John Renslow
Golf Columnist

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January 23, 2014
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Renslow: Story behind the ball


Feathers stuffed into a small leather pouch — what would you do with that?

Sounds a lot like an original hacky sack. Let’s play golf with it, right?

As you may know, no one really knows when the game of golf began. But we do know that rules and format were set in place on the Scottish coast about four hundred years ago. The world’s first golf course design in St. Andrews, Scotland has been played longer than that. Still enjoyed today, it doesn’t get older. It gets better.

Literally, wooden sticks were used as golf clubs and the holes were simply that; holes in the ground.

So where do you buy a ball in the 18th century? Big 5 Sporting Goods wasn’t even Big 1 back then. Essentially, you have to do it yourself. Or maybe the shoe maker or the blacksmith can put something together for you.

They would fulfill your request by taking a scrap of leather about a 5-inch square and create a hollow shell. Next, we accumulate enough goose feathers to fill a top hat. Think about that — a sphere, no larger than a couple of inches in diameter when molded, will hold the volume of a hat you might see on Gilligan.

The material is soaked in water to make a pliable, packable product. Using a narrow pointer, through a small hole in the leather pouch the wet feathers are inserted until it can hold no more. Let them dry and the ball is ready for play. These handmade items are still known today as a “feathery.”

This, of course, was very time consuming and was relatively expensive, yet continued to be the ball of choice until a package arrived.

The box contained a packing material, which included small shapes made from a type of tree sap. Some clever guy realized that these durable little orbs could be used as golf balls and started to produce them.

While warm, the tree gum was shaped into round balls, nearly as good as a machine could make.

A problem was discovered soon after. The darn things won’t fly. Interesting that if you hit a perfectly round ball, it will stay in the air for a short distance and dive to the ground. The players abandoned the ball quickly and gave them to their caddies.

The caddies weren’t picky, so they gave the balls a chance or simply didn’t care as long as they had something to play with. After a number of swings, something unique happened to every ball. Rocks, trees, earth, and the club itself would cause scuffs and scratches. The ball began to fly.

Just like the seams on the baseball, which allow baseball pitchers to throw curve balls, the scuffs on this new “Gutta Percha” ball created drag and sent the ball up in the air. Now the little orbs were produced with scratches by design. Enter the era of the “gutty.”

Golf has many microcosms of life. From this instance we remember — it is often the rough spots that shape us into improving ourselves and becoming better people.

During the industrial revolution and well into the 20th century, golf balls were made much like baseballs. Little rubber balls, wrapped with bands or twine and finished with a durable plastic cover. Yet it was still a simple product without significant variation.

Today, virtually all golf balls are made with an inner core and an outer cover. Dimple designs (the modern day scratches), exotic materials, multiple cores, thickness of covers and more, has allowed manufacturers to develop numerous golf ball types to fit your game.

John Renslow is general manager and director of golf at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at jrenslow@pga.com.


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The Union Updated Jan 23, 2014 12:14AM Published Jan 23, 2014 12:10AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.