Padraig Harrington tested his current equipment against an early 1900s ball and driver, and the differences are remarkable

October 13, 2023

Harrington put a noticable dent in this early 1900s Pegasus ball while carrying it 176 yards.

Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Michael Jacobs might have stuffed his coaching studio with enough tech to launch a rocket, but he's a traditionalist at heart. Among the high-definition cameras that make up his 3-D tracking system are cases filled with an impressive collection of antique clubs, balls, training aids and golf-instruction ephemera dating to the 1800s.

When he and student Padraig Harrington, 52, were musing about how Harrington's formidable new clubhead speed would play back in the time of hickory, getting some data to back up the speculation was as easy as opening a cabinet.

Jacobs outfitted Harrington with a circa-1900 “Bulger” driver—one of the first models to incorporate curving on the face to try to straighten a player's hooks and slices—and traded out his preferred Titleist Pro V1 for two balls from the same era.

The “retro” swings Jacobs captured on his sophisticated motion-analysis software reinforce the notion that those of us who play today have it pretty good compared to our golfing ancestors.

As Jacobs cracked open the wrapper on the pristine Pegasus ball from the early 1900s that would be the subject of the first test swing, he asked Harrington what the three-time major winner thought was going to happen. "I told him about how the ads at the time said, ‘See Pegasus Fly,’ ” Jacobs says. “He goes, ‘Well, you’re about to see Pegasus die.’ ”


Harrington led the PGA Tour Champions last year with an average driving distance of 308.7 yards.

Alex Bierens de Haan

It survived but not without a bit of trauma. Harrington swung the Bulger 105 miles per hour—about the same speed he swings his similar-length gamer hybrid—and carried the Pegasus 176.6 yards (191.4 total) with a pronounced left-to-right curve. That’s about 68 yards shorter than Harrington hits his Wilson Staff C300 17-degree hybrid. The impact put a noticeable dent in the 120-year-old ball, but, hey, now it’s “game-used” by a Hall-of-Famer.

Next up was a shot with an even older Vardon Flyer from 1899, made from rubbery gutta-percha and covered with lines of raised pimples. Harrington made another 105-mph pass, and the Flyer “flew” just 132.8 yards (188 total)—but this time with a tight draw. The museum piece certainly isn’t as fresh as it was when William McKinley was president, but it’s easy to see why Chicago Golf Club was considered a monster at “only” 6,020 yards (and par 74) when Harry Vardon used his namesake ball to win the U.S. Open there in 1900.

Taking back his own gear, Harrington demonstrated why the 2023 U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club was played at 7,423 yards (and par 70). Harrington made a 119-mph swing that produced 312 yards of carry—not surprising considering Harrington led the PGA Tour Champions at 308.7 last year.

“There’s nothing like that nice persimmon thud hitting one of those old balls,” Jacobs says, “but if it started taking you four or five shots to get to the green on a par 5, the nice sound probably wouldn’t be much of a consolation prize.”