When Golf Balls Were Made of Feathers and Leather (And Other Wacky Stuff)
Back in golf’s early days, players didn’t exactly have access to today’s precisely engineered, multi-layer, long-driving, dimpled power spheres. Golf ball technology in the 1600s consisted of stuffing wet goose feathers into a stitched leather pouch and hoping it would fly somewhat straight (it didn’t).
These feather-filled leather pouches more closely resembled a tiny beanbag chair than a golf ball. Imagine how well you could compress a beanbag chair with your driver. Now imagine that same dense, bulky object careening off the face of your persimmon wood driver. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
The best part was when your feathery golf ball landed in water hazards, the sopping wet leather would absorb H2O like a sponge. And nothing dries out a leather golf ball faster than whacking it over and over again with wooden clubs. Nothing like hitting a soggy, misshapen golf ball to really bring out the veins in your forehead.
And for winter golf, forget about it. Once the mercury dipped, those leather covers would stiffen up harder than month-old fruitcake left out in the snow. Your only option was dunking the ball in hot water before teeing off just to make it somewhat pliable again. Nothing like scalding your fingers in order to play the Old Course at St Andrews in sleet.
Yet this was the pinnacle of golf ball technology for nearly 250 years! Golfers were perfectly content with their feather balls. That is until 1848, when the gutta-percha golf ball was invented. Made from the rubbery sap of Malaysian sapodilla trees, gutties revolutionized the game. Imagine being able to compress the ball with your irons and generate spin! What sorcery is this?!
Of course, the solid gutta-percha balls still had that whole “landing in water makes them unplayable” issue. So naturally, golfers in the early 1900s moved on to...golf balls filled with cork! Because we all know cork is highly water-resistant. Hit into the creek? No problem, just rinse and keep playing. I mean sure, you’ll have a misshapen, cork-filled version of the Michelin Man, but it’s still better than a waterlogged feather ball.
Eventually ball makers had a moment of divine inspiration – let’s take this newfangled latex rubber and make a ball with a solid rubber core encased in a rubber outer shell. Genius! Now you could put a proper dimple pattern on the ball for longer flights. We’re making history here, folks.
Of course, there were still major complaints about the rubber core not being compressible enough. So what did golf ball makers try next? Liquids of course! Fill the core with gels, oils, corn syrup, salt water - you name it. Nothing adds feel off the clubface like a partially liquid center. It’s like hitting a water balloon, but smaller.
Thank goodness acetal resin came along in the 1970s. Acetal resin allowed for a soft compression on the inner core, while maintaining rigidity on the outer layer. This let ball makers highly refine the dimple patterns for even greater distances. And now we finally have proper golf balls!
Well, until materials scientists come up with the next great golf ball innovation. Maybe quantum metal foam cores surrounded by graphene lattice shells? Or hollow cores filled with dark matter plasma? Who knows what crazy ideas scientists will cook up next.
But for now, be sure to take a moment to appreciate today’s golf balls, made from advanced polymers and exotic materials. And say a little thanks to those previous pioneers stuffing feathers and corks into lopsided leather balls. Every great innovation starts from humble and often hilarious beginnings.
Without those early days of wacky experiments and far-flung concepts, we’d never have the precisely engineered dimpled spheres that we enjoy today. The next time you rocket a 300 yard drive down the middle, take a second to visualize how fun that would be with a soggy feathery ball. Then let out a contented sigh and keep booming those modern marvels!