By John Coyne
Special to ARMCHAIR GOLF
THE RUSH OF NEWS around the new grooves regulations by the USGA reminded me of another club that was banned from golf competition more than a century ago. 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.
Birth of Center-Shafted Putter
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 on to 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, perhaps furious that an American had won their tournament, refused to recognize the mallet as a legitimate putter and in 1910 imposed a ban on the putter. The ban lasted until 1952. The USGA, however, thrilled by Travis’ win, recognized the unorthodox club with Knight’s center-shafted 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 replacing 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 shafts.
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.
John Coyne is the author of The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan and The Caddie Who Played with Hickory. Learn more at John Coyne Books.