A Little Golf Ball History

The Hairy – The Featherie – The Gutta Percha – The Bramble – The Haskell

Do any of these names sound familiar? They’re names you don’t hear too often any more but indeed they are golf related. If they are not familiar, let me introduce you to the history of the humble golf ball.

The make-up and design of the golf ball has changed somewhat in the last few hundred years and here’s a brief history of the development.

The first golf balls were wooden, right?

Skaters Playing Kolf – by Hendrick Avercamp c,1625

Well surprisingly, perhaps not; at least, probably not for the game we now accept as ‘golf’. Certainly, wooden balls were used for a myriad of other games and even the similar game of ‘colf’ (‘kolf’); played mostly in the Netherlands, would have used wooden balls initially. 

But if we accept Scotland as being the birthplace of golf, then there is little proof of wooden balls being used there.

Late 1500’s -: Things get ‘hairy’.

So, the next best material to shape into a golf ball was leather. The earliest leather ball  for golfing purposes was the ‘hairy’.  It was formed from three pieces of leather used for the exterior, and animal hair was the core of the ball:this construction may actually date from Roman times. For our focus though, these balls were probably initially imported to Scotland from the Netherlands where they had been in use for the game of kolf – a game similar to golf which was often played on ice. After it was accepted that leather balls had better handling properties and achieved longer distances than wooden balls, it was perhaps the first widely used ball in the new game of ‘golf’. Later of course, they began to make these balls in Scotland.

Early 1600’s: Is the ‘featherie’ aptly named

The Hairies led to the Featheries – the latter being first sold in the early 1600’s. Consisting of hewn animal hide on the outside, it did indeed have a core forcibly-stuffed with boiled feathers. The construction went like this: the leather was moistened to make it pliable and easier to sew; the feathers were stuffed into its core and it was sewn shut; when the leather dried, the feathers also dried and expanded inside and a pretty decent form was created. When in play, it could fly 175 yds fairly handily.

There were many downsides to this ball however:  (a) For one thing, they took quite a long time to produce;  (b) while you probably wouldn’t see the production of the ball as a perilous job, seemingly many a poor worker suffered and died prematurely due to inhaled feathers (asthma, etc.) & constant pressure on their chests from the rod used to stuff the balls; (c) Because they took so long to make, they were more costly than most golf clubs; (d) Once the golfer secured a featherie or two he had to contend with (i) their shape not always being uniform and thus a little unpredictable; (ii) distances shortened considerably when they got wet;(iii) they could split apart, and (iv) the irons could do them damage too by causing cuts to the exterior, thus limiting their effectiveness.  

  

Mid 1800’s: ‘Gutties’.    

Gutta Percha or Guttie golf balls

Gutties

The demise of the featherie started in the mid 1800’s with the introduction of the Gutta Percha Ball – no more feathers required for this new ball. Instead, these balls were made from sap from the Gutta tree and as this was like rubber, it meant the balls were easier to mould to a nice sphere. So now you have a rounder ball that was easier to control and wet conditions didn’t affect it’s performance. This ball initially had a smooth outside but later, as it was noticed that they performed better when they had a few nicks on them, they were designed with raised patterns (little bumps) like the ‘bramble’. So, now there was a ball that was faster, flew further, lasted longer and it was much cheaper and faster to produce. As a result, there was a marked increase in the number of people who could now afford to play golf and, in turn, new courses popped up to cater to this demand. You can understand why the featherie’s demise was swift.

 

1898’ish: The ‘Haskel’ – a rubber band ball? Really?

A look inside a Haskel

On the eve of the 1900’s, we were to be introduced to another update of the golf ball courtesy of Coburn Haskell in the US. While still using gutta parcha for the shell, it had a rubber core surrounded by what was basically tightly wound rubber bands (spun rubber). This ball, The Haskell, could achieve longer distances than it’s younger gutty counterpart and in 1901, the year of its release, it gained instant attention due to Walter Travis winning the US Amateur by using this new ball. Now in mass production meant cheaper balls for everyone.

The Haskell initially retained a bramble pattern but experimentation with patterns was ongoing until the first dimple pattern was added by William Taylor in 1908 leading to a ball that could gain even more distance – and dimples are still what we have on the golf balls of today.  (We’ll discuss further golf ball dimples a little more in a later post)

1960’s: We are Modern now:

The idea to change to a more solid core was introduced by James R. Bartsch in the 1960’s. Spalding introduced its own one-piece ball – the Unicore – and in 1972 its Top Flight was really the future of golf balls. Now the balls were highly durable, could travel great distances on the course and they were much easier to control.

Today there are golf balls for all levels of players. Whether the shell is balata, urethane, or Surlyn, or the core consists of 2, 3 or more layers of rubber-like material at varying compression’s, players have choices to suit their needs and wallets.

On the Inside:

Before our current, somewhat indestructible golf balls, it was easy to get a glimpse of the the inner makeup of a ball. We may not have had a hairy, or a featherie in our possession to probe, but how many of us are old enough to have watched the rubber ribbons inside a Haskell unfurl?

But, to view the innards of golf balls today, you need good hardware to slice through one. However, to save you the trouble of fulfilling your curiosity by doing this yourself, just take a look at this lovely piece of work by James Friedman (www.jamesfriedmanphotographer.com) that cleverly shows golf ball interiors in an artistic way.

Golf Ball Interiors – courtesy www.jamesfriedmanphotographer.com

Standarization:

We can’t but mention that there are rules about the size and weight of golf balls. R&A and the USGA initially introduced such standards in 1921 and today the R&A standard is:

The Ball: Has a dimpled surface to reduce aerodynamic drag and can be made from a variety of materials designed to make the ball fly further, or to generate more spin. It must have a diameter of not less than 42.67millimetres and must not weigh more than 45.93 grammes. There are no limits on maximum size or minimum weight .

Down through the years, there have been some interesting events and anecdotes relating to golfing and the evolution of the golf ball and I will relate a few of these stories in another blog edition.  

Until then, just be grateful that golf balls are so cheap to purchase these days and make sure to choose the right one for your game – little differences matter.