The History Of The Golf Ball
Three basic types of ball have figured in the development of the game the feathery, the gutta percha and the now familiar rubber cored ball. The latter two have been introduced within the last 150 years, but it was the feathery that was used virtually unchallenged for almost 400 years until the mid 19th century.
The feathery enjoyed such dominance not so much through any specific virtues it possessed as the fact that there was no viable alternative. This ball consisted of a spherical outer shell stuffed with a large quantity of feathers that had been boiled to soften them and make them more compactable. The amount used was traditionally a 'top hatful', which was about half a gallon. The hole through which the feathers were rammed was sewn up, and the ball was then hammered into a sphere. The process was time consuming and very expensive, since even a skilled worker could only make three or four balls a day.
The resultant ball was beset with problems. It was rarely spherical and so would fly erratically and roll unreliably. On wet days it would soak up water, making it inconsistent in weight and so difficult to play. The water would also rot the stitching, causing the ball to split open on stony ground.
Traditionally, the feathery golf ball was, as the name suggests, stuffed with feathers the amount was enough to fill a top hat.
All in all, the feathery was less than ideal for playing consistent golf. So when, around 1850, the properties of a Malaysian gum called gutta percha were discovered, golfers abandoned the feathery with no reluctance.
Gutta percha could be softened in hot water, rolled into a sphere first by hand and later in steel molds and then hardened by cooling. The result was a perfect sphere that rolled true for the first time in the history of the game. These balls were cheap and quick to make and, although not as pleasant to hit as the feathery, were clearly an improvement. They occasionally shattered, but could be remoulded.
There was initially, however, a problem. The smooth balls would not fly any distance. This at first irritated the users of the so called gutties and raised a glimmer of hope for the makers of feathery balls who were understandably concerned at this innovation.
Eventually it was noticed that if a ball was dented during play, it then flew better. Thus the gutty users began hammering dents into their balls inadvertently establishing the principle of the modern dimpled ball. The gutty now flew perfectly and became the standard ball for the next 50 years.
At the turn of the last century, a man named Colburn Haskell introduced the soft-cored elastic wound ball. Initially wrapped in gutta percha, this ball was livelier and more resilient. But, despite these qualities, it was regarded with suspicion, and the authorities seriously discussed banning it.
This all changed, however, during a practice round at the 1902 British Open between the professional Alexander Herd and the gifted amateur John Ball. Herd should have won easily, but found himself consistently outplayed, both on the fairway and the green. Ball was using one of the new balls. Herd was invited to try one and remarkably went on to win the championship. Naturally the ball became an overnight success.
Despite wrangles over the weight and size that began after World War 1, a decision was finally reached in 1968 that in any PGA competition worldwide: only the American standard of 1.68 inches diameter would be admissible.
Modern technology continues to play its part in the development of the golf ball, making it increasingly more consistent both in flight and roll.
The modern three piece ball consists of a high energy core that is covered with a mantle of material to generate spin, and a urethane type cover that is cut resistant and more durable. The dimple pattern on the ball is designed aerodynamically to keep the ball in the air longer and give it more stability and, therefore, a straighter flight.
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