Golf balls were made as far back as the 14th century, but they were made by carpenters, out of wood, and were never completely round, meaning their games of golf must have been a bit hit and miss. We can trace the first solid golf ball all the way back to 1452, but it was the feather golf ball variant – also known as the ‘featherie’ – that wouldn’t come along until the early 17th century.
The featherie was a delightful invention, being a small, stitched feather sack stuffed to the gills with the feathers of a boiled bird (probably goose). You might be thinking, ‘That’s a lot of effort for a golf ball’, and you’d be right. Featheries took so long to make, and they also had the drawbacks of not being fully round and being heavier when wet. This meant that only the fanciest of folk could use a featherie, because they were rich enough not to care that their golf balls were tiny pillows.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that we got our first molded golf balls. Robert Adams Paterson was a Scottish clergyman, and a poor man who couldn’t afford the expensive balls his pals at the University of St Andrew were using for golf. Paterson ended up discovering that the sap from a sapodilla tree (native to Malaysia) could be warmed and placed into a round mold, where it would dry and form a small, hard sphere. These golf balls were called ‘gutties’, and not only could they be mass-produced, but they could be reshaped if they ever got all banged up during an aggressive game of golf.
As it turns out, getting these golf balls banged up is exactly what you needed to. People realised that a dented guttie, as opposed to a new one, was actually better at keeping stable flight during a golf round. This caused golf manufacturers to start carving different textures into golf balls, trying to find out what made for the most consistent flight path. That’s how we settled on the dimpled, pitted surface we’re all familiar with today.
And that’s the history of the golf ball!
Words by Quinn Clark
Research by Stephanie Crowe
Illustration by Noni Farragher-Hanks