The Early Wooden Balls
The golf ball has come a long way since the time of colf. There are several 15th century references to club and ball makers in Holland. Records show that the Scots have been importing balls from across the North Sea literally by the barrel-load as long ago as 1496.
The Dutch colf players originally played with wodden balls made out of elm or beech. These balls had negligible aerodynamic properties. Gradually, they adopted a ball made of white leather and filled with cow's hair which was used in the local game of kaatsen (hand tennis). It is possible the kaatsen ball later inspired the Scots to invent the "feathery" sometime in the 17th or early 18th century as a subsitute for the wooden ball which was probably the popular ball of choice of the day.
The Ball Stuffed with Feathers - The "Feathery"
The "feathery" consisted of a leather casing, usually bull's hide, soaked in alum and crammed with goose feather which have been softened by boiling. The ball was then knocked into shape and painted white so as to make it more visible. On drying, the ball became tighter and firmer. It weighed about the same as the modern ball (that is, 1.62 ounces) and was usually a of similar size although in there was no uniform diameter in those days.
The "feathery" had two differences from the balls preceding it. Firstly, wooden balls could seldom be propelled more than 100 yards whereas distances of more than twice that could be easily achieved with the "feathery". In wet weather, when the ball became rather soggy, its advantage over the wooden ball was not so marked. It is worth noting that the very act of stiching up the finished "feathery" inadvertently assisted the flight of the ball. This was because the seams fulfilled a similar, if cruder, role to that played by the dimples which help the modern day golf ball get airborne. The second difference of the "feathery" from the wooden ball was its price. A "feathery" cost twelve times the price of the old boxwood ball and about the same as a wooden club. It made golf far too expensive for the ordinary man. Even the most skilled craftsman struggled to produce more than four "feathery" balls a day which probably accouted for its high price.
The less wealthy had to make do with wooden balls for decades after the coming of the "feathery" and it is from this era that golf's image as a rich man's pastime still lingers.
A Ball for the Masses
The introduction in 1848 of the gutta percha ball (or often called the "gutty") did an enormous amount to restore golf as a genuinely popular game. Gutta percha is a gum which is tapped from a tree indigenous to Malaya. The substance is malleable when bolied in water and it becomes hard on cooling. Soon over time, the "gutty" became the ball of choice, not so much to the greater distance which can be attained with the "gutty" but rather because of its cheaper price. The process involved in the manufacturing of the "gutty" was a great deal simplier and its price was about a quarter that of the price of the feathery. The "gutty" cost about 1 shilling a ball in the 1850s. It was in this age when golf in Britain became more of a game for everyone. The increased leisure time created by the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution was another vital ingredient that enabled the sport to catch the imagination of the nation.
The "gutty" was prone to break up in mid-air, thus forcing the rules to accommodate this tendency by allowing the golfer to play a fresh ball from the point where the largest fragment had come to rest. This would be the last occasion on which the Rules of Golf had to be amended to legislate for the properties of the golf ball. For the remainder of the 19th century, the new ball was repeatedly modified to make it more durable. Its outer shell was indented was a hammer after it was observed that the ball flew better when it has been cut or marked than in its smooth pristine state.
The Rubber Core Ball
As quickly as the gutty came on the scene, it was soon superseded. In 1901, the rubber-cored ball made its British debut. It was the invention of the fledgling American golf equipment industry. The idea belonged to Coburn Haskell, an employee of the Goodrich Tyre and Rubber Company in Ohio. Elastic thread was wound around a rubber core under extreme tension and then encased in a patterned outer cover of gutta percha. The Haskell ball initially had its skeptics until in 1902 where people were shown what a difference the ball made to the best players when Sandy Herd played four rounds at the Royal Liverpool course in 307 to beat the great Harry Vardon and James Braid by a shot. Herd used the Haskell ball for all 72 holes and he was the only man in the field to play with one.
From that moment, the Haskell ball has been improved to such an effect that it spawned a host of dicta from the R & A and USGA, the dual arbiters of the integrity of the sport. In 1920, they agreed the ball should weigh no more than 1.62 ounces and have a diameter of not less than 1.62 inches. From January 1931 however, the USGA turned its back on the collective agreement and introduced the "big ball", a ball having a minimum size of 1.68 inches and a maximum weight of 1.55 ounces. A year later, they raised the weight stipulation to 1.62 ounces. Subsequent attempts to settle for a uniform ball of 1.66 inches failed but finally, the USGA standard was also adopted elsewhere. The Professional Golfer's Association (PGA) in Great Britian was swayed by people who attributed the American dominance of golf to their usage of the big ball. It announced in 1968 that it was to experiment with the bigger ball of 1.68 inches in its tournaments. Soon it became mandatory. In 1974, the R & A made the big ball compulsory for the Open Championship. Under the rule revisions that came into effect in 1988, the R & A outlawed the small ball altogether.
The Ball as We Know It
In more recent times, the original gutta percha shell of the Haskell ball has given way to new and refined compounds. Balata replaced gutta percha in balls for the professionals and good amateurs while surlyn took over in balls for the novices. Millions have since been spent researching the properties of various formations of dimples. Many manufacturers have produced balls of new standards but most have been rejected for tournament usage. A few years ago, the USGA banned the Polara ball, claiming that it undermined the integrity of the game. The inventors of the ball engaged the USGA in expensive court proceedings but the prohibition was upheld. Ball manufacturing today is indeed big business. In January 1993, Spalding announced the launch of its Magna ball. It was a ball of 1.72 inches, larger than stipulated in the rules. The manufacturers claimed that the ball supplies golfers with more distance and accuracy while it spun less.