The Golf Ball Went Too Far 100 Years Ago!

In today’s game, tour pros launch the ball so far and high into the atmosphere that you can’t see their drives land.  I am reminded of the repeated entreaties of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player that the golf ball must be reigned in for the greatest players in the world, otherwise golf courses will all have to be 8,000 yards long.  The impact of “juiced up” golf balls on the game is not a new dilemma.  As Harry Truman was fond of saying, the only thing new under the sun is the history we don’t know. 

Over one-hundred years ago John Low wrote that the “character of golf has been considerably changed by the introduction of india rubber into the composition of its balls.”  This was a year after the Haskell ball was introduced and the old gutta percha ball went the way of the dodo bird almost overnight. 

“The reason for this change is not far to seek,” he explained in his book Concerning Golf, “nor could it have been prevented except by prompt and decisive legislation.  But the legislators were neither prompt nor brave enough to carry out their own convictions, and thus an irredeemable opportunity was lost.  The committee which was supposed to be acting did nothing.”

As in today’s current debate concerning the anchored putter, Low lamented that the genie had been let out of the bottle.  “After resolving that ‘the new balls were not suited to the courses as at present laid out,’ they were incapable of offering any proposal, either as to the balls or the courses, which should restore the game to its proper position; they were too timid to risk defeat at the hands of the vulgar, who were from obvious reasons only too ready to greet the advent of the rubber balls with satisfaction.  A simple announcement of a negative character, prohibiting the use of balls containing india-rubber in competitions would have…fixed the game in a scientific position.”

The “vulgar” would seem to refer to the average golfer – the duffers of the world.  Of course we like to hit the ball further, but our less than perfect swings don’t propel it 350 yards.  And even though we are all hitting the ball farther than we did twenty years ago, the average scores for amateurs have not decreased.  We may be 15-30 yards closer to the green off the tee, but still take 4-5 shots more to get the ball in the hole.

But for the pros, it’s a different story.  “A glance at the play on any well-known course,” Low continued, “is sufficient to show the change which has taken place in the character of the game, whether the scores be changed or not.  When we find the iron used where the spoon did duty in the former days; when we find the second shots played from a point nearer the hole; when we find the men who carried three or four wooden clubs carrying but one; when we find, not perhaps the advisability, but the necessity for long straight tee shots diminished, then we know that the character of golf has been modified.”

The character of the game is an evolving thing.  Harry Vardon won most of his championships with the gutta percha ball.  “I personally shall always regret the passing of the guttie ball,” he related in his autobiography, published in 1933.  “In my own mind I am firmly convinced that with its passing, much of the real skill had gone forever….In the days of the solid ball it was necessary for the drives to be properly struck if anything approaching a good round was to be recorded….On the other hand if the solid ball had remained as the recognized one to be played, there is no doubt golf would never have taken such a hold on the community.”

Vardon was nostalgic for the old days, as was John Low before him, and to a lesser degree perhaps Messrs. Nicklaus, Palmer and Player.  The USGA may one day change the nature of the ball, but it’s not going to force a return to persimmon head drivers and hickory shafted niblicks. Those days are gone, and the game will continue to evolve.  What is important is that the genie in the bottle doesn’t change the nature of the game to such an extent that in 100 years it will be unrecognizable.   We can only hope that the “legislators” John Low spoke of will be prompt and brave enough to preserve the essence of this great game.


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