Integral to just about every sport (minus curling) is some kind of ball. For hundreds of years the golf ball has evolved from a rock or primitive wooden sphere to the technological marvel it has become in recent years.
No other sport has allowed as many differences in their ball’s playability as golf has the golf ball. Foremost on a modern player’s mind are spin, compression, distance, and aerodynamics. Different players want different things from golf balls. Some need lower spin for distance others are looking for higher spin for different flight and control possibilities. Golf ball makers have seized upon this opportunity and churn out a plethora of options for amateurs and pros alike. Golf equipment manufacturers make more money from golf balls than they ever will their clubs.
So where has the lowly golf ball come from? What is it’s history? Lets take a peek…
Rocks and Wood
You can thank your lucky stars that you have forged irons. Early golfers weren’t so lucky. The first clubs were likely just wooden sticks and the first ball was a rock. Literally. Wooden balls likely followed rocks. A wooden ball couldn’t have felt nice even if you hit your wooden club’s sweet spot. Likely made out of hardwoods, the first golf balls weren’t what they are today. There was no “ProV1x” or “TP Red” stamped on the side. If you were a golfer in those early days you likely spent your evenings whittling and sanding replacements to the balls lost or cracked on the course. At least a wooden ball could float, right?
In the early 1600s, someone came up with the idea off stuffing stitched leather with boiled goose feathers. The featherie was born. It was a technological marvel that stayed in use for a long time. A featherie maker (there was a featherie industry) would stitch wet cowhide into a ball shape, turn it inside out (seams in) and stuff it with wet feathers. The featherie dried into a hard ball and it was then painted for visibility.
The featherie soon became Scotland’s industry standard. With a skilled ball maker turning out four featheries a day you can imagine the cost involved. You thought twelve premium balls were spendy! Only the rich could afford to golf for obvious reasons.
Despite the difficulty of making a featherie, the economic drawbacks, and its lack of real durability, the featherie stuck around for what might have been 400 years. It is possible that the featherie was created in the 1400s and it hung around until the middle 1800s.
The Gutta Percha ball – or the “Gutty” as it came to be called – was a huge breakthrough. The Gutta Percha tree most commonly found in Malaysia provided the materials necessary to produce golf balls. A milky latex is harvested from the trees which can be molded at its boiling point. The hardened material didn’t become brittle when cool.
The first Guttas were rolled on a board until round. Ball makers later hammered the balls to create a basic dimple pattern to aid the ball in flight. It wasn’t until 1930 that William Taylor came up with the idea of a dimpled golf ball. It was common knowledge among players of the day that a scuffed or damaged ball flew further than a smooth one so pros often ruffed them up prior to putting them into play. Taylor put his mind to the game and discovered that indentations similar to the ones we see today made balls travel further. His wife suggested he called them “dimpled balls” and the rest is history.
Taylor later developed the molds in which his new balls were made. He also experimented with ball flight using a weighted apparatus that he created to launch balls. He studied ball flight and distance, making him the first launch monitor!
With the advent of the Gutta Percha – and especially the rubber-core ball – the average person gained access to the game.
Coburn Haskell, of Cleveland, OH, is credited with coming up with the idea for a rubber ball in 1898. He worked for B. F. Goodrich Company at the time. Walter Travis’ 1901 U.S. Amateur win with Haskell’s rubber ball marked the end of the Gutty era.
It wasn’t long before golf balls had a wound rubber core and a balata cover. Balata is similar to Gutta Percha but is made from a South American tree “Manikara Bidentata.” Balata balls were spinny around the greens and enabled golfers to easily shape their shots. For example, Payne Stewart won his U.S. Open at Pinehurst #2 in 1999 with Titleist’s “Tour Balata.”
Because of the way early golf balls were produced it was quite difficult to produce a standard ball. Each was different. But in 1931 and 1932 the USGA standardized golf ball specifications. Balls were to be at least 1.68 inches in size and could weigh as much as 1.62 ounces. Bobby Jones said that the new ball was five to ten yards shorter than the balls he used in the 1920s.
A test was instituted in 1942 to limit golf ball liveliness. A ball could have a maximum initial velocity of 250 fps with two-percent tolerance. Every conforming ball since those rulings has stayed within USGA parameters, though they’ve been updated and expanded several times since 1942.
Over the years equipment, groundskeeping, and fitness have evolved to the point where golf is obviously different than it was when the first Scot saw a rock and hit it with a stick. The main premise remains the same: get your ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes. The golf ball has presented this challenge to golfers of every generation. Pretty irresistable, isn’t it?