A Short History of the Golf Ball

Golf balls have an interesting and varied history, with different types all having an impact on the game as a whole.

It is often thought that the first golf balls were made of wood, but as there is no surviving evidence of this, the first balls to be recognised as used on the links were made of leather and stuffed with an actual “top-hat” full amount of duck and geese feathers.

Influenced by similar ball and stick games from Holland, Scots began to experiment with this type of ball during the fifteenth century.  Records from 1452 reveal that a “goiff” ball cost ten Scottish shillings.   This was a significant amount and must have impeded many from playing with these feathery balls.

One of the first references to golf ball manufacture comes from 1554 “the Cordiners and Gowf Ball Manufacturers of North Leith”.  Cordiners were shoemakers and leather workers, so it is logical to assume that they were also making leather cased golf balls.  Thomas Kincaid, an Edinburgh medical student, wrote about his golfing experiences in his diaries in 1687 and described golf balls as being made of “thick and hard leather not with pores or grains”.  It was vital that the leather casing was not porous as the ball would become sodden if it came into contact with water, and so to prevent this they were oiled regularly to build better water resistance.

By 1838, we know from the New Statistical Account that although a good ball maker could make 50 to 60 balls in a week, still an extremely difficult process which was carried out by hand. The British Golf Museum is fortunate to possess feathery balls from Allan Robertson and Tom Morris Senior.  These great champions would play the Links at St Andrews with the equipment they made themselves.  Robertson was such an outstanding golfer that in 1842 he was not allowed to play in a Challenge Match.  It was reported in the local newspaper that ‘Alan Robertson was prohibited by his brethren from competing for these stakes on account of his superior play, it being the impression that they would have no chance in any contest in which Allan took part.’  In 1858, the year before he died at the age of 44, Robertson went round the Old Course in 79 with a 3 at the 18th, the first ever round under 80.

The man who was tipped to win the first Open Championship in 1860 was the Keeper of the Green at Prestwick; Tom Morris Senior.  However, Tom lost the Championship by two strokes to Willie Park Senior.  Tom had moved to Prestwick from his native St Andrews in 1851, and went on to win The Open four times, in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867.  His last win came after he returned to St Andrews to be Keeper of the Green in 1864, a position he held until his retirement in 1903.

Although Allan Roberston and Tom Morris had worked and played closely together, their relationship was tested with the development of the new type of ball in the 1850s.  The Gutty ball was set to cause a boom in ball production and was a threat to Robertson’s livelihood.  The expensive feathery ball would soon be superseded by new ball technology that would help to cause a big upsurge in people taking up the sport.

One of the biggest changes to the ball happened during the 1850s, when a newly imported substance started to be used for ball manufacturing.  Gutta percha, a sap that was extracted from trees in South East Asia, was boiled and moulded into balls for playing golf.  The first gutties were smooth, but would later have hammered marks and moulds to generate better flight through the air.

   
Smooth gutty c.1850 Hand-hammered gutty ball c1852

The expense and time it took to make the feathery balls encouraged some to find a cheaper alternative, and it would be the gutty balls that would not only replace the featheries but push golfing equipment and manufacturing into a new era.  The new type of ball flew farther and was cheaper to purchase allowing more golfers from every walk of life to play golf and to play more often.

However not everyone was convinced; Robertson was shocked to see Morris using the gutty and recorded that ‘we had some words and this led to us parting company’.  Allan also attempted to organise a caddies’ strike to oppose the new ball, but introduction of the gutty could not be stopped.   

Due to the hardness of the gutties, club design began to change too from long nosed, hard wood clubs to rounder, ‘bulger’ headed clubs and there was an increase in use of iron clubs known as cleeks.

By 1901 another development arrived in Britain in the form of the new rubber cored ball made by the Haskell Company from America.  The original Haskell balls weighed around 1.5 ounces and were significant because they were the first to be mass produced.

After the First World War, the ball went through a variety changes to standardise its size and shape to “preserve the balance between the power and the length of holes and in order to retain the special features of the fame, the power of the ball should be limited”.

In 1920 The Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s Rules of Golf Committee and the USGA agreed that from 1st May 1921, “the weight of the ball shall be not greater than 1.62 ounces and the size not less than 1.62 inches in diameter.  During the 1930s and 40s a larger ball was introduced, with the 1.68 inch ball being used in America.  It wasn’t until 1974 that competitors in The Open Championship were allowed to use this size of ball for the first time, with it then becoming mandatory in all of The R&A Championships in 1982.  This saw the smaller, 1.62 inch ball being discontinued in 1990.

Golf balls are still under great scrutiny, with The R&A and USGA still working closely to monitor its development and the object being to protect the tradition of the game by preventing an over-reliance on technological advances rather than skill.