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The Evolution of the Golf Ball

Jun 19, 2008
The Wooden Ball

When golf first came about, the balls used were made from hardwoods such as beech and crudely rounded with tools. This period lasted from the 14th Century to the 17th Century.

In the late 16th Century it is recorded that one William Mayne was producing clubs for the nobility in Scotland. In 1603 Mayne, a bowmaker by trade was appointed, among other things, clubmaker to King James VI of Scotland, shortly before his accession to the throne of England.

Record books also show that in 1447 King James II issued his now famous edict in Parliament that golf was to be outlawed. His concern was that his subjects were more interested in golf than training how to use the warfare weapons of their time! Worried this would leave his country defenceless; he banned golf (although it was still played, just not by the masses.)

The Feather Ball

The feather ball period was the longest period of stability in the history of the golf ball. The feathery ball period lasted from as early as the 14th Century to as late as the 16th Century and was produced until the early 1850's. In its beginnings the leather golf balls were likely to have been filled with wool or hair.

These balls quickly lost their resilience and ultimately it was discovered that the use of feathers produced a livelier and longer lasting ball.

Producing a feathery was a time consuming process that required considerable expertise. The craftsmen themselves vied with each other for the contracts from the richest patrons of the game and were often scathing about the results their competitors achieved.

Enough feathers went into each ball to fill a Top Hat and contrary to the name of this ball it was as hard as a stone and could travel in excess of 250yds.

Feather golf balls were not round and were more often than not oblong in shape. There were a variety of sizes and weights and the ball would be marked with its weight in drams clearly visible along with the maker's name. Despite not being round feathery golf balls did fly and roll with remarkable trueness and were perfectly suited to the crude greens of the day.

The Gutty Ball

This is where the modern era started, with the feathery being replaced by the gutty.

The industrial revolution was booming in the UK and factories started to manufacture many more products using rubber...it was only a matter of time before someone would substitute the feathery with a more durable material.

In the end Reverend James Patterson, a keen golfer discovered the gutty-percha whilst on missionary work in Malaysia. Gutty-percha is a similar material to rubber that is made from the dried sap of a tree and James discovered almost by mistake that this material could be used to make golf balls with.

Two-piece metal mouldings were made to produce perfectly round spheres. At first only smooth balls were manufactured but golfers soon began to realise that the more the ball nicked and marked, the easier it was to predict their shots. This eventually led to manufacturers producing gutty balls with surface markings to enhance their aerodynamic qualities.

Quickly these balls were being made at a fraction of the cost of the feathery and eventually the game of golf became affordable to the general public.

The Bramble

The balls were known as brambles as the balls resembled the fruit found on brambles with a raised dimple pattern on the golf ball. Originally bramble balls were entirely made of gutty-percha and covered with a bramble pattern cover. This ball soon overtook the gutty as the preferred choice of the then pro golfers and heralded the beginning of the dimpled ball as we know it today.

The Mesh

During the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a boom in golf ball manufacturers around the country, each experimenting with rubber core mesh balls. It was this period that the modern day golf ball as we now it know came about. Early dimple balls created during the early 1900's were proving to offer players greater spin and feel and an Englishman called William Taylor patented the dimple method in 1905.

Spalding USA immediately purchased the rights for this patent and began to manufacturer dimple balls as early as 1909.

Until the patent expired in the 1920's every company attempted to obtain an advantage over their competitors by designing unique mesh type patterns on golf balls. There was the Rifled Ball - designed like the barrel of a gun - which according to adverts would fly like a bullet. It did, but only if you hit it 100% straight - otherwise it was off - spinning everywhere.

There were raised banana shapes, donut dimples, Stars, Circles, and Hexagons you name it they tried it!

One by one these balls eventually were superseded by another new pattern, and so on, until eventually the square mesh ball became standard. More and more of the small golf ball manufacturers were squeezed out of the market by the larger corporations such as Spalding, Dunlop, Slazenger, Wilson etc, and by the end of the 40's the market was dominated by the same leading golf manufacturers as today's market, with the exception of a Scottish firm called St Mungo who in 1935 dominated the UK market, along with Spalding.

With the development of golf balls progressing at an alarming rate the U.S.G.A, fearful of the skill level required to play golf being continually compromised by the golf ball manufacturers, decided to standardize the weight and size of golf balls. In 1931 the U.S.G.A ruled that no ball played in their championships could weigh more than 1.55 oz, or was smaller than 1.68" in diameter. These new sizes were not popular with the British golfers, as the windswept links of yesteryear required different flight characteristics from a ball.

In January 1932 the Royal & Ancient Golf Association and the U.S.G.A reached a partial compromise on weight and size with the maximum weight being 1.62 oz and a minimum of 1.62" in diameter. The U.S.G.A accepted the new weight but maintained 1.68" as the diameter.

With technology constantly improving the driving distance of new balls, the U.S.G.A developed a machine to test the velocity of golf balls in 1941 and in 1942 set the velocity limit at 250 feet. Eventually by 1940 more or less all balls manufactured were the dimple style and the manufacturers turned their research to improving the golf ball within the rules of the game.

With the exception of the one-piece rubber balls, which were introduced in the 1960's -this was the last major period of change in golf balls until today's multi-layer golf balls were introduced.
About the Author
Ian writes for Mailordergolf.com who sell cheap golf balls, golf clubs and other golfing equipment.
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