The Golf Ball Has Always Driven Equipment Innovations

In Part 1 of the series about the evolution of golf we traced the game’s roots back to Egypt over 4,600 years ago.

The evolution of golf equipment has had a huge impact on the growth of the game. During the 15th century the earliest players used primitive wooden clubs to smash peebles around the sand dunes along the coast of Scotland. Eventually equipment innovations allowed the game to evolve into the sport we now recognize as modern golf.

A wooden ball replaced pebbles, but it inflicted harsh treatment upon them clubs of the era. The new ball was also limited to less than 100 yards. An alternative ball used at about the same time, known as the “Hairy”, is thought to be more controllable and to increase distance up to about 150 yards.

By the start of the 16th century golf clubs were being made by bowmakers because strong woods, such as the Scottish Beech, were capable of withstanding the damage caused by the wooden ball better. Even with the stronger woods being used, it was still commonplace for clubs to become damaged during a round and that would necessitate costly repairs.

Then in 1618 the wooden golf ball was replaced by a golf ball known as the featherie. This new ball was hand sewn and had a leather outer casing which was stuffed with goose or chicken feathers. The featherie was considered state of the art for the next 230 years. A problem with the ball was that if it would start to fall apart if it became wet which was often unavoidable in Scotland’s rainy climate.

Another early innovation was the design of the early clubs which featured three parts; the club head, shaft, and a splint. The club heads were long and thin and earned the nickname “long noses”. The club heads were hand-made from tougher woods such as Apple, Beech, Holly, and Pear. The early shafts were made out of either ash or hazel wood. Meanwhile, the club head was tightly bound to the shaft by using leather strips.

After golf was introduced to the United States in the late 18th Century, hickory wood began being exported from America to Scotland. By 1825 Scottish club builder Robert Forgan of St. Andrews began building clubs using hickory shafts which proved to be far more durable than its’ predecessors. For the next 100 years hickory shafts would become the preferred shaft used for golf clubs.

The golf ball truly began to truly evolve in 1848 with the introduction of the Gutta-Percha ball by Reverend Adam Patterson. The rubber ball was made using the sap of the Gutta Tree and was more durable and considerably less expensive than the featherie.

In the late 17th century blacksmiths had begun producing iron headed clubs, but the featherie ball would be quickly damaged by iron headed clubs. The introduction of the harder ball ushered in a new era of club design as iron headed clubs became popular. The two innovations served to make the game considerably less expensive to play.

As a direct result of the advancement in the new golf ball, blugers replaced long noses as the preferred driving club. The bludger featured a large bulbous head similar to modern drivers. The club was designed to withstand the impact of the harder ball when players made powerful swings.

By the 1890’s club builders started using Persimmon Wood which gave player’s unmatched feel when the player hit the sweet spot. Once a player found a driver that matched their swing they typically used it for decades. Unfortunately, slightly off center hits with the Persimmon Woods resulted in a significant loss of distance and control.

In 1898 Coburn Haskell introduced a smooth one-piece rubber wound core design ball that allowed players to hit the ball much farther. The ball performed much better than the Gutta-Percha ball and was made much like modern golf balls The Haskell ball was also less expensive to make.

Soon players discovered that balls that had been scuffed during play actually went farther than new balls. Bumps were introduced to increase the ball’s playability, but by 1905 golf ball manufacturer, William Taylor, introduced dimples and the modern golf ball began to take form. At about the same time, golf club manufacturers began to add grooves to clubs to help create backspin and increase distance. It is reported that professionals were able to hit the Haskell ball to distances approaching 430 yards.

Bobby Jones later described the development of the Haskell ball and the dimple pattern as the most important development in golf during his lifetime.

The next major innovation was the introduction of steel shafts in 1925. Clubmakers quickly realized that steel shafts allowed them to build matched sets of clubs that offered a uniform feel. Another major advantage of steel shafts was that they were much more durable than hickory shafts which often would break during a round. By the mid 1930’s steel shafts had replaced hickory shafts as the standard.

Innovations in the golf ball have lead to modern ball and club designs that we see in the 21st Century. In Part 3 of this series modern ball and club designs will be discussed that allow golfers to hit the ball farther and straighter than ever before.

By Rich O’Brien