The Golf Ball History from 15th century until today

Wooden Balls
Going back to the early 15th century we find the first references about club and ball makers from Holland. The game being played at this time was called "colf". Records show that the Scots have been importing balls from across the North Sea literally by the barrel-load as long ago as 1496.

The Dutch golf players originally played with wodden balls made out of elm or beech. These balls had negligible aerodynamic properties. Gradually, they adopted a ball made of white leather and filled with cow's hair which was used in the local game of kaatsen (hand tennis). It is possible the kaatsen ball later inspired the Scots to invent the "feathery" sometime in the 17th or early 18th century as a subsitute for the wooden ball which was probably the popular ball of choice of the day.

15th century and before


Feathery Balls

15th century

gourlay feathery

It is tempting to assume that all of the great tech stuff happened after we found out how to make beach sand into microchips. But with a pastime as ancient as golf, something must have clicked early on or it never would have survived this long. That hook may well have been the Featherie golf ball, perfected by the Dutch around five or six hundred years ago from a basic technique used for game balls in ancient Rome. They would stuff a hatful of wet feathers into a wet inch-and-a-half leather pouch, sew it up, and let it dry. The feathers would expand, and the leather would shrink, creating a ball as hard as... well, a golf ball. This made for a very resilient and lively projectile, especially when compared to the wooden balls used previously.

The featherie performed remarkably well on the links, as evidenced by a recorded drive of 361 yards by Samuel Messieux in 1836, at the Old Course in St. Andrews! Sure, it was just skin and bird hair, but it was still a quantum leap by any measure, sort of the transistor of golf balls. For more than 400 years, it was the ball of choice. That is, if you could afford it. These ball's extravagant cost (the best ballmakers could produce only four or five per day) sealed their ultimate fate when the cheap "guttie" ball appeared around 1850.


Gotta Percha Balls
Gutta Percha is a rubber-like material that comes from the dried sap of sapodilla trees of East Asia. It was the major product used for golf ball manufacture from around 1848 well into the 1900ís. The term is erroneously used for caoutchouc bookbinding as gutta percha was tried and found to be unsuitable. Gutta percha now seems to be used in dentristy.
The introduction in 1848 of the gutta percha ball (or often called the "gutty") did an enormous amount to restore golf as a genuinely popular game. Gutta percha is a gum which is tapped from a tree indigenous to Malaya. The substance is malleable when bolied in water and it becomes hard on cooling. Soon over time, the "gutty" became the ball of choice, not so much to the greater distance which can be attained with the "gutty" but rather because of its cheaper price. The process involved in the manufacturing of the "gutty" was a great deal simplier and its price was about a quarter that of the price of the feathery. The "gutty" cost about 1 shilling a ball in the 1850s. It was in this age when golf in Britain became more of a game for everyone. The increased leisure time created by the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution was another vital ingredient that enabled the sport to catch the imagination of the nation.

approx. 1860

The "gutty" was prone to break up in mid-air, thus forcing the rules to accommodate this tendency by allowing the golfer to play a fresh ball from the point where the largest fragment had come to rest. This would be the last occasion on which the Rules of Golf had to be amended to legislate for the properties of the golf ball. For the remainder of the 19th century, the new ball was repeatedly modified to make it more durable. Its outer shell was indented was a hammer after it was observed that the ball flew better when it has been cut or marked than in its smooth pristine state.


Wound Balls
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, an employee of the Goodrich Tyre and Rubber Company in Ohio. 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 initially had its skeptics until in 1902 where people were shown what a difference the ball made to the best players when Sandy Herd played four rounds at the Royal Liverpool course in 307 to beat the great Harry Vardon and James Braid by a shot. Herd used the Haskell ball for all 72 holes and he was the only man in the field to play with one.

From that moment, the Haskell ball has been improved to such an effect that it spawned a host of dicta 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 1.62 ounces. Subsequent attempts to settle for a uniform ball of 1.66 inches failed but finally, the USGA standard was also adopted elsewhere. The Professional Golfer's Association (PGA) in Great Britian was swayed by people who attributed the American dominance of golf to their usage of the big ball. It announced in 1968 that it was to experiment with the bigger ball of 1.68 inches in its tournaments. Soon it became mandatory. In 1974, the R & A made the big ball compulsory for the Open Championship. Under the rule revisions that came into effect in 1988, the R & A outlawed the small ball altogether


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