The Golf Ball Evolution Through History

History Of The Golf Ball

Have you ever wondered what old golf balls were like? What were they made from and just how much the technology has improved?

In this post, I’m going to take you through the history of the golf ball. You’ll learn about different materials, children getting injured and more.

Just like the history of golf itself, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact date of when the first golf ball would have been invented.

Instead, we can see the evolution of the golf ball over time and get an appreciation of just how much they have changed.

The Evolution of the Golf Ball

The golf ball we know and use today has gone through a few changed over the years. From using natural materials through to the new modern age materials.

These advancements are to improve the sport of golf and to help golfers have better scores.

Wooden

From around the 14th century until the 17th century, it was believed they used wood from hardwood and beach to make the balls for games involving sticks and balls.

This would have been a very time consuming process to make. Their performance was probably not the best, but better then a rock I guess.

Antique Wooden golf Ball
Antique wooden golf ball

The thing is, there might not be much evidence they actually used wooden balls in Scotland. It’s probably more likely they used leather balls that were filled with cow’s hair. Which would have been imported from the Netherlands from around 1486 onward.

Featherie

The next evolution in the golf ball story is the feathery ball.

Featherie goll ball examples
(L) Oldest ‘featherie’ ball construction pre 1540  and (R) Wm Gourlay c1830
Photo credit: scottishgolfhistory.org

This is how they were made:

  • A standard measure of chicken or goose feathers was collected.
  • A standard measure for a featherie is a gentleman’s top hat full of feathers.
  • The feathers were boiled and softened
  • They were then stuffed into the leather pouch
  • Then they are coated in paint, usually white

There were problems with the featherie ball though. First off, they were expensive and time consuming to make. An experienced ball maker could only make a couple a day.

Due to the process to make them, they wouldn’t always be perfectly spherical.

If they got too wet the distance they could travel would be reduced. There was also the chance they could split open, either from being hit or hitting the ground or hard surface.

Even though it had these problems, the featherie was much better than a wooden ball and remained the standard for a golf ball well into the 19th century.

Gutta-Perch

The next step in the evolution of the golf ball came in 1848. The Rev. Dr. Robert Adams Paterson invented the gutta percha ball, referred to as a guttie or gutty ball.

Example of a Guttie Golf Ball
Guttie golf ball
Photo credit: jamesrivergolfmuseum.com

The guttie golf ball was made from the dried sap from the Malaysian sapodilla tree. It had a rubbery feel to it and by heating it and shaping it you could get a spherical shape when using a mold.

This type of ball became the ball to use due to it being cheaper to make and if the ball became damaged or out of shape they could be reformed into shape. Making golf more accesable to the masses.

Over time is was discovered that nicks and marks that formed on the ball from normal use gave the ball better ball flight than one that was smooth to begin with.

This led to golfers making indents into the surface with a knife or taking to the ball with a hammer and chisel. Golfers wanted to give the ball as much texture as possible and different patterns were used.

Haskell

50 years after the guttie golf ball, the wound golf ball was the next big thing in golf ball history and it came about by chance in 1898. Coburn Haskell (let’s just admire that awesome name for a sec) was going out for a game with Bertram Work.

Who happened to be the superintendent at the B.F. Goodrich company. While Coburn waited for Bertram he grabbed some rubber thread that was laying around in the plant. He wound it into a ball.

When he bounced it, it went flying into the air almost hitting the ceiling. Bertram suggested he put a cover around the rubber thread.

This was the start of a new golf ball, which came to be known as the rubber Haskell golf ball.

Haskell Golf Ball
Photo credit: bratenahlhistorical.org

For decades this wound rubber ball was made with a liquid filled or solid round core that had a layer of wound rubber around it, which was then covered with a thin outer shell of balatá sap.

Balatá

The balatá tree is native to Central and South America and also the Carribian. Tapping the tree releases a soft viscous fluid which is rubber like and very similar to how the guttie ball was made.

A downside of the balatá sap is that it is quite soft. This meant if a high lofted iron made contact with the ball anywhere else apart from the bottom, it could cut the ball, making it unfit for play.

Ball Dimples

In the early 1900’s golfers found that a ball covered in dimples gave more control over the trajectory, flight and spin of the ball. A patent was received in 1897 by David Stanely Froy, James Mhardy and Peter G. Fernie for a ball with indentations.

The first prototype of this balls was played in the open in 1900 at the Old Course at St. Andrews by Froy.

Various dimple patterns were introduced by manufacturers which improved spin, trajectory, lengths and overall ‘feel’ characteristics of the new wound golf balls.

Modern Golf Balls

Fancy new synthetic resins were introduced in the mid 1960’s as well as new urethene blends for golf ball covers. These were a lot more durable and resistant to cutting so quickly overtook the balatá type.

They were classified as either two-piece, three-piece or four-piece depening on the number of layered components. These materials or similar are still being used for current golf balls.

Liquid Cores

In 1917 it seemed to be a good idea to make golf balls with liquid cores. What better liquid to use than a caustic liquid. One that caused eye injuries to children who decided to cut open a golf ball.

When I deciced to cut open a golf ball as a child all I came across was the bands of rubber wound into a ball shape, lucky for me.

Golf equipment manufacturers learned thier lesson and by the 1920’s decided to stop using the caustic liquid.

But don’t worry, they had a better idea in in the 70’s and 80’s. They added crushed crystalline material into the liquid cores. Those pesky kids still wanting to dissect a golf ball got injured from them exploding when cut.

Solid Golf Balls

Around 1967, Spalding purchased a patent that Jim Bartsch had for a solid ball. He had the idea but lacked any of the chemical properties to make this happen. Spalding’s chemical engineers came up with a chemical resin that eliminated the need for layered components entirely.

Golf Ball Rules

The rules around golf balls state:

  • The diameter of a “conforming” golf ball cannot be any smaller than 1.680 inches (42.67 mm)
  • The weight of the ball may not exceed 1.620 ounces (45.93 g)
  • The ball itself must be spherical and must have a symmetrical arrangement of dimples on its surface

There is no limit for the amount of dimples present.

There are other rules laid out by R&A and the USGA around the radius and depth of the dimples. the maximum launch speed and maximum total distance when launched from test equipment.

The Future

Who knows what manufacturers will try next.

As long as they stick to the rules, new technology will sure to be trialled. Not all golf balls are created equally. There are different chracteristics that can be had. From better distance to more spin.

They’ve come a long way since their origin and play an important part in any golfers game.

What’s your favorite golf ball?

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