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Feathers And Rubber Bands: A Golf Ball Story

A 1903 rubber core golf ball, on display at Christie's auction house in London.
Sang Tan
A 1903 rubber core golf ball, on display at Christie's auction house in London.

If you're Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy teeing off in the final rounds of the 2012 PGA Championship this weekend, you're probably not thinking about the fascinating history of the golf ball. But those of us who are just spectating can take a moment to contemplate this little gem of modern engineering. From wood to feathers to tree sap, rubber bands, cork or compressed air — today's little white spheroid has had an interesting evolution.

Back in the mist of history, the game of golf was played with balls carved from hardwood. The "featherie," introduced in the early 1600s, was the real beginning of the golf ball that we recognize. Made of wet leather stuffed with wet feathers, it was a hard, durable ball because the leather contracted as it dried, but the feathers expanded. One drawback: If a featherie got wet, it was ruined, so you had to watch out for water hazards. Handcrafted featheries were expensive, but they were in use for more than 200 years.

The gutta-percha ball, or "guttie," was made from the sap of certain tropical trees and was introduced in 1848. Gutties were mass-produced, making them considerably cheaper than featheries and opening the game to nonwealthy players. The early gutties were smooth-surfaced, but golfers noticed that balls with nicks and scratches tended to fly farther, so soon a variety of dimples and other patterns began to appear. For many years, the bramble design, with inverted dimples that made the ball look like a raspberry, was popular.

Fifty years later, a ball was developed that had a solid rubber core wound with rubber thread and a gutta-percha cover; it was resilient and became the norm. Other experimenters developed balls with a core of mercury, cork or metal.

Then there was the "pneumatic" type, with a center of compressed air. Unfortunately, those had a tendency to explode in hot weather, but that didn't stop one player from winning a 1905 tournament using a pneumatic ball.

Modern golf balls use new materials — polymers, silicone, synthetic rubber — to optimize the aerodynamics and get better distance and spin ratios.

So next time you're on the links, marvel at the science and technology that created the ball you're hitting — even if your drive still slices deep into the trees.

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