Illegal Golf In The Age of Hickory

If you follow golf at all you know about the new groove regulations coming into effect this year. The volume of grooves has been changed by the USGA, and the groove edge sharpness reduced for clubs with lofts greater than or equal to 25 degrees. These rule was made by the governing body of American golf (United States Golf Association) to reduce the spin on shots played from the rough by “highly skilled golfers” (well, that leaves me out of the mix) and the reason, according to the USGA, is to “increase the importance of driving accuracy.” The USGA also determined that “average golfers playing from the rough hit the green in regulation only 13 % of the time”  so our club requirements aren’t immediately subject to the new rule. We don’t have to go out an buy a new set of club. Also, there aren’t too many amateurs who can win a PGA event even playing with banned clubs!

The rush of news around the grooves reminded me of another club that was banned from golf competition back in the late 1890s. The culprit was a New Yorker, Arthur Franklin Knight, a name not many people know today. What Franklin Knight did for the game is a story mostly lost in the pages of golf  history.

Knight was an engineer, and a golfer, and he  combined his knowledge, talents and interest into designing clubs for the new golf age. In doing so, he changed the way the game is played.

Based on his knowledge and research in physics (and the human mind) he came to the conclusion that a player’s greatest handicap was not the golf course or his nerves, but the erratic properties of the clubs.

Knight re-invented golf by redesigning clubs, beginning with the putter. Working with iron clubheads and hickory shafts of various lengths, he had by 1902 come up with a center-shafted, mallet-style putter. Knight affixed the shaft to the middle of the putter blade, giving the club a natural pendulum-like motion and a center of gravity at the exact point of impact.  He called his putter the “Schenectady Mallet,” naming it after the town where he lived and where he worked as an employee of General Electric.

By 1903, Knight had an exclusive patent to his center-shafted putter and began to sell it. He made a small fortune. Then in 1904 one of the game’s great amateur golfers, Walter Travis, who had already won three U.S. Amateurs, but was in a putting slump, used the putter for the first time.

The story, as told in Peter F. Stevens’ book Links Lore, is that a member of the Apawamis Club in Rye, New York, a man named Phillips, was watching Travis’ poor putting during a round and suggested  Travis try the Schenectady Mallet.

Travis, according to another writer, George B. Kirsch, in his recently published  Golf in America, had used the putter in the 1904 U.S. Open after he became discouraged by his poor putting. When Travis picked up the Schenectady Mallet his magical touch on the greens returned and he went onto win the British Amateur, the first American to do so.  

Stevens writes, “Knight’s club had helped Travis to become the first American to win the prestigious tournament, and Travis helped Knight’s reputation as America’s preeminent club designer.”

The R&A, this is the British governing body of golf rules and regulations, perhaps furious that an American had won their tournament, refuse to recognize the mallet as a legitimate putter and in 1910 imposed a ban on the putter. This ban lasted until 1952. The USGA, however, thrilled by Travis’ win, recognized the unorthodox club with Knight’s center-shifted design, a design that would become the prototype for countless putters.

George Kirsch, however, points out in his book that Travis never again was able to use the putter successful. Still, in 1920, Travis designed a modified version named after him and manufactured by the Spalding company.

Meanwhile, Knight continued to design clubs, irons, drivers, as well as more putters. He was certain that the shaft was the key to all great golf and he came up with what he called, “steel tubing.” Knight was replaying hickory with modern steel. By 1910, Knight had a patent for a seamless steel club, but it would take another two decades for steel-shafted clubs to come into vogue, first in America and then England. By then he wasn’t around to profit from his design or see the results of steel shaft.

Following the Schenectady Mallet and steel tubing has come persimmon, titanium, graphite, adjustable hosels, hybrids, and now putters with white ice urethane and elastomer inserts. And Arthur Franklin Knight, who turned hickory shafts into test tubes, did not live long enough to see golf change from a game to a science.








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