While it might seem rather odd to imagine golf balls other than through how they look in their present incarnation, the truth is the appearance of the golf ball has changed considerably over the long history of the sport. The golf ball did not exist then as it is now just like the sport, it is in continual development.
Its evolution can be traced along the parallel evolution in technology, as well as in the discovery of new material for use in manufacturing.
The earliest golf balls were round, hard, and wooden. These wooden golf balls were used as early as the 14th century until they went out of vogue in the 17th century. Mostly made out of beech wood, these were made just by carpenters, using the equipment, material, and woodcraft technologies available back in those days. These were relatively cheap and quick to produce, as compared to the next type.
The feathery (also spelled featherie) was the immediate successor to the wooden golf balls used during the early days of the sport. The feathery became the standard ball of the sport, being widely used until the 19th century. This variant is made of a pouch sewn by hand then stuffed with boiled and softened goose or chicken feathers. The rule of thumb for sufficient stuffing is to boil as many feathers as will fit into a top hat.
Several difficulties arose with the design of the feathery. Because of its material, it is difficult to craft a perfectly spherical ball thus, ball trajectories could be highly irregular, meaning players have less control. It was also impractical to use during the wetter seasons since the feather stuffing soaks in water. This increases the weight of the ball and makes it prone to splitting open. The feathery was also painstaking to craft.
Unlike wooden balls which only required carpenters, the feathery was created only by specialized ball makers. Because of the time-consuming process, ball makers only managed to make a few of these in a day. This drove the price of the feathery even higher.
The next variant came in 1848, when the gutta-percha ball, also called the guttie or gutty, was invented. The gutty is made by heating dried tree sap and molding it into a sphere. This made the gutty inexpensive in terms of production. It can also be remolded when damaged. Another advantage was that the gutty ages well. Over continued usage, the gutty will sustain some damage in the form of nicks, but it has been found that these nicks actually improve the performance of the ball. Ever since that discovery, manufacturers began intentionally marking textured patterns on the gutty.
The next development in the field was in 1898 when the rubber Haskell golf ball was invented. This specific variant is made by wounding rubber thread on an encased-liquid or solid core. This soon evolved into the golf balls of the 20th century which are characterized by the addition of a soft or hard outer shell in the design. The shell was first made of sap from the balata tree.
In the latter half of the 90s, many manufacturers also experimented with different materials. It was during that time that balls made from synthetic resins and mixes of urethane were first used. In the decades that followed, more and more ball makers experimented with the different materials, even allowing ball customization. This customization lets players choose what material to use for the different parts of the golf ball so as to make it suit specific playing styles. The perfect mix could easily offset your weaknesses and enhance your existing strengths in terms of play.
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