Date: January 22, 2014
Author: John Fawcett / Golf Society

A brief history of the sand iron

is article first appeared in RM, the house magazine for members of Royal Melbourne Golf Club – Ed. )

In Gene Sarazen’s book Thirty Years of Championship Golf he states that he only became a confident player of bunker shots after he invented the sand iron. This club, now called a sand wedge, the dynamiter, or the blaster as well as the sand iron, was born in a small machine shop in New Port Richey late in 1931. Sarazen was trying to make a club that would drive the ball up as he drove the clubhead down. When a pilot wants to take off, he doesn’t raise the tail of the plane, he lowers it. Accordingly Sarazen lowered the tail, or sole, of his niblick to produce a club whose face would come up from the sand as the sole made contact with the sand. He experimented with soldering various globs of lead along the sole of his niblick until he arrived at a club that had an exceptionally heavy, abrupt, wide, curving flange. He tried out this club hitting thousands of shots a week, making adjustments in his machine shop, and testing the improvements until he had the club perfected.

The sand iron was quickly taken up by his fellow pros, and went on to become, in its variations, a standard club in all manufacturers’ sets. However, upon further investigation, it seems that Gene Sarazen did not invent the sand wedge in 1932, which is the accepted legend. The sand wedge was actually invented, and patented, four years earlier, in 1928, by a man named Edwin Kerr MacClain, a member of the Houston Country Club in Texas.

You may well ask how MacClain came to invent it. The answer is that he practically lived in bunkers every time he played golf and kept wondering why there wasn’t something more useful than the niblick, or 9 iron as it would become known, to extricate his ball from the bunkers.

The wedge he designed had a weird concave face and resembled a large ice cream scoop on a stick, but it began to marketed under the Walter Hagen logo, and the pros of the day went for it. Horton Smith was a staunch believer in the sand wedge immediately. Smith, or the ‘Joplin ghost’ as he was nicknamed by a sportswriter of the time, was known to have the weapon in his bag through out 1929, a year in which he won an astonishing eight tournaments.

Smith then started the 1930 season in February by scoring 278 to win the Savannah Open by one stroke from Bobby Jones in what would become Jones’ Grand Slam season and it was in Savannah, after the tournament, that Smith gave Jones one of the new sand wedges, strongly suspecting that it might come in useful for him someday.

Four months later it did, three holes from the finish of the final round of The Open at Hoylake. Jones had won the British Amateur at St Andrews in May and was now trying to win the second leg of the’ slam’. As Jones played the par 5 16th, the 70th of the Championship, with Macdonald Smith and Leo Diegl closely chasing him and only two strokes behind, his wayward second shot left him with a nasty lie in a greenside bunker. The awkward lie forced him to stand with one foot in the sand and the other on a grassy slope. So out came the sand wedge for the one and only time in Jones’ brilliant career. He blasted the ball out to within four inches of the cup for the birdie that saved the tournament, and the ‘slam’, for him.

In 1931 the USGA declared MacClains’ club illegal because of its concave face; however Sarazen did design what is arguably the most popular sand iron ever made, the Wilson R-90, first sold by the Wilson Sporting Goods Company in 1933. In 1934, Gene Sarazon presented C H Fawcett, my father, with such a club following an exhibition match in Sydney. Sadly this club was stolen by a burglar some years ago.