Featherie or Gutty?

June 30, 2016

If you are a true student of the game of golf, you already know where I am headed with the headline for my column. But for the uninformed novice golfer, let’s return to the basics. Each time you tee up your golf ball (depending on how frugal you are), each ball may cost between 95 cents up to, let’s say, $2.00 or more per sphere. Someone recently asked me on the first tee, “What ball are you hitting?” Without missing a beat, I responded, “Whatever is on sale.” I wasn’t trying to be a smart alec, but I can lose an X-Out just as easy as a $2.00 Titleist.

That being said, it brings me back to the creation of the first golf ball and dealing with the Scots, their whiskey and love of kilts; I use the term ball loosely. The Scots get credit for inventing the game of golf, which most historians believe started in the 1500s, using a carved tree branch and a rounded stone, small animal skull or wooden shaped ball, made from the beach or yew tree. (Sidebar-they also get credit for inventing the golf hole.)

Each hand-carved, wooden ball was a labor-intensive task and in today’s economy would cost in the range of $10-$12 per ball! (Sidebar-the good news was they would float back to you in a water hazard.) The wooden ball dominated the golf world from the 15 century to the 17th century, when the featherie ball was invented by an aspiring entrepreneur whose name is lost to history, but saw a fast way to make a pound or two on the new technology.

They started with a top hat filled with boiled feathers (Scottish measurement), then stuffed the wet feathers into a small, wet leather pouch which was then sewn shut, pounded into a round shape and finally painted. The ball was hard as a rock. The secret technology came from the laws of physics, which said, “over a period of a day, the feathers expanded and the wet leather contracted and with a paint job, you now had a ball, which would not float but was still hard as a rock.” (Sidebar- since rock-hard balls didn’t float; the unknown entrepreneur now had a cash cow business.)

As technology grew, some featheries were given three coats of paint, but most featherie makers could only produce three or four ball a day and in today’s market, the price per ball would be the range of $20-$30. Since the wealthy were the only people who could afford to play golf with a $30 ball, it became a status symbol to show off your balls to any peasants who caddied for you or happened by the golf course.

This all changed in 1848 when Robert Paterson invented the gutty ball and opened up the door for the poor and middle class to play golf. In laymen’s terms, Paterson used a form of resin from the Gutta trees in Malaysia to heat and compress the rubber substance into a sphere. It was cost effective, more durable and water resistant, but the big advantage was your ball could be reheated, reshaped, repaired and reused numerous times. But a strange thing happened, and it didn’t take long for the Scots to realize that a roughed up gutty ball flew straighter and longer than a brand new one! So guess what, they started making a textured cover for the gutty ball and the new era of golf followed.

In 1898, Coburn Haskell invented his namesake ball when he teamed with the BF Goodrich Company to make a solid core rubber ball, wrapped with rubber thread and a textured Gutta cover. Today, as you know, when you venture into any golf store, there are dozens of brand-name ball manufacturers claiming to have the best ball for your game.

19th Hole Trivia

• In 1637, featherie balls were so valuable that a young boy was hanged in a public square when he stole balls from a wealthy golfer.

• The Titleist golf ball company was started in a dentist office in 1932. Phil Young, an owner of a rubber-parts company and his dentist golf partner were frustrated with the erratic flight of a popular brand of golf ball they each used. After X-raying about a dozen balls in the dentist office, they discovered each one had a different size core and were asymmetrical, which affected true flight. Young and his engineers soon developed a symmetrical core ball with a dimpled cover. Thus was the Titleist Golf Ball Company born.

• Some historians give Allan Robertson the credit for inventing the featherie.

• Modern day golf balls can have from 250-400 dimples on each ball.

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