The steel shaft was golf’s last significant innovation until the 1960s, when a GE engineer named Karsten Solheim began experimenting with perimeter weighting in putter heads.
Building prototypes in his Phoenix garage, Solheim got his putters into the hands of a few professionals and before long, his “Anser” putter was the talk of the tour. Solheim founded PING in 1967, and was soon making perimeter-weighted irons as well.
The 1980s saw the introduction of so-called “metal woods,” which used steel and other materials instead of traditional persimmon or laminated wood. Metal woods also utilized perimeter weighting technology to deliver straighter shots from a lighter clubhead, and within 10 years most every golfer – pro and amateur alike – was playing them.
Shafts made from graphite and other composites gained popularity throughout the 1990s, particularly for use in woods. Graphite became valued for its lighter profile and versatile flex properties, helping golfers hit the ball farther.
These technological advances – all started or pushed forward in the U.S. – promised to make the game easier for the everyday golfer. But nothing drew attention to the game like a young Californian named Tiger Woods.
The son of an African-American father and Thai mother, Woods was unique in many ways. A junior phenom, he made an immediate mark as a pro by winning the 1997 Masters at age 21 – the youngest ever to do so. Woods would dominate golf both on and off the course for the next dozen years, winning major titles at an unprecedented rate and piling up hundreds of millions in endorsement contracts.
As Woods became the world’s wealthiest, most famous athlete, legions of Americans took an interest in the game. Television ratings soared when Woods was in the field, and golf participation in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 30.6 million players in 2003 (according to the National Golf Foundation). That number declined over the ensuing years, as did the number of U.S. golf courses, both driven down by a poor economy and other factors.
Still, the United States can boast of some 16,000 golf courses and 25 million golfers as of 2013 – both easily the top totals of any country. America figures to maintain its dominant influence on the game over the next century.