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. Early feathery balls cost a significant amount of money 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 t