Let’s talk about something really interesting today.
Let's talk about something that doesn't have anything to do with Irrigation or Turf Maintenance.
Let’s talk about the golf ball.
This will be a slightly longer post than usual, but trust me, this is deceptively interesting, and involves a lot of history – ranging from economics to industrial manufacture and development, cultural boundaries and influence, capitalism, and standardization of both production and regulation processes. If nothing else, it can make for ice-breaking conversation for your next Pick-Up-Group (what we weekend warriors affectionately call PUGs).
|Bill...Bill...Bill...Steve. Nice to meet you all.|
It’s actually a little difficult to talk about the history of the golf ball itself without getting lost in the weeds of heavily-contested Golf History; there is actually a lot of quiet conflict within the very narrow circles that profess to be the true historians of golf. We’re going to do our best to skirt outside of those weeds, and restrain the conversation to that little devilish orb itself…we’ll leave the much-disputed history of the sport for another day.
The history of the golf ball can be traced back to Holland and before. It began when Julius Caesar led the Roman Empire into the Lowlands of Gaul in 57 B.C. The Legions brought with them their own brand of sport, designed to be adaptable and mobile (because the legions were always on the move). That sport carried the name Harpastum (which was itself an evolution of the Greek game Harpaston, roughly meaning “to seize,” or “to snatch away”), and was noted for the small, softball-sized globe that any soldier could carry with him in his saddlebag. It was a small leather skin stuffed to the gills with the hair of various beasts of burden that the Legion took with them along their expeditions. It was a full-contact sport and in modern society could be more closely compared to Rugby or American Football. But, it’s the ball that is important here.
|Excellent form, I say! Excellent!|
The natives of regions occupied and invaded by the Legion would take this little ball and incorporate it into their ball-and-stick sport of colf, and the ball itself would evolve into the first form that we have physical record of. This little hand-crafted wooden ball would be carried north of Hadrian’s Wall past the 2nd century A.D.
Through the next millennia the sport itself evolved into the various offshoots of Crosse and Mail (what we now know as hockey, croquet, la crosse, and jai-alai), but the now-wooden ball itself remained the same across most of the areas in which the games were played. They became a pastime of the military and shepherds alike, looking to both exercise their accuracy and prove their mettle to their contemporaries with stakes being bragging rights and rounds at the local tavern. The noble Scots themselves would import these wooden balls handcrafted of elm or beech from across the sea by the barrel-load as late as 1496. That’s over a thousand years that these balls saw use unchanged across Europe.
|If I could putt from a kneeling position, I'm sure I could shave at LEAST four strokes off of my game.|
Yet, within the lands of the Dutch, the stuffed-ball still held sway. Technological advances made it easier to work leather and stitching became tighter. Water became more readily accessible, and with it an increased understanding of the science that would come to be known as thermodynamics. Different skins were used, different sizes experimented with, and different sports applications were enjoyed (from the “futbawe” to the “golf” first outlawed by James II). Just before the 15th century, the “Hairy” from the Roman days of yore was replaced with an upgrade – the “Featherie.”
Introduced in 1618, the Featherie was made by stuffing wet feathers (preferably goose) into an also-wet pouch of leather (usually cow- or horse-hide), measuring about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. Then left out to dry in the sun, the feathers inside would expand while the leather outside contracted (thermodynamics!). Then, the ball would be painted and stamped with the Maker’s Mark. This yielded a ball that was quite stiff and reasonably round. This allowed for a softer and more controlled stroke during stick-and-ball games; balls played with foot and hand remained stuffed with cow hair for some time. The Featherie would remain the single greatest evolution of the golf ball for the next two-and-a-half centuries.
|The standard unit for stuffing a Featherie was considered a single top hat's worth of feathers. Hats off to you, sir.|
The Featherie was actually extremely expensive to make, and became the first historical example of economic exclusivity in the sport itself. The price of a ball could actually exceed the price of a club...apply that to modern playability and your decision to take the safe shot! In this day and age, conservative play was a matter of economics rather than end-of-day score, as a shot in the drink could put you out of the game for a considerable time.
|An example of a John Gourlay Featherie from the 18th century; made in Scotland and recently sold at auction for £5,000 (!!!). These balls would have sold for 5 shillings each, or about $65 per ball in today's money (ALSO !!!).|
One of the side effects of using such a malleable ball was that the Featheries would become dented, scratched, and oblong after extended use. It was cheaper to re-stuff and re-stitch an existing hide that was already scarred and scuffed than to make a new one, so a side-industry came about – Featherie Refurbishment. Notable makers and refurbishers in the 17th century were Andrew Dickson, Leith and Henry Mills, and St. Andrews. And so, in this process of pocket-pinching sustainability, an accidental discovery was made:
Although the ball needed to remain as spherical as possible to have the best carry in the air and roll on the ground, the scratches and dents actually improved ball flight and control.
Fast forward two centuries.
In 1848, Reverend Adam Peterson of St. Andrews introduced the Gutta Percha, or “Guttie.” As the Industrial Revolution continued during this Pre-Victorian era, methods of production changed across the globe and shifted the resources used in that same production; this new type of golf ball was formed from the rubber sap of the Gutta tree found in the tropics of the world. Trade routes were established and secured to solidify access to similar products. Along with the Industrial Revolution came the Railroad, which not only changed the method of transportation across the world much in the same way that travel by horse had done millennia before, but also directly contributed to the spread of golf and the ease of manufacture of equipment.
The new Guttie could be made for a fraction of the price of the long-reigning Featherie; not only was the initial investment cheaper, but when it came to refurbishing, the ball could simply be re-heated and re-shaped in a mold. Thanks to the advances in production, Golf crossed backwards across the economic boundaries of luxury and disposable income, and became again available to the Everyman.
But, there was a catch.
The Gutties still did not travel as far as the Featheries, and did not represent the same level of control. To mitigate these factors, producers began to deliberately score and shape their molds for the Gutties to better simulate the scratches and dents found on long-lived Featheries. The Maker’s Mark of Allan Robertson was most prevalent during this period, and by the 1880-90’s, shape-molding Gutties was a standard in the industry. By the time Dunlop came in to become the major mass-production engine right before the turn of the century, the hand-crafted ball industry had been essentially killed.
|Examples of molded Gutties, including wear-and-tear.|
The pattern during this transitional period that found most popularity was the “Bramble,” which today can only be found at special-interest mini-golf courses or “aqua ranges” as floating balls (although developments in the 20th century would find the latter floating balls able to be manufactured with the more traditional modern dimples).
|Today, you'd likely only find the Bramble at Scottie's Indoor Putt-Putt.|
In 1898, Coburn Haskell accidentally made another change by introducing a golf ball with a core made from a single piece of rubber; when waiting at the B.F. Goodwrench factory to be received by Bertram Work for a lunch date, he began to play with idle and unattended machines on the factory floor. The core for that ball was wound with rubber threads (the winding process developed by W. Millison) and encased in a tight leather wrap, and by 1901, the “Haskell” became universally accepted as the ball to use for play. Not only was it affordable and reproducible on a mass scale, it had effectively demolished the competition in the British and US Opens for three years running.
|The kid points out the absurd price of $6 per dozen...today, that is equivalent to $163.47!! Well, I guess it's still better than $65 per ball...|
At this point, the production method had been solidly established, and the new realm of exploration became what patterns would be imprinted into the surface. In 1905, William Taylor developed the dimple pattern that is still the standard today, maximizing lift and minimizing drag.
There were also experimentations with the core of the Haskell; as it was air-injected rubber, it had the tendency to explode upon impact after long-time exposure to higher temperatures…imagine teeing off in the US Open with the leading score going into the third round only to have your ball explode off of the tee!
|In Hawaii, "aloha" means hello AND goodbye.|
Other manufacturers would experiment with the core throughout the 20th century, using cork, various metals, and even mercury; but the first significant improvement on the design wouldn’t occur until 1972, when Spalding introduced the two-piece “Executive,” which was itself an evolution of a ball patent purchased in 1967 from Jim Bartsch (this patent revised construction of the skin of the ball, switching to an artificial resin developed by du Pont named Suralyn). Bartsch’s original design was sound, but could only be realized by Spalding’s chemical engineering team to remove the need for previously used layers with their new resin formulae.
Even through today, all innovations on the Executive are simply variations of the dimples patterns on the surface and the makeup of the core, to maximize airflow and compression upon the stroke of impact.
|Examples of the different cores of golf balls throughout the 20th century.|
Even though the technological imperatives didn’t change until the late 20th century, regulatory bodies had been establishing standards for balls in professional play since the 1920’s. Both the Royal & Ancient Golf Club os St. Andrews and the United States Golf Association agreed that any ball approved for regulation play would weigh no more than 1.62 ounces and have a diameter of no more than 1.62 inches. In 1931, the USGA broke away from this agreement to introduce the “Big Ball,” which raised the diameter to 1.68 inches, but lowered the weight to 1.55 ounces. Less than a full tournament year later, they raised that weight to the previous limit of 1.62 ounces. In subsequent years, all attempts to arrive at a compromise diameter of 1.66 inches failed. It took an official stance from the Professional Golfer’s Association of Britain that insisted the American dominance of the sport was directly due to the standards of the size; in 1968 they established that they would be experimenting with the larger balls. By 1974, not only had all three organizations established the Big Ball as the standard, but made it and only it the mandatory ball to be used…the smaller sizes of yore were outlawed altogether by 1988.
|Of COURSE we Americans wanted it bigger...|
Very few changes have been made since then, and most of them are proprietary secrets among the ball designers and developers. Looking at patents for future balls that haven’t yet hit the market, we can see that very complex mathematics are beginning to be incorporated into design. The amount of geometry, aerodynamics, and general science that are going into the “ball of the future,” are astounding, and one would have to have a PhD to understand the complexities involved. In fact, most of the designers listed on the patents actually have PhD’s in physics.
|Yes. I understand all of this.|
There are plans to incorporate GPS tags into balls, gyroscopic stabilizers that float inside the ball even while it spins at hundreds of RPM’s as it traverses through the air. Think of the technology that already exists in televised broadcasts to track a ball in flight and overlay that flight path live as the competition is being sent out to the world. Now think about how that visualization would change if the Golf Channel had access to all of the GPS coordinates for each competitor’s ball on file while filming the event…how would that change the passive act of watching professional golf?
All in all, the history of the golf ball is incredible. It crosses borders, cultures, economic boundaries, and practices of industry and trade. Few sports can trace one of its simple elements back 2,000 years across Legionnaires, shepherds, local lords, and captains of industry…but this deceptively devilish game that so frustrates and rewards us can.
|Behold...the Ball of Tomorrow.|
Who knows exactly what the future of the golf ball will look like? It’s a sure bet that the sport will last another 2,000 years, and future writers will be able to write articles just like this about the next phase of the evolution of the golf ball.