News & Opinion

Golf industry takes steps to soften effects of cleats

The original Softspikes were introduced in 1993, primarily to alleviate damage caused by traditional metal spikes to greens and, not coincidentally, wooden bridges, walkways, clubhouse carpets and floors

The original Softspikes were introduced in 1993, primarily to alleviate damage caused by traditional metal spikes to greens and, not coincidentally, wooden bridges, walkways, clubhouse carpets and floors. Not long after, courses began banning metal spikes. Today, they are history, except for some PGA Tour pros.

But those original, relatively benign, plastic Softspikes hold little resemblance to the oversized clawed cleats on many new golf shoes. Despite its best intentions, the golf industry might have created a multi-fanged monster. Have we traded those little “Christmas tree” metal spike marks for a pinball-like putting game caused by plastic ones?

At least golfers could tamp down (after putting out) the tufts left by metal spikes, but the damaging depressions and turf tears caused by some modern cleats have been likened by some superintendents to the effects of a hailstorm. Several courses in England banned the original Adidas Adizero shoe because of the mayhem that it caused on the greens.

Let’s assume that a foursome, collectively, takes 140-200 steps on each green. (That is a conservative estimate.) Now consider how many of those footmarks are concentrated around the hole and off the green on the way to the next tee. That does not factor the amplified effects of twisting, dragging and scraping these cleats. In contrast to the old metal-spiked shoes, which had 10 to 12 points of contact each, many of the aggressively spiked new models have close to 200 each.

The problem is widespread and insidious, says Tim Moraghan, who has spent a lifetime in golf course agronomy, including 20 years with the U.S. Golf Association.

“You want evidence? Check out Pebble Beach,” Moraghan said. “They do about 80,000 rounds a year. Thanks to some of these new spikes, their greens look like the surface of the moon, even early in the day.”

Moraghan coined the phrase “delete the cleat,” a cause supported by many superintendents, according to an article in Golf Course Industry magazine. Eighty-four percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the magazine said their courses should ban certain types of cleats.

Shoe manufacturers got the message. Lesley Hawkins, brand manager for Adidas Golf in Canada, conceded that, initially, golfers needed to be assured they were getting the same stability and traction from plastic spikes as they were used to from metal. “There was a misconception that there was less grip,” she said. As a result (excuse the non sequitur), there was an “arms race” in footwear, trying to persuade skeptical golfers that the new generation of spikes had to be aggressive in appearance to be effective.

But golfer backlash resulted in a positive response from the industry, Hawkins said.

“We heard from golfers and superintendents, and we reacted,” she said. “Our proprietary spikes now are more flexible and mobile, and our spikeless shoes have soft rubber nubs. We’re not hearing complaints from superintendents like we did a couple of years ago.”

Thomas Nikolai, a plant and soil scientist at Michigan State University, has been examining this situation for 20 years by running tests in the U.S. and other countries. Although he thinks that all major golf-shoe manufacturers do at least some type of similar research, his primary client is FootJoy, which asks him to test prototype spikes before they go to market.

Nikolai is in the midst of a comprehensive study with Doug Karcher of the University of Arkansas. The results are expected to be published in December. When asked about his preferred shoe, Nikolai recommended a “teaching shoe”-style, with mild rubber nubs rather than claw-like cleats.

(As an aside, it is confounding that while pros giving lessons on the range can swing in perfect balance wearing teaching shoes, amateurs think they need super-aggressive traction. They should recall, as the late, great ball-striker George Knudson often said, to do nothing at the expense of balance.)

To be fair, it is undeniable that damp conditions (either natural or from irrigation) and other agronomic practices could be contributing to the overall problem. In fact, Nikolai said, more frequent top-dressing of greens and reduced cutting heights have exacerbated the situation.

“Today’s putting surfaces are so good that just about any imperfection is obvious,” said Nikolai, who is a former superintendent.

Smoothing spike marks is one suggestion included in the proposed changes to the Rules of Golf for implementation starting in 2019. But is the term “spike mark” as outdated as the metal spike? And just what constitutes a fixable imperfection? Will golfers simply be able to tap down a trough from their ball to the hole?

Perhaps Nikolai and Karcher will cover those questions in their study. But we’ll have to wait until December to find out.

In the meantime, pick up your feet and delete the cleat.