Evolution Of The Golf Ball

If you need something to fill and hour and a half of your Covid downtime, I invite you to listen to a series of three internet broadcasts, part of the Fried Egg Stories Series, narrated by Garrett Morrison who escorts you through 170 years of the development of the golf ball and it’s effect on the game.

Besides connecting a bunch of dots about the role of this essential piece of equipment in the development of the modern game, you are going to realize that the discourse of reigning in the effect of technological innovations to save the game is not new and really has not changed that much over the last two centuries.

If you are a conservative by nature, that is to say someone who wants to conserve the game and it’s challenge by putting constraints on the introduction of new technologies in the development of the equipment, you have to face the fact that this battle is being lost today just as it was lost in the first two decades of the 1900’s.

Below is a synopsis of each episode and the link to the Fried Egg Podcasts themselves. I encourage you to enjoy this fascinating stroll through golf history.

Part I: The Gutty

For nearly three centuries the game of golf in Scotland was played with the Feathery Ball.  This was an expensive ball created by the hands of artisans stuffing goose feathers into hand sewn leather covers.  The ball worked well but it was not very durable, especially in wet weather, and was prohibitively expensive making the play of the long game of golf the purview of the wealthy and the professionals who made the clubs and balls for them.

Around 1850 someone discovered that using Gutta Percha, the rubber gum sap from a tree in Malaysia, a solid core rubber ball could be economically produced that was durable, repairable, and went way further then the Feathery of the day.  The introduction and acceptance of this new ball opened the long game up to thousands of Scots who previously could not afford to play. 

The durability of the ball also allowed the proliferation of the use of iron clubs that would not impart harm to the Gutta Percha Ball as they did to their leather skinned predecessors.  The crafty players of the day quickly learned that the irons added a new level of control over the flight and spin of the ball which allowed them to play more boldly over hazards and stop the ball more abruptly on the green.  As you can imagine this presented a huge advantage and took performance to an entirely new level.

Turns out the advantages of Gutta Percha were much bigger outside of golf-it revolutionized product production in the industrial world in the late 19th century.  It was used to insulate undersea cables in the new world of telegraph communications and helped introduce the first mode of instantaneous communication across the world.

(Click to listen to Part I: The Gutty)


Part II: The Wound Ball

By the turn of the century another inquisitive mind,  Coburn Haskell, came up with the idea of replacing the solid rubber core Gutty with a liquid center ball wrapped tightly in rubber bands and covered in gutta percha. 

The Haskell Ball was introduced around 1899 in the United States where it caught on like wild fire among American golf crazies.  By 1905 the Scots recognized that the superior length which the Haskell traveled and additional spin created by the rubber band core made it the next go to step in the evolution of the golf ball

This is the contraption they used to wind the rubber bands around the new Haskell Ball (as seen at Archie Baird’s “Exhibition-The Heritage of Golf” in Gullane, Scotland)

But not everyone in the Scottish golf world was enthused about this development and recognized that the introduction of these technological efficiencies were going to make the challenging game easier and possibly require renovation of the existing links which would be overwhelmed by the capability of this new ball.

What ensued was a massive debate between traditionalists (conservatives) who wanted to ban the new ball to protect the sanctity of the game and its playing fields and the new thinkers who wanted to allow libertarian principles to prevail to make the game more equitable to all players by letting all innovations manufacturers came up with be implemented without regulation.

With classic courses succumbing to the ghastly distances the new improved balls were traveling, the R & A and an amalgamation of American golf organizations including the fledgling USGA agreed in the early 1920’s to come up with a size and weight regulation for a legal ball they thought would provide some tether on the manufacturers. The ball had to be at least 1.68 inches in diameter and could not weigh more than 1.62 ounces.

Nice try, but it did not work.  The manufacturers found ways to continue to improve the performance of the ball within these parameters and massive amount of redesign of classic courses ensued.

The die was cast, as long as the ball was made within these two parameters, it could be made in any way or with any material and be considered conforming to the rules of the game.

(Click to listen to Part II: The Wound Ball)


Part III: The Better Ball

Fast forward about a half a century and what we saw was a frenzy of development in golf equipment from the 1970’s through the 1990’s.  Titanium replaced Persimmon making drivers and fairway woods longer, composite shafts replaced steel adding club head speed for players of all ability, and cavity backed irons made of combinations of space age materials added trajectory which allowed manufacturers to de-loft the irons considerably to add length and forgiveness as well.

But with all of that, it is the enhanced engineering of the ball itself, with the use of varieties of plastic based materials, that continue to have the most significant impact on how the game is played.

Spaulding introduced the solid core two-piece Top Flite ball in the 1970’s which had more power in it’s core and less spin creating another new “distance” ball.  This became a ball for the masses which coupled with the other equipment changes made the old courses shorter and shorter for those with distance aspirations.  The lack of spin control around the green kept the professional acceptance of this technology at bay….at least for a while.

In the mid 1990’s Spaulding stepped it up a notch with the introduction of the Strata, a  three-piece ball-solid core with a thin mantle layer to add spin for control on the shorter clubs, and a urethane cover that was more durable than balata used by Titleist.  Once the pros got their hands on this combination of ball engineering it changed everything , as it had with the introduction of the Haskell a century earlier.

The change was so profound that in 2000 Titleist, manufacturer of the number one ball among touring professionals, had to protect it’s turf by abandoning its top selling Titleist Professional wound ball and introduce the three-piece Pro V1 which parroted the technologies of it’s main rival.

In 2020 we have four-piece balls with dual cores.  The technology train keeps chugging along.

Good news is all these space age material ball improvements are conforming to the size and weight parameters of the ruling bodies, bad news is we are running out of real estate to lengthen courses to accommodate them.

(Click to listen to Part III: The Better Ball)

Fried Egg Stories Series (2020)

Fried Egg Golf Podcasts

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