Ever since Scotsmen drove hobnails through the soles of their boots in the 1850s, better traction on grassy turf has been the goal of shoes worn to play golf.
More than a century-and-a-half later, with metal spikes banned on golf courses virtually everywhere in the U.S., better traction is still the primary aim of golf shoes, although you might think these days that fashion is the priority.
In fact, traction is so important on the PGA Tour that a number of players are still using metal spikes. Yes, the Tour allows its players to wear metal, although every other course and tournament in the U.S. — pro or amateur — prohibits metal spikes.
According to John Hohman, vice president of marketing at PrideSports, which sells Softspikes and Champ plastic cleats, his company provides metal spikes to PGA Tour players. Hohman estimates that 15-20 percent of Tour players use metal and that percentage has risen to upwards of 20 percent, now that the USGA changed its rule to allow players to tamp down spike marks on greens.
“What’s interesting is that some young guys are trying metal spikes who never grew up with metal,” said Hohman, noting that metal spike usage dropped down to 5 to 8 percent just a few years ago. Of the players who use metal, some like pure metal and some prefer a hybrid of plastic and metal cleats.
Metal spikes went away in the 1990s when plastic cleats were introduced by Softspikes in 1992. Greens superintendents sang the praises of the alternative cleats, happy with the condition of their greens. Golf course general managers liked that metal cleats weren’t wearing out clubhouse carpets. As a result, courses outlawed metal in a huge, fast wave.
But the issue has always been traction. Softspikes’ first offering was a disc with swirls that clearly didn’t perform the same as metal. As plastic cleats evolved, traction improved without sacrificing the condition of greens.
“When the Black Widow came out in 1999, it had those six legs that stuck out from the cleat, the fact that the legs flex really allowed the cleat to be super green friendly but also dug into the grass and give you great traction,” Hohman said. “That was a major innovation.
“Yes, you want traction. But if that cleat is not green friendly, we will hear about it a week after that product comes out. We have a very strict test that we put every cleat through before we introduce it to the marketplace.”
Softspikes and Champ fought each other for plastic cleat market share for 20 years before both companies merged three years ago. And they offer two distinctively different products. Champ cleats are more rigid and feature harder plastic, more for firmer courses and are more durable. Softspikes have the flexing legs and feature a cleat for softer conditions.
And PrideSports works with every golf shoe manufacturer, not only providing cleats but also the plastic receptacles on the bottom of each shoe that has replaceable cleats. Hohman believes that cleats offer superior traction over spikeless shoes, noting that 85 percent of winners on the PGA Tour this season have worn shoes with cleats.
“The one thing about metal, there’s a single point of contact,” Hohman said. “Whereas, with some plastic cleats, you can have as many as six or eight legs on a single cleat. They don’t penetrate the ground. But you can argue that with six or eight points of contact on the grass, that it will give you a little better traction. Traction in golf is vital to scoring.”
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.