A Brief History of the Golf Ball

Dixon, Srixon, Callaway, Titleist, Bridgestone; the names of these famous golf manufacturers are all synonymous with the modern day golf ball. Dixon have even brought out the first eco-friendly golf ball in recent times!

As golfers we understand that different balls are better suited to different players. Cheaper, more resilient and harder balls offer more durability and distance from the tee, ideal for the high handicapper.

Top of the range tour balls are softer, less durable but offer superb control to a golfer skilled enough.

Yet the golf ball is arguably one of the most radically redesigned pieces of golf equipment there is as this short trip through the history of the golf ball.

Up to the 17th Century: For almost four centuries, the very first golf balls ever used were made of wood. In particular, beech and box tree wood would be shaped by carpenters of the day into small round balls. These clumsy sounding and unwieldy balls were the first golf balls of their day and were in use for the best part of three centuries.

17th Century: The first big development in the history of the golf ball came in the 17th century when the first “featherie” ball was produced. This offered golfers more control over their ball as the ball was a small leather pouch, which was then stuffed with a “hatful” of chicken or goose feathers thus giving the ball its name. The maker would then shape the finished product and paint it white. It was a long and somewhat boring process to make these balls with even the finest ball-maker unable to make more than 4 or 5 balls in a single day. As such,  a single ball would be expensive, costing anywhere between two and five shillings, the equivalent of 10 to 20 US dollars in modern money.

The featherie was also far form ideal, it was difficult for even the master ball-makers to make the ball perfectly round, it would split frequently and if the ball was played in wet conditions, the leather would soak up the water making the ball heavier and even more likely to split.

That said, this new development was a marked improvement for golfers over the old wooden ball and it remained the ball of choice for almost two centuries, though after 150 years, another ball began to grow in popularity.

1848:  While featheries were still in wide use, the next big development in the golf balls history was the Guttie. This ball was made from dried sap taken from the Sapodilla tree, native to Malaysia. The ball felt rubbery and when heated, was easier to shape and mould. They were also quicker and easier to produce and could even be heated and remoulded back into shape.

As people began to adopt Gutties on golf courses, astute golfers noticed that rather than an entirely smooth surface, little nicks and imperfections on the ball actually helped it fly straighter. Soon, these balls were being mass produced with these little ‘imperfections’ built in. A wide range of patterns and designs were tested to discover which pattern offered the straightest and truest ball flight, with the most popular design becoming known as the Bramble.

1898: Fifty years after the development of the Guttie, the next big golf ball development came about, discovered almost by accident. Coburn Haskell and Bertram Work were scheduled to meet in Akron Ohio at a works plant and while he was waiting, Haskell wound up some discarded rubber into a tightly packed ball. When he bounced it, it almost hit the high ceiling of the factory.

This was the birth of the first ‘modern’ golf ball, the wound rubber ball. The rubber was wrapped tightly around a solid round or liquid-filled core and then coated with the sap-like fluid taken from the Balata tree to provide a durable but controllable cover.

In the early 20th Century, dimples were added to the ball to give more control over its flight and trajectory as well as, for the first time, spin on the ball. These new rubber-wound balls were used long into the 20th century.

1960s to the Present Day: The next big step in the history of the golf ball was the development of a synthetic plastic material called Surlyn bu E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. The company also developed urethane blends which were used to give different characteristics to golf ball covers and which were more longer-lasting and less prone to damage than balata.  Other materials were used to develop a new range of balls which became known as 2, 3 or 4-piece balls based on the number of layers in each. These basic materials are still in use in the modern golf balls we use today.

All golf balls must now be any smaller than 1.680 inches, or weigh any more than 1.620 ounces and be symmetrical both in shape and in the dimple pattern on the ball, according to the rules adopted by the R&A and USGA.

So next time you reach into your bag and grab the next ball out your bag, pay it the respect it deserves, almost six centuries of research and design and billions of dollars have gone into developing the ball you play today!

Images Courtesy of: Andrews Times Website, Featherygolfball.com, www.golfer-today.co.uk, www.dixongolf.com and Titleist 

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Golf Program June 12, 2013

This article was well written and easy to follow. You put a nice twist to it. Great job Tommy.

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ryan August 13, 2013

Nice work Tommy. Currently testing out various balls and drivers. Article coming soon. http://themashie.blogspot.co.nz

Regards Ryan

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Monir Hossain November 8, 2013

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