The Concave Wedge
Question: In the last issue you investigated the illegal clubs with ribbed, slotted, and waffle face designs. When was the concave wedge introduced and when did it become illegal?
This article traces the development of the clubs golfers used to extract their golf balls from trouble particularly the bunker. The article commences with the trouble irons used in the 1700’s to the 1930’s when Gene Sarazen developed the modern day sand iron (wedge).
“The Troon Clubs”
Found in 1898 while remolding a house in Hull, golf historians believe the clubs could date as early as 1603. The collection includes six wooden head clubs plus two iron head. The woods vary in shaft length and different slopes for the faces. The two square toe irons differ in weight – one noticeably heavier than the other. Historians believe the lighter one was used to extract the ball from less difficult places on the course.
Square toe and heavy iron
By 1850 the collection of trouble clubs available to the golfer included wooden niblick, heavy iron, rut iron, bunker iron, or spadie. Because only a few golfers played the game, the local blacksmith forged these early iron clubs along with his other jobs. After 1850 the introduction of the new solid guttie ball dramatically increased the demand for iron head golf clubs. Now blacksmith’s could earn a living by becoming specialists in forging iron head clubs. Cleeks (loft of a standard 1 2 or 3 iron) and lofters began appearing on the market for the golfers. The trouble clubs included more refined heavy irons and small headed rut or track irons.
Charles B. Macdonald in Scotland’s Gift Golf described his set when he arrived in America in 1874 as seven wooden head clubs: the driver, the grassed, the long, the middle, and the short spoons, wooden niblick, and wooden head putter. The four irons included cleek, midiron, lofter, and iron niblick (the trouble club).
Last month’s article focused on the illegal clubs the cleekmakers manufactured to control the short pitch shot. Using various configurations of ribs, deep grooves, slots and waffle designs, the cleekmakers made the shot easier for the average player. In the mid-twenties, the cleekmakers attempted to design clubs that made it easier for the golfer to extract the ball from trouble areas particularly the bunkers. The manufacturers began altering the shape and size of the niblick – the golfer’s most lofted club. The professionals began advocating using the niblick for approach shots to replace the outlawed grooved clubs. Up until this time golfers limited the niblick use to extracting balls from bunkers. Now players used the most lofted club to pitch the ball from ruts, hedges, whins, and gorse.
Dreadnought Niblick with the stamp on the back “James Braid Walton Heath”
The face measures 3 1/2 ” from the toe to the hosel
It is unclear exactly when the size of the niblick began to change. No patents exist for these larger niblicks. In the Museum collection we have an example of the Dreadnought (meaning large, named after the Dreadnought ship used in WW1) Niblick with the marking James Braid Walton Heath. The Braid marking indicates the British Open champion sold it. Newspaper accounts provide the earliest reference to the fact Braid began using these oversize niblicks earlier than other players. For this reason, we believe our Dreadnought is an early example of the earliest oversize niblick. The face measurers 3 ½ inches from the hosel to the toe. In the collecting world this club was known as a ”Junior Niblick”. The museum also has one of the more unusual “Giant Niblicks”. The face measures four inches from the hosel to the toe. Some of the “giant niblicks” resembled a small six -inch side dinner plate. At the height of the collecting obsession these giant niblicks fetched $500 – $750 depending on the size of the face.
This “Giant Niblick” measures 4″ from the toe to the hosel
At this time manufacturers began increasing the width of the sole of the niblick plus adding extra weight to the back. The makers believed this wider sole would make the club head slide through the sand easier.
E.K. McClain’s concave niblick 1928 top
Bottom back of Mcclain’s wedge notice the wide flange is similar to Sarazen’s R90 Wedge
In 1928 E.K. McClain patented a new niblick to revolutionize bunker shots and other trouble shots. “The club is particularly suitable for use in sand traps, in the rough or around the greens where it is desirable to impart an upward flight and backspin to the ball, to remove it from out or over a hazard to the green. The ordinary niblick blade is inclined to penetrate to deeply into the sand thereby failing to knock the ball out.”
Furthermore, McClain explained how his concave shape made the player extract the ball quicker out of the sand. “It is the object of my invention to provide a club equipped with a wing or guide so shaped as to impart an upward flight to the ball when struck to prevent the club head from sinking too deeply into the material below the ball.”
McClain’s Concave Niblick became very popular. Even Bobby Jones used his concave club on many instances on his journey to the grand slam (winning the USGA Amateur , the British amateur, the US Open and the British Open in the same year) in 1930. In 1931 the R&A began lobbying for the ban of the Concave Niblick. About this time Horton Smith invented a new flat face niblick that he called “The Wedge”. He is credited with being the first person to use this new term “wedge” to replace the old hickory shafted, most lofted iron “The Niblick”. From that time onwards the trouble clubs became known as the wedges. In the 1930’s players carried two wedges – the pitching wedge and the sand wedge.
Manufacturers through the 1930’s referred to their sand irons and pitching clubs under names such as Blaster, Jimmy, Dynamiter, Scooper, and Mr. Flipper,
Top to bottom Scooper (Macgregor) Mr Flipper (Macgregor) The Jimmey (AG Spalding)
1930 examples of wedges
Top to Bottom Pro – Made Golf Company Vancouver BC, 88 Louisville H&B, Blaster Kroydon
AG Spalding Dynamiters 1930’s 1940’s
In 1932 the McClain Concave Wedge became illegal. The R&A cited the following reasoning. “It has been decided that the use of clubs so constructed is not in the best interests of the game, and from this date (April 29, 1931) such clubs will not be permitted under the rules of golf.” The USGA believed the accentuated curve on the face of the club made the ball rise quickly out of the sand causing the ball to strike the club face twice.
Image showing the Gene Sarazen original sand iron
Notice the back flange is higher than the leading edge.
An original 1930’s R-90 Gene Sarazen sand iron
In his book Thirty Years of Championship Golf, Gene Sarazen described how he invented the modern sand wedge. “The one department of my game that was still worrying me in 1932 was my trap play. I was throwing shots away there, scalping the ball or digging down so deep that I fluffed the shot. This club. – now called the sand-wedge, the dynamiter, and the blaster as well as the sand iron was born in a small machine shop in New Port Richey late in 1931. I was trying to make myself a club that would drive the ball up as I drove the clubhead down. When a pilot wants to take off, he doesn’t raise the tail of his plane, he lowers it. Accordingly I was lowering the tail of my niblick to produce a club so the face would come up from the sand as the sole made contact with the sand. I experimented with soldering various globs of lead along the sole of my niblick until I arrived at a club that had an exceptionally heavy, abrupt, wide curving flange. The New Port Richey course had one excellent trap right behind my house. I tried out my sand-iron, hitting thousands of shots each week, making adjustments back in the machine shop, testing the improvements until I had the club perfected. Through trial and error, I learned that shots with the new sand iron had to be executed with a different stroke from the orthodox golf stroke. The correct method of playing a sand shot is to take the club back on the outside and flick it down behind the ball.”
On route to his 1932 British Open championship win, Sarazen hid his new club from the R&A officials fearing the R&A would ban it if he showed exceptional success. That seemed to be their method of operation. Again in the 1932 US Open Sarazen feared the club would be banned because of his winning success. Fortunately for all golfers his modification has lasted the test of time. Basically Sarazen created a sole on his wedge that had the back edge higher than the leading striking edge. This created a bounce when the club entered the sand.
The R&A attempted to gain support to ban the new wedge in 1937. They wanted to restrict the sole from any curvature and limit the width to ½ inch. This attempt failed.
The R90 Sand Iron reporduced using the investment cast process in the 1950’s
Professionals in the 1950’s sought to purchase the earliest versions of Wilson’s R90 Gene Sarazen wedges. According to the touring professionals these wedges had three distinguishing characteristics. “Feel is what the old R90’s have. Feel is really a collection of all a club’s characteristics. The three essential characteristics of a good sand club are a very stiff shaft, the right weight, and the perfect bounce or angle of the clubface to the sole.” Each club made in the 1930’s was different because of the process used to produce them. Each head was hand forged not investment cast. Cleekmakers had to remove as much as 3/8ths of an inch of material from the forged head to produce the final club. Hence each club had the characteristics of the clubmaker producing the club. In the 1950’s Wilson attempted to find one club from that the 1930’s to act as a template to mass produce using the investment cast copying method. Unfortunately, Wilson produced Sarazen’s original sand iron under many numbers during the late 1930’s – R90, R99, R20, R30, and R31. The company never collected the best versions of their original R series. Hence when Wilson attempted to satisfy the professional in the 1950’s the company did not know what version to reproduce. The investment cast manufacturing process made exact copies of the master club. For this reason, the touring professionals turned to the collecting market as their source. In the 1960’s the Ben Hogan Company produced a superior sand wedge the Sure-Out. This club became the sand wedge of choice by the professionals and amateurs.
The Ben Hogan Slazenger Sure-Out wedge from the 1960’s
The museum is seeking examples of 1930’s -1960’s sand wedges. We are also seeking illegal golf clubs from the hickory era.
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