There is adequate documentation that golf was played a few years before Mary Queen of Scots ruled, making the tenure of the game about 500 years.
Over that time, the concept is the same, but a lot has changed – a golfer swings at a motionless ball with a club, counting his/her attempts until said ball is knocked into a hole in the ground.
Since those early days, numerous people and groups have coordinated multiple ways that have influenced the outcome, but is there any one of them who made the most significant contribution?
We begin on March 7, 1744, in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a committee called the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
These “Gentlemen Golfers” of Muirfield decided that after 200 years of whacking naturally produced objects around a field, it should be determined who is the most proficient.
They convinced the town council to donate a silver club to be presented to the winner of a competition. However, before a contest could be held, a set of rules to abide by was required and a list of 13 was drafted.
It is possible that no other act has had a greater influence on golf.
The first actual ball was wooden followed by the famous “featherie” (a leather sphere stuffed with goose feathers) for approximately the next 250 years.
In 1848, Rev Adam Paterson invented a ball called the Gutta Percha, which could be mass produced and was much less expensive than the featherie.
Then, along came Coburn Haskell who produced the first one-piece, rubber-cored ball in 1898 and it went 20 yards further, an increase of 10 to 15 per cent.
Golf balls continued to change and still do, but can any one of them or the people who made them claim to be most influential in the game?
We read about the exploits of Harry Vardon who taught us how to grip the club and Walter Hagen who gave us a life time of fun and entertainment.
Bobby Jones holds the only same-year version of the Grand Slam and became so endeared by the media and the public that he built the first private club ever made for one person to protect his privacy.
Then, through some strange twists his group of very good golfers was invited to play in a little get-together that evolved into one of the grandest spectacles in sports, the Masters. In the quest to find our mystery person, Jones rates very high on the list.
On the course we’ve seen CAD (computer assisted design) completely overhaul construction. Gone are the days of imagination and camouflage techniques used by Donald Ross, but then so are horse-drawn earth moving sleds.
Irrigation systems, fertigation programs, hybrid grasses, sand texture, superintendents educated in the use of chemicals and highly sophisticated maintenance equipment all have changed the playing surfaces.
Looking at films of tour events played in the 1990s and before, you will see hundreds of spike marks on the greens. They are all gone now because of soft spikes and flat soled shoes. These changes are noteworthy, but not attributable to any-one person or group.
Ben Hogan didn’t invent practice but he sure advanced the notion that hard work could out-produce talent.
He was the first player to weigh his golf balls to determine their balance, float them in glycerin for the same purpose and he was the first person to X-ray the balls for roundness.
The clubs manufactured by the Ben Hogan Company set a standard for excellence and under his guidance, his company developed the first lightweight metal shaft.
Hogan also weighed the components of his clubs (shafts, grips and heads) long before Kenneth Smith invented the swing weight machine to ensure his clubs were completely balanced.
His book The Modern Fundamentals of Golf is the most read golf book ever written and has impacted virtually every person who played or taught golf over the past 60 years.
I could go on, which will tell you the extent to which Hogan influenced the game.
If our search were to be expanded to include corporations a strong case could be made for the Shell Oil Company. The made for TV matches we all loved so much took us on a geographic journey around the world, but more than that, those same matches exposed a lot of people to the game in many different countries
Gary Player learned about weight lifting from Frank Stranahan and Tiger Woods continued with it and led a fitness trend. The aerospace industry gave us graphite shafts and Arnold Palmer brought golf into people’s living rooms via TV.
Palmer has to be considered as a strong candidate for popularizing the game, but there are so many others with breakthroughs in various aspects of the game.
So which one person has had the most significant influence on the game of golf? Based on their life achievements and contributions, who has changed the way things were done more than before? Who, through their efforts advanced the outcome of swinging a club at a motionless ball made the most impact on the game?
If you ask me I’d say Ben Hogan with a close second to the Company of Edinburgh Golfers, followed closely by Gene Sarazen and his wide-flanged sand wedge.