History of the golf ball

César Lozano

Old golf ballThe very first projectiles of what was not yet known as golf were made of wood. It wasn't until the 1600's that golf would be associated with a real "ball". Imported from the Netherlands, it resembled a little round leather bag, stuffed with various fillings, and that is what was used until the middle of the 19th century. Manufacture of the leather ball involved cutting highly resistant pieces of bull hide. Those were cut into three or four strips, sewn together and then turned inside out. A slit was left open to stuff the ball. They were finished quite crudely as they often contained animal hair, wool or thick threads.

By 1630 or so, the leather bag was filled with duck or goose feathers that had been previously boiled to soften and shrink them. The leather had been soaked in a solution of water and alum. Then the feathers were introduced and the slit sewn closed with near-invisible thread. As it dried, the leather would shrink while the fathers expanded. The steadiness of the ball was directly linked to the ability of the artisan. Due to the time involved in such manufacture, the latter could only produce four or five balls per day.

History of the golf ballBut they did not fare well with humidity: the feathers would absorb water, increasing the weight of the ball and reducing their performance. For less expert players, a single stroke hit with an iron could cause the ball to split open. The feather ball was then replaced by one made of gutta-percha, a substance derived from latex. By 1848, it was being used on a good number of courses.

Numerousmanufacturers entered the market, offering different models, decorated with various motifs. Floating balls appeared on the market. Improvements enabled players to use a ball for over six months, an important advance. In fact, ever since its origin, the ball had suffered from the fragmentation phenomenon. Rules were quite explicit on the subject: should the ball disintegrate into many pieces, another ball may be set down where the largest piece lies.

The hard gutta-percha ball dominated the market from a long time, until it was replaced by a rubber-core model created in the US by Coburn Haskell. It consisted of many yards of elastic wound around a hard rubber core the size of a marble, then covered with a layer of gutta-percha.

At first, players were wary of the rubber-core balls as they weren't as hard as traditional balls despite their firmness. However their obvious efficiency soon caused golfers to revise their opinion.The modern golf ball was born.

Golf ballThe shell of the ball was changed from gutta-percha to balata, a rigid gum extracted from a tropical tree and used to manufacture industrial belts, joints and hoses. In 1912, the Dunlop 31, first of those heavy firm balls, appeared on the market. Its new dynamic behavior allowed golfers to hit it farther than ever. Since then, no manufacturer has managed to truly revolutionize the golf ball market.

Written by César Lozano Díaz