Golf balls are as much part of the game as the clubs. A good ball can give you a few extra yards on your drive or better control on your approach shots. But the original golf balls were very different from the modern marvels.
The first balls
Scotland is very much the home of golf, and while many people assume golf here started with both wooden sticks and balls, there’s actually no solid evidence of wooden balls ever being used.
Wooden balls were being used on the continent as far back as the 1550s, but there’s little indication they were on the courses in Scotland. In fact, some claim that the use of wooden balls in Europe was not actually ‘golf’ in the strictest speaking terms, but instead was another target game.
Things get hairy
The first ‘real’ golf balls are the ‘hairy’ golf balls – or ‘hairies’. The first examples of this type of ball being manufactured in Scotland dates back to 1554, although the originals were made in Holland.
This ball had much better handling properties than the wooden ones, though it might have been used exclusively on the ice-bound version of the game.
They were made with using three pieces of leather stitched together and then turned inside out. A small gap was left. Into this gap the filling was stuffed – usually cow hair or straw.
This style of ball was hugely popular and was still being used as late as the 18th century.
The main downfall was their price. Records show they cost £3 per ball in the early 17th Century – a considerable sum.
In 1618, a royal patent was granted to James Melville and William Berwick. This was so the balls could be made locally to help combat the prices of expensive imports. Sadly, this licence didn’t last long.
The next big breakthrough in golf ball technology came with the ‘featheries’. Using the same manufacturing technique as the ‘hairies’, these balls were simply filled with light feathers.
Like the hairies, their history is blurred with various references to such balls – or similar types – dating from 1612.
One of the big advantages of using feathers was that they expanded when they dried. Wet feathers were pushed into wet leather. When the two materials dried, one (feathers) expanded, while the other (leather) shrank. This made the balls tighter than hairies and meant they would travel further – the record was for 361 yards set in 1836 by Samuel Messiuex.
Into the Gutta
In 1848, golf balls took a major step forward with ‘gutties’. Using the sap of the tropical Gutta tree, Rev Adam Paterson of St Andrews developed these balls that could be easily fashioned into perfect circles, providing a much more controlled game.
Their other big advantage was that they could be made fairly cheaply.
There was some debate when they came into being, as many felt they lacked the performance of featheries, while others welcomed their cheapness and robustness.
They did take one design feature from the featheries. The smooth round surfaces of the Gutties meant they didn’t travel as far, so rough surfaces were added during the manufacturing process.
Birth of the modern ball
Modern golf balls might have been fine-tuned using cutting edge materials, but they’re still just a version of the Haskell ball that came into production back in 1898.
American Coburn Haskell introduced a ball that had a solid rubber casing with rubber threads inside. Just three years later, it had pretty much been universally adopted. They were incredibly popular as they added length to tee shots and were affordable to produce.
But many argue it was William Taylor that added the ultimate touch to the ball – the classic dimple pattern. This pattern, brought in in 1905, helped minimise drag while also boosting lift. It wasn’t until the Spalding two-piece ball in 1972 that this design was significantly improved upon.
In 1921, the R&A standardised the size and weight of the ball. And while there are a few minor differences from country to country, golf balls have remained pretty much the same ever since.