RENSLOW: A look at how the modern golf ball came to be |

RENSLOW: A look at how the modern golf ball came to be

Today’s news and information will have many object lessons, as I begin to answer an oft asked question — what type of golf ball should I play?

First, let’s take a short walk down a historical road. We’ll start by obtaining enough goose feathers to loosely fill a medium sized vase. Okay, before you go ripping up our favorite pillow, we’ll just use our imagination for this one.

Go find a ‘hacky-sack’ (you know those little bean filled balls, about two inches in diameter, that the kids kick around) and release the threading just enough so the filling pours out. You now have a small leather casing formerly known as a ball.

Next, take the feathers and insert all of them into the leather casing. By the way, it helps if you get them wet first. This will help the feathers to cling together and compress. After sewing up the hole in our casing, give it a coat of white paint. Now, it looks like a ball again and we just need to be patient. As the feathers dry, they expand and the ball becomes very firm. For golfers in the 18th century, this was the golf ball and it was known as a “feathery.”

Just how many of these feathery golf balls could you make in a day? Not to mention the relatively high number of uncomfortably cold geese near the pro shop. It turns out, with only about four feathery balls per day for the average maker and an average of four consumed (by a tear or excessive moisture) per round, golf was too expensive for the average person.

Materials in short supply and a laborious process; there had to be a better way… And there was.

In the 19th century, a man received a box that was packaged with a natural material similar to rubber. The material was pliable in warm (boiling) temperatures and cooled to a solid, non-brittle state. This guy must have been a golf fanatic to make the jump from packing material to golf balls. You have to love this guy!

A Malaysian tree produced this gummy substance known as “Gutta percha.” It was warmed, rolled into balls, and upon assuming room temperature would become firm. These less costly “gutty” golf balls were much more durable and invited the middle-class to get out on the course. Interesting that as the gutty was used more often, it performed better. You see, the balls had no dimples like the modern balls do.

Simple, round spheres don’t fly very well. In fact, they tend to fly a short distance and then take a nose dive. After a few rounds, gathering some scratches and scars, the ball would stay in the air longer. So, they started scratching them up on purpose; warm up the gum, roll it into a ball, allow it to cool, and take a hammer to it. This, of course, was the precursor for the dimples we see on golf balls today.

Unfortunately, disintegration was a drawback. The darn things could break apart. That would be depressing, you just hit the shot of your life and your ball does a Humpty Dumpty imitation. The good news is that, according to the rules of the time, you get to play your next shot from the place where the largest fragment landed. No kidding. Can’t you just see these guys searching around for the pieces, like the quest for a lost contact lens? Unbelievable.

Enter the early 20th century golf ball. Principally, the difference was in the construction, but the materials were quite similar. Gutta percha, in fact, was still used for the cover. The addition was rubber. Very tightly wound elastic thread was wrapped around a rubber core and covered with Gutta percha. A player in 1902 could use just one of these wound balls for four consecutive tournament rounds and it became the type of choice.

Ironically, today golf balls have, in some senses, returned to their roots. The ball is essentially a two-part or two-piece construction. There is an inner core and an outer cover. Think of it like an orange; an outer skin or peel, covering an inner body or flesh. However, a veritable smorgasbord of exotic materials has emerged. Twenty-first century technology has developed an array of products that can be used to address many of yesterday’s weaknesses.

Virtually every reasonable option has been pursued and the best findings are now produced. There are different core densities, material composites, cover types, cover thickness (which effects the size of the core) and even various arrangements of dimple patterns or shapes.

So, what kind of ball should you play? To answer that question completely will require another column (and look for this conclusion next week). But suffice to say, the ball that will help you play your best is available.

Between now and then, ask your local golf professional before your next purchase. And, you get to have all the fun by trying several different types until you find your match. Personally, I’m looking for a golf ball that listens. I haven’t found one yet, but heaven knows I still keep talking to it.

John Renslow is a PGA Class A Professional and Instructor at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at

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