History of the Golf Ball
There are many stories and fables about how the game of golf came to be. I’m sure everyone has heard the ole’ “shepherd hitting rocks with a crooked stick” story, but the origins of golf are just that, fables and stories. There’s no real record of how it came to be or who invented it. But we can trace some of the history of the golf ball.
There were many golf ball type options over the years that were everything from a rock to a small, rounded piece of wood. But the first golf ball that rose to popularity in the 17th century came to be known as a Featherie. The Featherie was made from the skin of a cow or horsehide which was stitched together and soaked in water. The ball maker would then take soaked goose feathers and stuff the ball and tightly as they could.
The wet leather/feather ball was then stitched closed and left to dry. It is said that as the ball dried, the feathers would expand and the leather would contract, making for a very hard golf ball. This ball provided reasonably consistent ball flight and could be hit around 175 yards. Although there is a recorded strike of 361 yards which would be unbelievable even from a PGA player in 2021, thus the fable comment.
The Featherie was a good ball for what it was, leather and feathers. But the major downside was its durability. The ball became unplayable when wet and it would basically disintegrate and fall apart. Also, they were time-consuming and expensive to produce. It is reported that even the best ball makers could only make 4 per day. And the job of making the balls were high risk, recording many deaths due to the inhaling of feathers and the constant pressure on the chest that was required to stuff the balls. Thankfully, there was new technology on the horizon.
The next golf ball to be introduced was the Gutta Percha Ball, or what was commonly referred to as “TheGuttie.” (People back in the day really enjoyed nicknames for their golf balls.) The story about how this ball came to fruition also comes across as a bit of an old wives’ tale. It is told that the inventor was a young boy named Robert Patterson.
One day Robert’s father received a delivery of a statue and inside the packaging to protect the statue were shavings made from a Gutta Percha tree. Young Robert began to play with the dark substance and eventually rolled it into a ball and had the idea of using it for golf. The Guttie was first tested on the grounds of St. Andrews Golf Club. Although the first few iterations basically fell apart when hit, Robert kept at his invention and got it right.
The Guttie had many advantages over the Featherie. The Guttie could fly further, almost 250 yards. Also, it was cheaper to produce costing the manufacturers a reported 80% less. And manufacturers found they could produce as many Guttie’s in an hour as they could Featheries in a day. This transition to a cheaper golf ball allowed for a mini-golf boom to take place in the late 19th century.
In addition to flying further, it was also easier to control which helped make it easier to learn the game. Although the ball wasn’t without imperfections. It didn’t hold up in either hot or cold weather. Also, the ball was very rigid in sound and feel when hit. But despite this, the Guttie was the ball to play with until the next iteration came along.
That next golf ball, which is widely referred to as the first modern golf ball, was a rubber wound core surrounded by gutta-percha. This rubber core took the performance to a whole new level, vastly increasing feel and control and improving mishits on the ball. This ball also flew further than its predecessor.
The story of how this ball came to be is similar to the story of The Guttie, it probably includes more pomp and circumstance than facts, but here’s the story anyway. It was said that a man by the name of Coburn Haskell was waiting for a meeting at the Goodrich plant and was playing with a rubber thread. He rolled the thread into a ball and bounced it and it went all the way up to the ceiling. He then shared his discovery with a man named Bertram Work and they thought to use the rubber as a core to a golf ball. In 1901, Haskell founded the Haskell Golf Ball Company and began production of the rubber wound golf ball.
This new ball was incredibly successful in its first few years. Walter Travis used the ball to win the US Amateur golf tournament in 1901. The next year, the ball was used by Sandy Herd to win the 1902 Open Championship and used by Laurie Auchterlonie to win the US Open. These two wins converted most professionals to begin using the rubber wound golf ball. But not everyone was on board. The British had issues with the ball giving payers an unfair advantage and taking away the “pureness” of the game. They probably had a point, but it was too late and the use of the ball had already taken off.
This ball was a huge improvement, but it would still be tinkered with. Over the next few decades, manufactures were experimenting with dimple patterns and their effect on distance and ball flight. In 1908, William Taylor was the first to patent a dimple pattern with the United States Patent Office. His dimple pattern was one of the first to carve the dimple inward to the golf ball as opposed to the previous dominating pattern, a pimple or a bramble pattern. These new dimple pattern golf balls flew much further.
At this same time, Scottish inventor Frank Mingay was granted a patent for a liquid golf core golf ball. Manufactures liked the idea of a liquid core and tried using many different substances to achieve “a solid but mobile core.” The list of substances they tried was everything from wine and honey or oil and mercury. The liquid core compared to the rubber wound core didn’t offer much upside, so manufacturers continued to search for the perfect material. It took until the 1960’s to come up with a suitable replacement.
In 1963, a chemical engineer by the name of James Bartsch developed a synthetic core golf ball which was half the price to produce and was made by the solid molded method. By the time Bartsch had his patent approved (1967), there were several other companies that launched their own versions. Spalding created its one-piece ball called the Unicore. Shortly after they launched the Executive. These were the first one-piece balls since the Guttie, and the Spalding version was superior to the Bartsch ball.
In the same year, Ram launched their first ball using a Surlyn ionomer resin cover which became the most popular ball cover due to its durability and consistency. This decade of furious invention, each topping each other seemingly year by year, would finally find the ball that they all strived to develop. In 1972, Spalding introduced the two-piece Top-Flight golf ball which was the ball of the future.
The golf ball war persisted on, with players opting to not play the “novelty” Top-Flight ball and choosing to play the better performing rubber wound ball. Finally, in 2000, Tiger Woods won the Open Championship with Nike’s Tour Accuracy, a solidly constructed ball. Later that year, Titleist introduced the Pro V1, a three-piece multi-layer ball that became an instant success. (This is my ball of choice and anyone who disagrees with the prowess and domination of Titleist can meet me in the parking lot.)
This led to Titleist finally winning the great golf ball war for about 15 years. Nowadays, every manufacturer has a whole line of different options for balls, promising added spin or more distance or more forgiveness. There are currently thousands of balls to choose from as long as they are on the USGA and R&A Conforming Ball list.