Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Life and Times of Metal Spikes (Or: When Phil Called Vijay a Mother******)

Last week, Phil Mickelson fell down on the rocks beside the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, looking for a wayward drive. Everyone had a good laugh - except, of course, Phil, who probably had a sore bum afterward.

But what I thought of when I watched Phil's spill was this: Damn those metal spikes! Mickelson was always one of the pro golfers who stuck with metal spikes (a k a nails) rather than switching to plastic cleats. And metal spikes simply are not designed for walking on slick rock surfaces.

Around 25-percent of PGA Tour pros still use metal spikes, according to Golf Digest. In one way, that's pretty surprising: The rest of the golf world has moved on, after all; it's not easy for a recreational golfer to buy metal spikes anymore, and if even one could, nearly all public courses and many private courses ban them. (Some high-end, niche golf shoe makers still offer metal spikes.)

But on the other hand: SoftSpikes, which were introduced in 1993, and all the plastic-cleated and spikeless golf shoes that are the offspring of SoftSpikes, don't really improve a golfer's game. They improve the conditioning of the golf course, but not, by any appreciable degree, the golfer's game. So if you're a famous, rich pro golfer dude and believe that nails on the bottoms of your shoes are a performance upgrade over plastic cleats - and the tour allows you to still use them - well, you might just do that. And, as noted, about a quarter of PGA Tour guys feel that way.

Do you even remember metal spikes? If you're under 30, you might not. I am not under 30; in fact, I'm so old that I played in metal spikes for the first 10-15 years of my golf "career."

About the only thing I miss about them is the sound they made when walking on concrete or other hard surfaces. That trilling "cruch, crunch, crunch."

In my early 20s I knew a woman who did not play golf but loved the sound of metal spikes on concrete. So when she knew I was golfing, she would ask me to stop by her house - just so I could walk the sidewalk in my spikes to let her hear that clickety-clackety.

Did I do it? You bet I did! She was hot. I'd have danced the complete Riverdance in my metal spikes had she asked me to.

But, like Phil Mickelson on the Pebble Beach rocks, I sometimes had trouble staying on my feet in those things. Many golfers did, depending on the quality of the walking surface.

For example, some of the municipal courses I grew up playing put down Astroturf or that green felt used on putt-putt courses inside their clubhouses to provide a safe walking surface for golfers in their spikes.

But one that I often played did not; it had only a worn stone tile. And that tile was slick. It was comical watching all the golfers moving so gingerly in an attempt to avoid tumbling. But if you took a corner too fast? You might be going down. Or, perhaps even worse, just one foot would slide out from underneath, testing the elasticity of your groin muscle. Ouch!

Looking back, it surprises me that course never faced any lawsuits from spiked golfers who fell inside its clubhouse.

But those old metal spikes caused plenty of problems and disagreements among pro golfers on tour, too. And going back a long time, too.

I remember an interview that Hale Irwin did about 15 years ago in which Chi Chi Rodriguez's "sword dance" came up. Irwin acknowledged that Chi Chi's dance was very popular with fans, but, he said, "Chi Chi spiked up a lot of greens doing that."

Mickelson was involved in his own metal spikes incident with another player, too. At the 2005 Masters, Vijay Singh - playing one group behind Mickelson - complained to a rules official about Mickelson's shoes. Vijay claimed Phil's spikes must have been longer than the allowable limit, claiming they were tearing up the greens. (Ah, that Vijay, he's a charmer!)

Masters officials then confronted Mickelson between holes and examined his metal spikes.
Nothing was found to be wrong with Mickelson's spikes. Singh refused to talk about the incident, but Mickelson released a statement apologizing if his spike marks had caused problems for anyone and promising to do a better job tamping them down. He also said that he thought Singh (not mentioned by name) was way out of line to bring up the issue in the middle of the round.

That's the story most of the golfing public heard. Here's what happened - according to insider reports at the time - behind the scenes: Following the round, Mickelson entered Augusta's champions lockerroom just in time to overhear Singh badmouthing Phil to other champions present. Mickelson yelled across the room at Singh, calling him an obscene name that has 12 letters and starts with "mother." Other champions scattered, afraid that fisticuffs were about to break out. They didn't.

The next day on the Augusta range, Singh spent most of his time glaring at Mickelson, who spent all of his time refusing to look in Vijay's direction.

Another prickly pro, Steve Elkington, was involved in a metal-spikes-related incident one year later. Elkington was entered into a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Houston. He showed up for it wearing metal spikes. Only problem, metal spikes were not allowed. The USGA allows nails at the U.S. Open proper, but in the qualifiers the cleat policy is up to the host club. The Houston club for that qualifier was a softspikes-only facility, ergo, no metal spikes in the qualifier.

That prohibition was included in the registration forms, which Elkington signed; and entered golfers were reminded of the shoe policy in another info packet they all received.

Elkington's response? When he showed up in metal spikes and was told he had to change shoes, he threw a fit and stormed out. He walked away from a chance to qualify for the U.S. Open all because he wasn't willing to switch from spikes to softspikes.

As for Mickelson? Come to find that he (and Tiger Woods) mostly use plastic cleats these days. So my initial reaction to that video clip of Phil falling on his keister (blame the metal spikes!) was wrong. But that's OK. It gave me an excuse to write this post.

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  1. It's time to buy a new pair of golf shoes and I find myself back at a familiar place.

    I miss metal spikes.

    Like you, the sound of metal spikes on concrete, asphalt or the occasional gravel cart path was an important part of wearing them. As a young man, wearing metal spikes on the golf course took me back to the first year in baseball when I was old enough to play in the metal spike league. The sound those baseball spikes made on the cement floor in the dugout was unmistakable and it made us kids feel like we were a step closer to the 'bigs'. Did the metal spikes help us play better? Not that I recall, but those spikes were earned and wearing them pumped us up. We were becoming real baseball players.

    As far as golf goes, my game was better in the "metal spikes" days. Maybe that's because I was younger, but I think it had a lot to do with my mindset. Admittedly, there is a lot of psychology attached to metal spikes, but anyone who has ever participated in any sport knows psychology (or your mindset) has a huge influence on performance. Like baseball before, the sound of metal spikes meant it was game time.

    Regarding the damage caused by metal spikes, I honestly don't remember spike marks being any more of an issue for me on the putting green then than they are now. If you're behind a foot-dragger, it doesn't make much difference which he wears - spikes or cleats.

    I also miss the solid 'anchored' feeling metal spikes provided, particularly on hard pan and dried-out hard-as-cement tee boxes. I don't have the words to describe what it's like to wear metal spikes on a putting green, but feeling the spikes pierce the surface and sink that fraction of an inch into the green is indescribable and I really miss that!

    Golf just isn't the same with these plastic cleats. And if you don't think your auditory senses have something to do with the game, just ask the club manufacturers why they are investing R&D dollars to develop club heads that provide a pleasing sound at the point of contact. Sounds are part of the game. To me, metal spikes are part of golf's heritage.

    I'm saddened by the growing trend of today's spike-less slick-bottomed non-golf shoes worn by touring pros. I haven't seen any at my course yet, but it's just a matter of time.

    You younger folks who've never had the privilege of wearing metal-spike golf shoes don't know what you are missing.

  2. Here here...BTW I am 64 and have been playing since I was about 9 yo. haha...Cavity backs?...all we had were blades and mine were 20 years old then!! Woods were called woods because they were...(wait for it)...WOOD!...Talk about an oxymoron...metal woods :( You are could feel, like, almost a crispy feeling as you walked across a newly mown putting green. Really hard to describe. And YES! the sound of metal spikes on asphalt or graval?....Takes me back...Thanks for the walk down memory lane in my black and white saddle metal spiked golf shoes that weight like 5 lbs each!...


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