The Development of the Golf Ball

      The golf ball has quite a history of its own.  Up until around 1500 they were made of wood (boxwood being common), and then gave way to ones made of leather and stuffed with feathers.  These “featherie” balls became the standard for two hundred years, until they were replaced by ones made of hard gutta percha and later a rubber cored ball that survived up to the late 20th century.

      The Feather Ball (“Featherie”) – Tanned leather, usually bull’s hide, was soaked in warm alum water to make it pliable.  It was cut in four, three, or two lobes, and fanned out from the center like the petals of a flower.  The ball was sewn with a curved needle, using linen thread beeswaxed for strength and lubrication.  The stitches were placed close together, but left loose enough for the sack to be turned inside out and stuffed with feathers, then finished.  About a quarter inch slit was left at the top of one flap in which the feathers were stuffed. 

      The feathers were commonly taken from geese, boiled to make them limp and malleable.  A literal hat full of feathers was stuffed into the leather pouch no larger than an egg using an iron rod 16 to 20 inches long, tapered to a blunt tip and set at the top into a wooden crosspiece which the ball maker pressed against his chest.  When no more feathers could be stuffed into the pouch, the ball maker uses a small awl to force in the last few feathers before sewing up the flap.  As the wet leather and feathers dried out the leather shrank and the feathers expanded, leaving a hard ball.

      After nearly two centuries of existence, the Scottish featherie by 1800 had become fairly standardized.  It averaged 1.5 inches in diameter and weighed 26-30 pennyweights (about 1.5 ounces.)  The best ball makers could make no more than 4 or 5 a day, and the repeated pressure of the tamping rod against the chest, along with inhaled feather particles often resulted in lung problems.  The balls were expensive, and a golfer was lucky to get a round of play from one before it burst.

      The Gutta Percha Ball (“Guttie”) – Around 1848, the featherie gave way to balls made of gutta percha, a gum which is tapped from a tree indigenous to Malaya.  The substance is malleable when boiled in water and it becomes hard on cooling. The process involved in manufacturing the guttie was a great deal simpler and its price was about a quarter that of the price of the featherie.  The guttie quickly became the ball of choice, not so much for the greater distance which could be attained but rather because it was less expensive and more resilient. 

      It was in this age when golf in Britain became more of a game for everyone.  For the remainder of the 19th century, the new ball was repeatedly modified to make it more durable. Its outer shell was indented with a hammer after it was observed that the ball flew better when it had been cut or marked than in its smooth pristine state.

      The Haskell Ball (“Haskell”) – 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, a customer of the B.F. Goodrich Tire and Rubber Company, and Bertram Work, an employee of the company.  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 patented in 1899 initially had its skeptics, and was scoffed at by traditionalists, who lamented the liveliness of the new ball and the distance it travelled on a poor hit.  In 1902 a tipping point occurred in favor of the ball when Sandy Herd beat Harry Vardon and James Braid by a shot in the British Open.  Herd used the Haskell ball for all 72 holes and was the only man in the field to play with one.

      From that moment, the Haskell ball was improved to such an extent that it spawned a host of rules regulating its use 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 a maximum of 1.62 ounces, and both standards remain in effect today.

      In 1967 James Bartsch received a patent for a one-piece ball he developed by cross-linking thermoplastic polymers.  Spalding improved on this model by encasing it with an outer cover and named it the “Executive.”  That same year DuPont Chemical developed a synthetic thermoplastic resin called Surlyn, which over the next thirty years became the most popular cover, replacing softer balata. 

      In 1971 Spalding introduced the Top-Flite ball, a two-piece ball with Surlyn cover that revolutionized the industry and set the stage for the demise of the three-piece wound rubber core ball.  Today, all golf balls are solid, composed of two to five pieces, with various synthetic covers like Surlyn and urethane blends.

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