The common golf ball has undergone many upgrades and enhancements throughout its long life. With the first recognizable form of the game of golf being played in Scotland in the early 1400's, the golf ball has had nearly 600 years to evolve.
The evolution of the golf ball highlights the major changes in the game of golf and depicts important golf landmarks during the long evolution of the game. The development of the golf club, the golf course, and the rules of the game were affected by the evolution of the golf ball itself. The balance (and debate) between technology and tradition is as old as the game of golf itself. One can even argue that when it comes to golf, yesterday’s technologies are today’s traditions.
Today, 50 million golfers worldwide play 900 million rounds on some 25,000 golf courses each and every year. Clearly, the game of golf has become incredibly popular, and the resulting industry is big business.
Four Stages in the Evolution of the Golf Ball
Although it is likely that the very first golf balls were nothing more than round rocks or pebbles, there are four distinctly recognizable stages in the evolution of the golf ball:
Wooden Golf Balls
There is no question that the first games of golf, as we know it today, were played using wooden golf balls. Wooden golf balls were the first man made golf balls, and although information is scant, it would be a pretty safe bet to assume that a wooden golf ball had some rather interesting playing characteristics.
Harboring their roots in the early 1400's on the Eastern Coast of Scotland, these original wooden golf balls were inefficient at best and likely made of hardwoods such as Beech or Boxroot. Wooden clubs were the golf club of choice, which in conjunction with the wood balls would have made your friendly game of golf a rather jarring experience.
Wooden golf balls were used up until the seventeenth century, when the feathery ball was invented.
Feathery Golf Balls (Feather Stuffed Leather Covered Golf Balls)
The first "real" golf ball was known as a "feathery"golf ball. Basically, the feathery was a leather sack filled with boiled goose feathers, then stitched up and painted. Feathery golf balls were expensive to make easily damaged and only the privileged few could afford to use them.
Although the era of the feathery golf ball may have started in the early 1400's and run until the late 1840's, it is believed that it was in 1618 that a new type of golf ball was created by handcrafting a cowhide sphere stuffed with goose feathers. The feathery golf balls were manufactured while the leather and feathers were still wet, and as the leather shrunk while drying, the feathers expanded to create a hardened, compact ball. The Feathery was then painted and sold, often for more than the price of a golf club.
The time-consuming processes involved in creating a Feathery golf ball ensured that the price was out of reach of the masses. Though expensive, this type of ball had great flight characteristics and made the wooden ball virtually obsolete. For some three centuries the Feathery was the standard, only to be replaced with the advent of the Gutta Percha ball.
Amazing longevity when you consider that:
It took a bucket of boiled goose feathers to make a single Feathery golf ball.
A skilled Feathery golf ball maker could only produce about four of them in a day.
It was virtually impossible to make a truly round Feathery golf ball.
A player may have gotten as few as 2 rounds out of a Feathery golf ball.
If gotten wet, the Feathery golf ball would come apart.
It's hard to imagine being able to keep any type of golf ball dry during a round of golf on the Scottish links.
Gutty Golf Balls
It wasn't until 1848 that Rev. Dr. Robert Adams began creating golf balls out of Gutta Percha "Gutty". The Gutty golf ball was created from the dried sap of the Sapodilla tree. It had a rubber-like feel and was formed into ball shapes by heating it up and shaping it while hot.
The arrival of the gutta percha ball or "gutty", as it was called, revolutionized the game of golf and allowed its spread to the masses. The gutty period lasted from 1848 until the late 1890’s. A mere blink of an eye when compared to the feathery, but the Gutty had a much greater impact on the game of golf, due to its affordability, playability and durability.
The first Gutty golf balls were hand made, formed smooth and wore three coats of paint. But then it was discovered that brand new guttys had more of a tendency to duck than those gutties scuffed up from play. Hence the practice of nicking the balls with a hammer. That's right, almost by accident, it was discovered that golf balls with improperly smoothed surfaces often flew straighter and further than their smooth counterpart.
Thus the "Hand Hammered Gutta Ball" was formed. These golf balls were hammered with a consistent pattern throughout with a sharp edged hammer. Dimples were incorporated into the iron molds that followed. Less paint was also discovered to be beneficial, and paint application was reduced from three to two coats.
Learn more about Golf Ball Dimple Shape, Alignment and the Dimple Effect.
Handmade Gutty Balls soon gave way to metal presses which in turn made golf affordable for the lower income golfer. Golf truly became the sport for the masses. "The Bramble" design, with its minute bulges resembling a Brambleberry, became the most popular design of the Gutta Percha era golf ball. The Brambleberry pattern was even carried over into a few brands of the more recent rubber core golf balls.
Rubber Core Golf Balls
The advent of the rubber core golf ball changed the face of the game of golf as we knew it. This new design was invented in 1898 by Coburn Haskell in association with the BF Goodrich Company. This new and unique golf ball construction and design featured a solid rubber core, high tension rubber thread wrapped around the core, and a Gutta Percha cover.
The more modern rubber core golf ball replaced the gutty in 1899. However, the rubber core golf ball of the day did not meet with immediate success. Golfers complained that while the rubber cored golf balls were longer off of the tee they were far too lively on and around the greens. Once Walter Travis won the U.S. amateur golf championship while playing with one, the gutty ball soon became obsolete.
This new breed of golf ball also featured a much larger variety of outer designs for improved airflow. The mesh, reverse mesh and Bramble designs gave way to the dimple pattern first used in 1908.
Learn more about Golf Ball Dimples and the Dimple Effect.
Exhaustive golf ball design testing has been done with a multitude of different cores. At one point, a small sac of water was substituted for the rubber core. Steal, lead and glycerin were tried to no avail. Eventually, most golf ball manufacturers settled on one form of rubber or another. The composition of the rubber used is a closely guarded trade secret. Rubber thread was wound around the rubber core, as tightly as possible and a cover of Balata was applied.
Continued Evolution of Golf Ball Design
Today, two piece solid Syrlin covered balls are more popular with amateur golfers, as they tend to be more durable than Balata. Syrilin golf balls are longer and straighter as well. Many pros however, are still devoted to the soft and lively Balata balls, since they can get the distance needed and prefer the added spin for control.
Currently golf ball technology has reached new levels of design. Still closely guarded, top golf ball manufacturers such as Callaway, Titleist, Pinnacle, Nike and others compete within a multi million dollar year industry for their due market share.
There is no question that the application of hi-tech science and technology has lead to the high-performance golf ball and the game of golf we play today.
Golf Ball Design and the USGA
The business of golf balls is not open ended, the characteristics of golf balls are strictly governed by rules. These rules determine such things as:
Golf ball weight
Golf ball size
Maximum initial velocity
Spherical integrity and symmetry
Combined carry and roll of the ball
These and other characteristics make up the framework that today’s golf ball manufacturer’s work within as they vie technologically with each other. The expression "a golf ball is a golf ball is a golf ball", simply does not apply. What appears to be just a small round object is in fact the product of many current leading-edge technologies.