evolution of the golf ball

To understand the history of the game of golf, it is helpful to have an understanding of the different types of golf balls that have been used. Between the 1400s and the 1960s there have been four distinct Periods or types of golf balls produced and used to play the game of golf. THE WOODEN BALL PERIOD, THE FEATHER BALL PERIOD, THE GUTTA PERCHA BALL PERIOD and THE RUBBER CORE BALL PERIOD.


The rubber core or modern ball period began in the late 1890s. The first mass produced rubber core ball was invented and patented in 1898 by Coburn Haskell of Cleveland, Ohio. Bertram G. Work of the B.F. Goodrich Co. in Akron, Ohio worked with Haskell to develop the first rubber core ball. At first the balls were constructed by hand winding elastic thread around a rubber core under great tension. The core was then covered with gutta percha; later by balata and other hard rubber materials. John Gammeter invented and patented in 1900 the automatic winding machinery that allowed the rubber core ball to be economically mass produced.

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The distance of a drive with an early rubber core ball was between 210 and 270 yards, with an average of about 240. It was an easier ball to hit and reduced the skill required to play a balanced round of golf. Golf courses had to be lengthened and bogey fives became par fours. Players were carrying more clubs in their bags than before, the 14 club limit was still a few years away. The new rubber core ball plus the wide variety of specialized clubs used by players improved scores, changed the strategy of play, and altered course design.

Haskell's, first rubber core balls, were nicknamed "Bounding Billy's" by players. These early balls tended to duck and dart when hit and did not land as softly as the gutty. Some of these problems were caused by the type of molded, mesh pattern covers used and irregularities in the winding process. Also, the early versions of the Haskell were very lively. This trait may have been caused by the thickness of the gutta percha cover, that may have been too thin for the high-tension rubber core ball.

A new pattern design and a thicker cover solved some of Haskell's trajectory problems. By the early 1900s molded mesh covers were replaced by pattern covers like the raised round nubs of the bramble pattern. A thicker gutta percha cover was also used, this most likely helped to reduced the liveliness of the ball. The problem of not landing softly changed playing strategies; now players were learning to use more run-up shots. The soft landing trait was somewhat solved in 1907 when the dimple pattern cover was introduced. The dimple cover helped players to control ball trajectories with aerodynamic spin. It also helped players to put backspin on a shot, nearly stopping the ball dead on the putting green.

At first the rubber core balls were more expensive than gutta percha balls. After a few years, these costs were reduced to a level that players with average incomes could afford. The modern ball of today is held in check by the ruling bodies of the game; the USGA and the R & A. If there were no rules or monitoring of ball characteristics, ball manufacturers undoubtedly would develop even longer carrying balls. If the skill level required to play golf was enhanced by the ball alone the game would lose much of its' competitive equality.


To protect their inventions and gain the attention of the golfing community, many ball inventors applied for patents on their new golf ball ideas.

The first golf ball patent, No. 3428, was issued in Great Britain in 1876 to Capt. Duncan Stewart of St. Andrews. This patent was granted for inventing a composition ball that combined gutta percha with ground cork and metal filings. The idea behind the "Stewart Patent" was to prevent the tendency of pure gutta ball from splitting open by adding a mixture of cork to the raw gutta-percha. However the mixture of cork did not hold-up well as the balls were easliy knocked out of shape or into pieces.

The gutty replaced the feathery because of less cost and better quality. When the rubber core golf ball replaced the gutty it was due to superior driving and playing qualities even though it cost more than twice as much when first introduced. A smooth gutty in good condition can exceed $3,000 today.

Capt. Stewart also experimented in the 1870s with the idea of enclosing rubber thread in a gutta percha cover. In 1905 he testified about his 1870s experiments for the defense in the patent infringement case that the Haskell Company brought against United Kingdom ball manufacturers. Based on his testimony and other evidence the judge ruled in favor of the UK companies and the Haskell patent was not held as valid in the UK.

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The second golf ball patent, No. 4838, was issued in 1877 to William Currie of the Caledonian Rubber Works, Edinburgh. This patent was granted for inventing the process of making golf balls from India-rubber combined with ground cork, leather or vegetable fibres. Currie's ball was introduced as the Eclipse, it was also known as a "Putty".

In 1905, William Taylor an engineer of Leicester, England applied for, and in 1907, was granted a U.K. patent for dimples on a golf ball cover. The A.G. Spalding Company purchased the U.S. rights to Taylor's patent for dimples in 1908 and began commercially to produce dimple balls. Mesh and lattice (square or fishnet) pattern golf ball covers became the rage in 1912 and were used until the 1930s. In the 1950s, U.S. Rubber Co. attempted to revitalize mesh pattern covers with their inverted pyramid mesh ball, the U.S. Royal Special.

On May 1, 1906 A. G. Spalding Co. was issued a trademark registration for the word "dot". Spalding used this "dot" trademark on balls for several decades.

In 1908 Frank H. Mingay of Berfield, Scotland was granted a U.K. patent for putting incompressible liquids, such as: water, treacle, glycerine, castor oil, honey, mercury and frozen liquid pellets into the center of golf balls. He rationalized that liquid enclosed in the center of a ball would better receive and transmit club head impact energy at a lower loss of total energy. The A.G. Spalding Company also purchased the rights to Mingay patent but did not use it until 1916 when they introduced the "Witch", their first liquid center golf ball. Several other ball makers had put the liquid center ball idea into use by that date.

In 1923 Thomas Miller, founder of the Faultless Rubber Co., patented the one-piece golf ball design. This design may have been tried purely as an experiment; because the ball was not put into full production until the 1960s.

Dr. William C. Geer, a chemist working for Goodrich in the late 1920s, developed a method for vulcanizing golf ball covers. Simultaneously, Dr. Sidney Cadwell, a chemist working for the U.S. Rubber Co., developed another vulcanizing process. The idea behind vulcanization was to toughen fragile golf ball covers to increase their playing life. In 1935, the Geer and Cadwell patents for vulcanizing were merged.

On Jan. 1, 1931 the U.S.G.A. ruled that no ball could be played in their championships that weighed more than 1.55 oz. or was smaller in diameter than 1.68 inches. This ruling was based on the U.S.G.A.'s need to control and standardize driving distance. This standard weight and size was not popular with British and Scottish players whose windswept links required different flight characteristics in a ball. Because a heavier and smaller ball was popular with the players in the United Kingdom. The Royal & Ancient Golf Association and the U.S.G.A. worked out a partial compromise on weight and size. Beginning Jan. 1, 1932, the R. & A. fixed the official weight and size at a maximum of 1.62 oz. and minimum of 1.62 inches. The U.S.G.A. sanctioned the 1.62 oz. maximum weight but maintained 1.68 inches as the minimum diameter.

By the 1930s, ball manufacturers turned their research to improving the golf ball within the rules. Through improvements in winding tension, the driving distance of new balls continued to increase. In 1941 the U.S.G.A. invented a machine to test the initial velocity of balls. In 1942, they set the velocity limit at 250 feet per second (plus or minus 2 1/2%), at 70 degrees F., at sea level. This ruling standardized the driving distance of balls and left ball manufacturers only looking for ways to improve the durability and playing life of the golf ball.

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