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Equipment game changers: Best innovations of the last 50 years

By Al TaysJanuary 25, 2017, 12:30 pm

There was a balata ball in my range bucket the other day. A Titleist. I wouldn’t have noticed it, except I always check the Titleists in my bucket and keep the Pro V1s.

This particular ball got me wondering. When was the last time I saw someone using a balata ball? Or hitting a persimmon driver? Or wearing metal spikes? These were all common sights for most of my golfing life, and now they’re gone.

The other side of the coin is this question: What replaced them? Balata balls, which good players could “work” and bad players could hook and slice, gave way to multilayer balls such as the Pro V1. Metal spikes got banned most everywhere and gave way to “alternative cleats,” not all of which are Softspikes but that doesn’t stop anybody from using that name generically. And persimmon? It’s a curiosity, either lovingly preserved by collectors or unceremoniously dumped into a barrel at the local driving range. And woe be unto any unsuspecting novice who picks one up thinking that’s what you’re supposed to hit range balls with.

As the PGA Merchandise Show begins today in Orlando, Fla., we identify 10 “game changers,” innovations of the last 50 years that have become integral parts of the game today. And by “the game,” we mean two varieties: the one played by pros and good amateurs, and the one played by the rest of us hackers. Hybrids, for instance, really haven’t taken over the pro game. Hybrids are designed to replace long irons, and good players can hit long irons just fine. For the rest of us, though, hybrids have been a godsend.

Click here for the complete list of golf's game-changing equipment

Our 10 innovations were designed to provide the things we most want as golfers: more distance (metal woods, graphite shafts); better accuracy with all clubs, including putters (perimeter-weighted irons, heel-and-toe-weighted putters); clubs that are easier to hit (hybrids); a way to know exactly how far we need to hit the ball (distance-measuring devices), and help with stopping the ball (high-lofted wedges, multilayer golf balls). Two innovations – alternative cleats and modern grasses and maintenance equipment – deal with improving the turf on the courses we play.

So what’s next? What will be around 50 years from now that isn’t today? That’s hard to tell, at least in part because it’s hard to identify any fundamental needs of golfers that haven’t already been addressed. Sure, we could all use still more distance, but the governing bodies are trying to keep a lid on that. Personally, I’d welcome something that would help read greens, because I’m sick of saying “I read that putt completely backwards.” I’m sure the technology already exists for a handheld computer to read slopes, but I’m equally sure the USGA and R&A are not about to allow it.

Perhaps the next game changer will come in the field of instruction. Frank Thomas, the former USGA technical director, thinks so. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” Thomas says. “Equipment has sort of reached its potential, or very close to it. But I do think that we need to re-look at how we can introduce people to the game."

Thomas, who markets putters on his website, believes golf is dropping the ball when it comes to selling clubs. “Every product you buy in a retail outlet, you get instructions for use,” he says. “Golf, we have no instructions for use attached to the golf club.” Putting, he says, “is where we can make a significant difference by introducing a method of how to use [a putter] most effectively.”

John Solheim, chairman and CEO of Ping, whose father, Karsten Solheim, was responsible for two of the biggest innovations – perimeter weighting in irons and heel-and-toe weighting in putters – says “There are a lot of small things happening that are going to add up to larger things. To me, it's probably the most exciting time as far as technology goes. One, we have the tools in the Trackman [quick aside, Trackman just missed making our list] to analyze things like never before. But then at the same time, there are all sorts of new materials coming out that you couldn't get before, and they can experiment with materials a lot easier than they could in the past.

“There are other materials out there, but are they manufacturable in a golf club? Not at the moment. Will they be? Yes. It's an exciting time, especially for a gearhead like me. You see what they're working on, and it's mind-blowing.”

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.