Featheries replace wooden balls
Most historians consider golf as we know it to have developed in the 15th century in Scotland, with shepherds hitting objects around with their crooks. They soon developed clubs and wooden balls to use instead. While a golf ban in 1457 by King James II is the first time golf appears in recorded history, the first golf ball mention is John Daly using a wooden ball in 1550. He was long off the tee with a great short game, but his personal life was a mess. Not really. But what are the odds of another John Daly surfacing in the mists of golf history?
The wooden ball was used for a couple hundred of years until the beginning of the 17th century. A mishit with a modern soft ball stings - thinning a wooden ball must have produced screams. But who would admit it in the days of hand to hand combat, amputated limbs, and surgery without anaesthetics? It's unpredictable flight alone must have caused some to think about a better ball design. But this was not the age of Moore's Law, so innovation limped along.
A new ball finally did appear on the scene in 1618, and comfort was probably a key motivation because soft royalty were now playing golf and not just tough shepherds. It was called a feathery - the name coming from the hatful of goose feathers that were boiled and stuffed into a leather cover. But this name may also have been an attempt by trembling subjects to assure their screaming rulers they had met the challenge of a more playable, forgiving ball, especially since the finished product was still quite hard after drying and painting. They likely anticipated the raised eye brows when they first unveiled their new product.
Fortunately, any concerns quickly disappeared after a test drive. The new ball flew twice as far as a wooden one, and could be hit up to 200 yards. Wow. While the comfort improvement may have been minimal, the better performance was jaw dropping. Greenskeepers must have been sent scrambling. Tiger-proofing was child's play in comparison to feathery-proofing.
Featheries' flaws fuel unrest
A ball with extreme distance and better feel surely had immediate high market demand. And amazing staying power, as the feathery became the standard golf ball for the next 200 hundred years. Apple would kill for that product life cycle. Maybe the real reason product innovation lagged is the manufacturers resisted it. This new high performance ball had a very nice feature - low durability. Besides losing their shape fairly quickly, the ball also fell apart fast in inclement weather. Golfers needed to constantly restock their inventory. There's a reason there are not indestructible tires or shoes.
Also, the balls were labor intensive to produce with expensive raw materials, so they carried a high price tag. In the mid 19th century, this ball cost about $8 a piece in today's dollars, but the average income was only $2,500. So in relative terms, that's about $400 a ball for today's income levels. You would definitely spend more than 5 minutes looking for this ball if you hit it into the woods.
It's not hard to see why the ball makers were happy. But even back then, this was a risky strategy. They were creating a large number of unhappy customers.
Lore moment: Reverent Paterson invents the gutta percha ball
Not surprising, innovation finally came from a place familiar to our modern world - a college campus. One disgruntled golfer was a student at St. Andrews University, Robert Adams Paterson, who was preparing to enter the ministry. It was hard to live across the street from the home of golf on a college student's budget and not be able to play very much. Especially since it wasn't the greens fees that kept him off the course, but being unable to afford ammo. Searching through gorse in off hours looking for strays was a painful, last resort option to be avoided if at all possible. And a future man of the cloth would not stoop to thievery. What else could he use as a ball in the days before synthetic materials?
The inspiration for a new ball came from an unlikely place. When unpacking an idol he had purchased from the Orient, the packing material seemed to hold some promise. It was a rubber-like material that was moldable when heated a bit, and then would nicely harden. He hand rolled some into golf ball size, let sit overnight, and headed out to the course to see how they did. He was on to something. The balls went almost as far as a feathery, and were more accurate and longer lasting. And of course, it was hard to beat the price.
The packing material was gutta percha, a natural latex made from the sap of the Sapodilla family of trees found in tropical areas including the Malay peninsula. Newly introduced to the West, gutta percha became the primary insulator for telegraph wires. It is still widely used in dentistry today as a body-friendly filler. Plastic wood for the mouth.
The first gutta percha balls - gutties - were smooth and black. Players then discovered they flew farther and truer after a few rounds when they had several nicks and cuts, so they started adding these to new balls Later, they were painted white, probably for better visibility, and manufacturers started adding their name.
A final change was adding dimples, which initially were raised instead of the current recessed pattern. Shortly after introduction, gutties were also being produced in molds, either by hand or later by machines, were further improved their consistency and spherical shape.
The Haskell ball of 1898 (below) marked the end of the solid gutta percha ball fifty years after its introduction. This ball had a rubber thread wound around a solid rubber core with a gutta percha cover. Distance was its key selling point - it flew twenty yards farther than a guttie. The arms race continues to our day. The modern solid core ball replaced the wound ball around the turn of the 21st century, dashing the fun all kids had in opening a ball and throwing it around to unwind the rubber thread strung around the center. And also the thrill and fear of opening the then liquid filled core, which would either explode or contained poison, two prevalent but untrue myths.
Why golf balls fly farther with dimples seems counterintuitive. Shouldn't a smooth ball be able to cut through the air better and go farther? As seen below, a smooth ball does cut through the air better, but this creates a larger wake behind it, which increases drag. The higher friction caused by the dimples actually holds the air on to the ball for a little longer, which creates a smaller wake and less drag. This effect is much larger than the higher initial resistance caused by the dimples. Still seems odd. And likely a guess - no one really knows why an airplane flies either. Forget this before every flight, however.
One question is how did golf come to adopt the guttie? As a religion student, Robert likely shared his new ball with all comers, and did not think about protecting his idea or creating a business. This wasn't his skill set or his inclination. He at least secured credit for his new ball if not any of the profits.
A remaining question is why did Bob buy an idol? This required great effort in the days before Cyber Monday. Perhaps he wanted to make a splash with a visual aid for his comparative religion class, or maybe the frat house was looking a little bare. He may have been searching and going through a period of doubt as he was about to commit his life to religious service. Or maybe he simply felt inspired to buy it, and followed this feeling even though it made no logical sense to him. Perhaps heaven knew he was the type who would follow such a odd, out-of-place thought, and therefore crafted the path for him to end up in St. Andrews in the first place. But this then begs a more puzzling question - do the heavens really care about golf? Are they that involved in the details of life, and in the seemingly meaningless details like a leisure activity?