Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Evolution of the Golf Ball

The evolution of the golf ball highlights major changes in the game of golf and depicts important golf landmarks. The development of the golf club, the golf course, and the rules of the game all were affected by this evolution.

The Feathery Cube: Golf, as we know it, was first played with a leather-covered ball stuffed with goose or chicken feathers. Several pieces of stout leather were tightly stitched, leaving a small opening. The casing was turned inside out. Feathers - a "gentlemans top hat full" by measure - that had been boiled and softened, were tediously stuffed into the casing before the final stitches were made. The surprisingly hard feather ball was hammered into roundness and finally coated with several layers of "paint". Because of the difficulty and time involved in making Featheries, they were relatively expensive. This fragile missile was used for almost four centuries.

The Gutta-Percha: The first "Gutta" ball is believed to have been made in 1848 by the Rev. Dr. Robert Adams Paterson from gutta-percha packing material. Gutta-percha is the evaporated milky juice or latex produced from a tree most commonly found in Malaysia. It is hard and non-brittle and becomes soft and impressible at the temperature of boiling water. Gutta balls, were handmade by rolling the softened material on a board. The new durability of the Gutta, together with its much lower cost, resistance to water, and improved run, provided rejuvenation to the game of golf. Not without some resistance from traditionalists, the Gutta gradually replaced the Feathery.

The Hand Hammered Gutta: The gutta-percha ball enormously enhanced the game of golf, however it was soon discovered by golfers who failed to smooth their balls by boiling and rolling them on a "smoothing board" after play, that a many "nicked" ball had truer flight than the smooth gutta. Thus the hand hammered gutta was created by hammering the softened ball with a sharp edged hammer ... giving the ball an even pattern that greatly improved its play. Later, balls formed in iron molds or ball presses that created patterns or markings on the ball were introduced. A wide variety of surface patterns were introduced into golf.

The Bramble: Surface textures and patterns impressed into the gutta-percha balls evolved from early imitations of feathery ball stitching to the highly detailed and symmetrical that greatly improved the balls flight. The best known balls were the hand-marked private brands of the Scottish club makers, such as Morris, Robertson, Gourlay, and the Auchterlonies. Many brands with a variety of patent names used the bramble pattern (with a surface similar to the berry). This became the most popular pattern of the gutta era and was also used on some of the early rubber balls.

The Rubber Ball: Few changes in any sport compare with the changes in the game of golf brought about by the rubber ball. It was invented in 1898 by a Cleveland, Ohio, golfer, Coburn Haskell, in association with Bertram Work of the B. F. Goodrich Company. The ball featured rubber thread wound around a solid rubber core. Early gutta-percha gave way to the Balata cover that was developed in the early 1900s. The popular bramble, mesh, reverse mesh, and a great many other patterns gradually gave way to the aerodynamically superior dimple pattern first used in 1908. Because of the lack of standards, there were many deviations in ball size and weight.

The Modern Ball: On January 1, 1932, standardization of golf ball weight and size was established by the United States Golf Assn. following 1930 standards set by the British Golf Assn. for a slightly smaller ball. The weight was set at a maximum of 1.620 oz., and diameter not to be less than 1.680 in. Later. after testing apparatus was developed to measure velocity, a maximum velocity of 250 feet per second was added by the USGA. The durability and precision of todays ball reflect not only the tremendous technological advancement of their manufacture but also the development of space age plastics, silicone, and improved rubber.

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This post is part of our "Evolution of Golf" series which takes a look at various components of the golf industry and evaluates the changes they've experienced over the years.