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1980s proved decade of changes in golf

Oh, for the simpler life. As the 1980s dawned, one of the most pressing decisions facing a golfer shopping for a new set of clubs was: How stiff should the shaft be? "(Ten years ago) you had a standard wood club and Dynamic Steel shafts _ which was the best shaft," said Gil Gonsalves, head professional at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club for 16 years.

"That narrowed it down quickly. Once you decided the stiffness of the shaft needed you could only go one way."

Oh, how times have changed.

Walk into a golf shop today and you may get the feeling you need an advanced degree in science just to read what compounds the clubs are made of. Forget understanding the engineering advantages these compounds offer.

"The '80s (were) something else," Gonsalves said. "Its difficult for the best in our profession to say, "This (equipment) is for you.' The equipment is drastically different and it's going to keep going that way."

But it isn't just the golf clubs that were affected dramatically in the '80s. Almost every aspect of the game was altered in some way. In fact, it seems as though the only things that have not changed are the Rules of Golf.

Popularity explosion

More people _ especially women _ are playing the game, and they are spending lots of money to do it.

According to the Golf Consumer Profile, first published by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) in 1987, the 20.2-million people playing the game in 1986 spent $3.9-billion on greens fees and $1.1-billion on golf carts. Two years later, 23.4-million golfers were spending $5.6-billion and $1.7-billion, respectively.

Although costs have gone up, part of the increase is due to the marked growth in the number of people playing the game. Where there were 15.1-million people who played the game at least once in 1980, the NGF put the 1988 figure at 23.4-million.

For the first five years of the '80s, the number of golfers increased at the rate of 2-4 percent. In 1985 the popularity of the game took off, and from 1985-1988 the annual growth rate was 7-8 percent.

Seventy-five percent of all golfers are men, but the number of women playing the game is on the rise. In 1983, 21 percent of all new golfers that year were women. In 1988, women made up 41 percent of the new golfers.

"There are more women than ever," Gonsalves said. "Some years ago, when most clubs took in a new member, it meant one player. Now when they take in a new member, it means two, maybe three and four players."

Golf's spurt in popularity has far outpaced the increase in golf courses. The NGF puts the number of golf courses at 12,849 in 1980; eight years later, the number had been increased by only 777. The NGF estimates that more than 400 new courses are needed each year to keep up with the demand.

Space-Age Technology

Can you control that hook? Maybe Father Time has robbed you of precious yards off the tee. If so, don't despair; technology has a solution.

While steel shafts are still available, today's consumer has a variety of other materials to chose from, all designed to improve distance and accuracy. Clubs can be purchased with shafts made of titanium, beryllium, graphite, boron, or a blend of those.

"The big advantage is lightness and strength," said Jay Overton, director of golf at Innisbrook Resort. "It's a fact that if you put more weight in the club head _ it's back to math and science _ you get more club head speed and can hit further."

The introduction of new materials for shafts is not the only startling change in clubs. The club heads have undergone startling changes, too.

You can buy either forged or investment-cast irons, perimeter-weighted or a traditional design with most of the mass located behind the hitting area. And they come with different of grooves: V-shaped or U-shaped.

Grooves, which affect how the ball comes off the club, have been a hot topic in recent years, but some say the design of the clubhead is what matters most.

"The groove issue has nothing to do with the game of the average golfer," Overton said. "Perimeter weighting, that has been the most significant The sad part is that it doesn't matter how bad you hit the ball, you don't really see it because the performance of the golf ball is still going to be somewhat favorable (because of the club head design)."

Then there are the woods. Yes, while traditional woods (made out of wood) remain available, metal and composite heads are becoming increasingly popular.

"This is the metal-wood age," Gonsalves said. "Hardly anyone has woods in his bags. Metal woods make shots straighter."

According to a Golf Magazine survey published in October 1989, metal is now the choice for wood clubheads. Of more than 40,000 readers who responded to the survey, 44.8 percent said they had metal woods. Persimmon and laminated woods were next at 21.1 and 19.2 percent, respectively.

While metal heads have gained in popularity, the reliable steel shaft holds a commanding lead over the other materials. Seventy-four percent had woods with steel shafts and 93.6 percent had irons with steel shafts. Graphite, titanium and composite shafts were on the shafts of 25.4 and 4.8 percent, respectively.

Technology also has changed the face of the golf ball. Once ruined by a mishit, the covers on today's golf balls make them virtually indestructible.

"If you don't lose it, you can play with the same ball all summer," quipped golf-course designer Joe Lee.

Engineers also have tinkered with the ball dimple design, getting sensational results.

"One of the more significant changes in golf is the ability to create flight patterns by purchase," Overton said. "Now the dimple patterns are aerodynamic. They can make the ball fly higher or lower."

Color also came into vogue in the '80s. No longer must the golfer settle for white balls; they now come in blue, yellow, green and red.

Miscellaneous

Another big change in the '80s came in the clothes, with bright colors and snappy designs.

"I'm very happy to see golfers becoming more fashionable, like in the late '50s and early '60s," Overton said. "There for a while it went through a boring period."

The professional golf tours also experienced changes in the '80s. Players on the PGA Tour saw total prize money increase from $13.3-million in 1980 to $41.3-million in 1989.

By the end of the decade, the LPGA Tour had nearly caught up with what the PGA Tour offered as prize money in 1980. With total purses of $5.1-million at the beginning of the decade, the LPGA professionals were played for $13.5-million in 1989.

But neither tour came close to matching the growth experienced by the Seniors Tour. From its humble beginnings _ two events and $250,000 total prize money _ The Seniors Tour offered 41 events in 1989 and $14-million in prize money.

Notes

Unexpected greeting: Chuck Williams of Palm Harbor pulled out his driver on the 310-yard, par-4 No. 2 hole at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club and hammered the ball. With a slight fade, it landed and rolled 30 yards up and onto the green.

"There were people on the green putting, and they started waying their hands at me," Williams, 43, said. "I figured they were irritated at me. So I drove up to apologize. When I got up there, they were congratulating me."

Williams' ball rolled into the cup for a double-eagle. It was his first hole-in-one _ par-3 or par-4.

Williams' feat occurred Dec. 30. Officials at the golf course said they meant to publicize it earlier but it was lost in paperwork.

Five other holes-in-one have been shot at the course, all on par-3's. Bob Southern aced the 170-yard No. 6 with a 9-iron. On the 165-yard 11th, both Charles Manion (5-iron) and Ron Prine (7-iron) aced it. And on the 175-yard 15th, Ron Blanchette (7-iron) and Jason Harris (7-iron) has holes-in-one.

Also, at the Innisbrook Resort Island Course, Don Rasinen aced the 200-yard No. 8 hole with a 4-wood.

New driving range: Dale Jones, the PGA pro who overcame a stroke to become a teaching pro at East Bay Golf Club, is opening his own place, the North American Tour Family Golf Centre. Jones, who was last at Magnolia Valley Country Club in New Port Richey, will hold a grand opening for his range and teaching center on March 3. His center is located off U.S. 19 on the Pasco-Pinellas border.

- Staff writer Kevin Thomas contributed to this report.

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