Golf Spikes: Soft Gradually Replacing Steel & All for the Better

By: Bob Spiwak

At the beginning of a televised tournament the announcers invariably wax rhapsodic about course conditions and how wonderful the greens are. But beneath their lofty towers this may not always be true. There may be aberrations on the putting surfaces from metal spikes or footprints that could mean the difference between the winner and loser of the competition.

Foot Traffic On a Green
(Photo by Larry Gilhuly of the USGA)

This came to mind when Penny Zavichas sent me an email bemoaning the amount of foot traffic at the finishing hole when players, caddies, coaches and family members often congregate on the green and sometimes near the hole after players finish their rounds, especially the winners. As each foursome finishes, the damage - perhaps unseen - compounds itself.

Penny closed with a mention of Zach Johnson walking across a cart path and, "Behold, I heard the old-time [sound of] golf cleats," she said. "I did not realize that old steel spikes were still allowed. This makes it even worse around the cup."

She knows of what she speaks. Ms. Zavichas is a former LPGA Tour player and, for many years, has owned the Craft-Zavichas Golf School (Linda Craft died of cancer years ago). She's an inductee in both the LPGA and Colorado Halls of Fame, and niece of the late Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Her comments brought to mind something said by an announcer on a TV tournament broadcast - that about a third of PGA Tour players wear steel spikes.

Experts Weigh In

Larry Gilhuly of Gig Harbor, Wash., has been Western Director for the USGA Green Section for many years. He provides agronomic advice to Western golf courses from Idaho to Alaska, excepting California. He said that the USGA's 10 national amateur championships require soft spikes, while steel is allowed at its three professional events. Asked whether there was a rule by the USGA against steel spikes anywhere, Gilhuly replied there was none.

This conversation took me to John Bodenhamer, USGA Senior Managing Director of Rules. Bodenhamer was asked the same question and he referred me to the book, "Decisions on the Rules of Golf." In Decision 33 1/4 it is written: "Prohibiting metal spikes is an optional condition that tournament organizations or the committee in charge of a competition may choose to adopt."

Any decision to ban metal spikes on the PGA Tour is a decision that is entirely under the auspices of the PGA Tour. Asked if USGA had, or was considering, a rule disallowing metal spikes, Bodenhamer replied that neither was happening.

I then contacted Ken Still, a five-time winner on the PGA and Champions tours, and also Wiffi Smith, long retired from the Ladies' Tour after a stellar and successful career. Both these pros were active during the period that bridged the transition from steel to soft spikes.

Still contends that spike marks are not the cause of missed putts. His preference for soft spikes is mainly a matter of comfort. "You can tell the difference wearing [steel spikes] just by the weight of the shoe. There is a definite contrast when walking 18 holes. Play will be 10 to 15 minutes longer wearing steel."

Smith is a whimsical woman. "I really did like my [steel] Foot-Joys," she said. "I liked the sound of them on bridges and cart paths. Those first sort of plastic spikes - they were always loose and falling out." Wiffi maintains she saw no difference in her game regardless of who was wearing what.

Needless to say, the most adamant proponents of alternative spikes are those involved with growing golf turf, someone like Tim Fleegel, a Turgrass Management graduate of North Dakota State University. Until earlier this year and before a change of ownership, he was superintendent of Bear Mountain Golf Course in north-central Washington.

Fleegel thinks the amount of spike damage is based more on the construction of the putting surface. "Steel would affect smoothness more than the break of the ball," he said. "There are many golfers who don't lift their feet very well. There is a lack of education needed beyond just hitting the ball."

Considering climate as a factor, we contacted Scott Bentley at Torrey Pines near San Diego. A public-course host to the PGA Tour and situated in a dry climate, we asked about the soft spike requirement. "Everyone uses soft spikes anymore," Bentley said, "Well, not everyone." But there is no spike-restrictive policy at the 36-hole municipal facility. He told me that the greens are bentgrass and Poa annua, adding, "Now they are mostly Poa." Bentgrass, I was told, is particularly susceptible to spike damage.

In the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the West Coast, Poa annua (annual blugrass) is an abomination. It grows quickly and can produce seed heads by day's end after being mowed. At Pebble Beach, for example, one hears of golfers' complaints about this proclivity. Many, many dollars have been spent on research to eliminate this grass, which is considered a weed by golfers and superintendents. (For more on a recent successful way to minimize the growth of Poa, see a story written by Gilhuly at

For a wet climate course and the impact of different types of spikes, we contacted Rich Taylor, the superintendent at famed Sahalee Country Club east of Seattle. Unlike Torrey Pines, Sahalee is a private club. Said Taylor: "Our policy for members and guests is soft spikes-only during our summer play season and all spikes allowed during the winter. We have wet slopes around greens and tees in the winter that can be slippery. Even with this we do not see many steel spikes anymore."

As for professional tournament events hosted by the course in the summer, Taylor explained, "When we have a major event we're working under a contract where these organizations [PGA of America, PGA Tour and USGA] have the final say on the spike policy. It is very noticeable to hear steel spikes on the sidewalks during these events. That is a sound we don't hear much anymore."

Gilhuly was asked if steel spikes on the green made it easier for Poa to invade. "No research has been done in this area, but common sense would say [that] since spike-less courses have healthier turf without holes from spikes, the turf will compete better due to lack of germination sites." In addition, without cleaning shoes thoroughly Poa can be brought from one course to another, thanks to the little seed heads mentioned earlier.

It's not only the turf that suffers, noted Gilhuly, but spikes can chew up the putting surface and, according to USGA rules, tapping spike marks is not allowed until completion of the hole. There is further damage to the teeing areas, which are frequently pock-marked with divots, especially on par-3s.

Steel spikes also damage clubhouse and pro shop floors, golf carts, wooden bridges and, worse, a single detached steel spike can ruin the cutting edges of a multi-thousand-dollar mower.

A Bit of History

In the June 1921 issue of Golf Illustrated, there was an ad for soft spikes called, "Steady Man Soles and Heels, Raised Rubber Studs." The prescient advert proclaimed, "Get rid of those destructive spikes." So we have come full circle. The first steel-spiked shoes were worn by Walter Hagen in 1924. The public strove to emulate the dashing golfer's attire and spikes went viral.

CHAMP/MacNeill Engineering Worldwide began making steel golf spikes in 1931, says marketing manager and Tour coordinator Jessica Georgenes. Ten years later, Sure-Lok steel spikes - armed with spikes 6 millimeters long - were introduced. In 1988, the company added plastic spikes and, today, the made-in-China product line is the largest seller in the U.S. and abroad. The company claims that 29 of the last major tournament winners wore their CHAMP spikes. This would indicate that alternative spikes of many brands have gained a foothold on all professional tours.

Gilhuly's photo of four golfers' footprints on a green justifies Zavichas' legitimate concern about crowds on the finishing hole having a detrimental effect on the players to follow. Regardless of footwear, from steel spikes to Armani loafers, the grass is compressed and considerably disturbed.

It would seem education would help with the problem. More abandoning of steel spikes seems to be a coming thing on the Tour. Witness the attention paid Fred Couples' shoes on TV tournament coverage. Golfers and spectators alike must learn to pick up their feet, with the latter to stay off the greens completely.

All golfers should give thanks to the local superintendents and their crews, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and the USGA Green sections and allied universities working on turf research. Together, they keep the game we love loveable.

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 while awaiting the Korean War draft. First published at the age of 12, he entered the golf-writing arena in the early 1980s as a freelancer and staff writer for Golf Course News and GolfWeek, all the while freelancing for other publications in the U.S. and abroad. A co-founder of the Northwest Golf Media Association and contributing editor of Cybergolf, he lives below a mountain near Mazama, Wash., with a wife and pets on his former Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf and Flubbers Club. They have unwelcome guests like cougars, bears, deer, and Bob's very high handicap.