The History and Evolution of the Golf Ball

Modern golf ball designs continue to amaze for a variety of different reasons. The distance and ball speeds produced by the best golf balls currently available on the market continue to be a hot topic of discussion in the ongoing distance debate.

Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus has been very outspoken about distance gains as a result of golf ball and equipment designs. The Golden Bear believes that golf ball designs should be controlled by golf governing bodies to prohibit professional players from overpowering golf courses. 

Golf balls that go too far haven’t always been an issue though, the golf ball has a very rich history and many will argue that in the past the golf ball was the one item that lacked in terms of design and technology. Below we are going to take a closer look at the history of the golf ball and we will also discuss what can be expected next in terms of golf ball designs. 

The First Golf Ball

The Hairy Golf Ball. Source.

The origin of the first golf ball remains up for debate. Evidence of wooden golf balls do exist but history has it that these wooden balls were used in games that are similar to golf and not by golfers. The origins of golf reference pebbles being used as golf balls in Scotland, hairy golf balls however were the first real golf balls that were manufactured and used by golfers for centuries. 

Hairy golf balls were originally manufactured in the Netherlands in the 1400s. Hairy golf balls featured hand-sewn leather outers with cow hair or straw inners. In the mid-1500’s hairy golf balls were produced in Scotland and hairy golf balls remained the golf ball of choice for many players up until the early 1800s. Featherie golf balls first made their appearance in the early 1600s but due to their high price tag, hairy golf balls remained popular for many years. 

The Evolution of the Hairy Golf Ball to the Rubber Golf Ball

The Featherie Golf Ball. Source.

Hairy golf balls evolved into the Featherie golf ball. Featherie golf balls also featured a leather outer but instead of cow hair or straw, these golf balls were filled with feathers. Due to the softness of feathers manufacturers of Featherie golf balls were able to stuff the feathers in a very compact manner which in return produced a harder golf ball that flew further.

Additionally, Featherie golf balls also kept their shape better as a result of the compact inner. Featherie golf balls didn’t perform very well in wet conditions. The leather outer and feather inner of these golf balls absorbed moisture which in return made the golf ball heave and inefficient. 

Golf’s first professional, Allan Roberston perfected the design of the Featherie golf ball in the early 1800s. Robertson mentored the great Tom Morris from the age of 14 and together the pair revolutionized the golf equipment industry at that time.

The Gutty golf ball arrived on the scene towards the mid-1800s. Morris preferred the Gutty over the Featherie and as a result of this debate, Morris and Robertson parted ways. Morris left St. Andrews to open up his own golf shop at Prestwich Golf Club which later became the site of the first Open Championship. 

The Gutty Golf Ball. Source.

To learn more about the history of the Open Championship click here. 

The Gutty golf ball was made from the sap of the Malaysian Sapodilla tree. The sap of this tree had a rubber-like quality and when heated up the sap could be transformed into the shape of a ball. The Gutty was easy to make, inexpensive and it offered advanced aerodynamics compared to the Featherie. 

Towards the late 1800s, designers of the Gutty golf ball began experimenting with different shapes on the golf with the help of a mold in their quest to improve the aerodynamics of the golf ball. 

In 1898 Coburn Haskell, a superintendent/greenkeeper at the B.F Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio discovered the rubber ball by accident. Haskell was waiting around in a workshop and while he waited he wounded a rubber thread into a round ball. Haskell played around with the ball and quickly realized that the ball had a lot of bounce to it, all it needed to become a golf ball was a cover. The cover of Haskell’s rubber golf balls were made from balata sap. 

The first rubber golf balls feature a similar outer pattern to that of the Gutty golf ball but engineers quickly discovered that inward, concave dimples would be much more efficient from an aerodynamics perspective.  

The Haskell Golf Ball
The Haskell Golf Ball. Source.

Haskell’s design which featured a solid rubber core, a threaded rubber outer layer, and a balata sap still forms the basis of modern-day golf ball designs. The balata sap cover was replaced with a Surlyn cover in the 1960s and the rubber thread layered is now a solid layer. 

Modern Golf Balls 

To this day golf ball designs still follow a similar formula to Haskell’s rubber golf ball design. Modern golf balls feature a variety of different designs in terms of construction, core, cover, and dimples. 

Entry-level golf balls feature a core and 1 or 2 additional layers and these golf balls are known as 2 or 3 piece golf balls. 2 and 3 piece golf balls tend to be lower compression golf balls and these golf balls are best suited for beginners, high handicappers, and players with below average swing speeds. 

The 4 and 5 piece golf balls feature more complex designs. These premium golf balls are high compression golf balls that promote high ball speeds, forgiveness, and feel for players with above-average swing speeds.

Titleist launched the Pro V1 in October 2000 to their sponsored players on the PGA Tour. Billy Andrade won that week playing with the Pro V1 and since then the Pro V1 continues to be the golf ball of choice for the majority of professional players around the world. 

To learn more about the story of the Titleist Pro V1 watch this video. 

Titleist Pro V1
The Titleist Pro V1.

Conforming Golf Balls

When it comes to golf ball designs manufacturers have free rain in terms of design features, the Rules of Golf do however have set standards that all legal golf balls need to conform to. These standards include that a golf ball cannot be smaller than 1.680 inches in diameter and the weight of the golf ball can’t exceed 1.620 ounces. Additionally, all conforming golf balls need to be spherically symmetrical. 

Final Thoughts 

There is no doubt that the history of the golf ball is fascinating and it is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to play with a feathered stuffed leather golf ball. The golf equipment industry as a whole continues to evolve year after year and the continuous evolution of the golf ball will be fascinating over the next 5 – 10 years given the ongoing distance debate. 

This article was last updated on January 26, 2021 .

Bertine Strauss
Written by
Bertine Strauss
The Golf Blog