student may pose the question, “Should I buy new clubs or take some more lessons?” If the clubs fit them to the extent they are not causing poor setup or swing habits, encourage the lessons over equipment. They will be far easier to fit after they have improved their skills. You will find better ballstriking will lead to a more accurate fitting session and better feedback from the student.
How do you know if the clubs are causing problems? Well, there is no substitute for information, knowledge and education regarding your profession. It is the responsibility of the professional golf teacher in 2006 to understand all of the aspects of clubfitting and how they affect the swing and setup. There is no question the golf professional in 2015 will be so much more knowledgeable about equipment than the professional of 1975. Therefore, it is imperative from a competitive standpoint that you are educated, informed, and have a knowledge level adequate to help your students. By being able to help your students make wise choices, they will be more apt to take lessons and spend their money on you instead of constantly buying new clubs.
Good Luck and Good Teaching.