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The evolution of the golf ball is an odd tale


Contrary to popular belief, the first ball used for playing golf wasn’t the leather-covered ball filled with feathers. Actually, historical references of the first golf ball makers point to Holland back in the 15th century.

Dutch golfers originally played with smooth wooden balls made from elm or beech. The Scots soon developed the sewn leather “featherie” ball in the early 1600s. The inspiration for the featherie came from the Dutch ball used in hand tennis, which was a bit larger, made of white leather and filled with cow’s hair. For the featherie ball, several pieces of supple leather were tightly stitched together, leaving just a small opening. Boiled and softened feathers (mostly goose) were tediously stuffed into the casing before the final stitches were made. The now dry, hard leather ball was then hammered into roundness and coated with several layers of paint.

In 1843, Scottish divinity student Robert Adams Paterson was trying to figure out what to do with a box full of black rubbery shavings that had been protecting a statue during shipping. The shavings were gutta-percha, made from the dried milky latex sap of Malaysia’s sapodilla tree. Paterson formed and bonded the shavings into a ball and took it to the golf course. It disintegrated. But he persisted and eventually found a way to heat and form a solid ball in a mold.

After 1848, the new ball, known as the “gutty,” began the modern era of rubberized, machine-made golf balls. More gutties could be made in an hour than featheries in a whole day.

The next big golf breakthrough came in 1898 somewhat by happenstance. A wealthy Cleveland businessman, Coburn Haskell, drove to Akron for a golf game with Bertram Work, the superintendent of the B. F. Goodrich (Rubber) Company. While he waited for Work, Haskell picked up some rubber thread and wound it into a ball. When he bounced the ball, it flew almost to the ceiling. It was Work who urged Haskell to put a cover on the creation, and that was the birth of the 20th century wound golf ball. Instantly known as the “Haskell” ball, the wound rubber ball consisted of a liquid-filled or solid round core that was wound with thin rubber thread into a larger inner layer then covered with a thin outer shell made of balata (tree) sap.

From the 1930s through the 1960s the major innovations in golf balls were mostly core development. In the late 1960s, Spaulding introduced a ball with an ionomer cover called “surlyn” by DuPont that was harder and lasted longer. A balata ball would easily cut when hit with the blade of an iron. At about the same time, ball companies came out with solid-core designs – either three-piece or four-piece balls.

Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at docblanchard71@gmail.com.