The Surprising History of Golf Balls

You won't believe what golf balls were made of in the pas
Golf balls were originally made of wood. Imagine the splinters!


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For those in a hurry:

  • Golf balls were originally made of wood, but there is no definite evidence that they were used in Scotland.
  • The first balls used in Scotland were probably leather balls filled with cows’ hair, imported from the Netherlands.
  • The featherie ball was a leather ball stuffed with feathers, which flew farther but was expensive and fragile.
  • The guttie ball was made of dried sap from a tropical tree, which was cheaper, more durable and could be reshaped.
  • The modern ball has a rubber core and dimpled surface, which improves its aerodynamics and performance.

Golf Balls: From Wood to Feathers

Golf balls have come a long way since the 14th century, when they were first made of hard wood. Imagine the splinters! These wooden balls were likely used for other similar games, but not for golf in Scotland.

The first balls used for golf in Scotland were probably leather balls filled with cows’ hair or straw, imported from the Netherlands since 1486. These balls were called “hairy” or “common” balls, and they were cheaper than the later featherie balls.

The featherie ball was introduced in 1618, and it was a leather ball stuffed with chicken or goose feathers. The feathers were boiled and softened before they were packed into the leather pouch, which shrank as it dried. This made the ball harder and able to fly farther than the hairy ball.

However, the featherie ball had some drawbacks. It was difficult to make a perfectly round ball, so it often flew irregularly. It also lost distance when it got wet, and it could split open upon impact. Making a featherie was a tedious and time-consuming process, so they were very expensive. A single ball could cost 2–5 shillings, which is equivalent to US$10–20 today.

From Sap to Rubber

In 1848, a new type of ball was invented by Dr. Robert Adams Paterson, a Scottish clergyman living in India. He used dried sap from the sapodilla tree, a tropical plant that produces a rubber-like substance. He heated and shaped the sap into a sphere, creating the gutta-percha ball or guttie.

The guttie ball was cheaper, more durable and more consistent than the featherie ball. It could also be re-formed if it became out-of-round or damaged. The guttie ball revolutionized the game of golf, making it more accessible and popular.

One of the advantages of the guttie ball was that it could be molded with different patterns on its surface, which improved its flight and spin. Some of the patterns used were mesh, bramble, reverse bramble and dimple. The dimple pattern is still used today on modern balls, as it reduces drag and increases lift.

The modern ball has a rubber core and a synthetic cover, usually made of urethane or surlyn. The core is designed to provide elasticity and energy transfer, while the cover provides durability and control. Modern balls are also classified by their compression and construction, which affect their feel and performance.