Prior to about 1850, golf balls were made out of bullhide and stuffed with goose feathers. After the balls were packed, the leather was sewn together with wax thread. These original feather balls had very limited elasticity and were incredibly expensive to make.
In fact, it took ball makers hours to stuff each ball—a talented crafter could make just three or four in a day—and a single feather ball cost about the same as an entire set of clubs. Yet feather balls were so weak that players couldn’t use iron clubs on them because they would burst the ball’s cover, ruining an expensive investment.
In 1848, solid balls made of a hardened sap called gutta percha became the norm. This was a vital moment for the game of golf, since balls could suddenly be produced quickly and cheaply. By eliminating the outrageous economic burden of feather balls, the game could now spread to the masses. Not coincidentally, in 1860 the first Open Championship was played at Prestwick in Scotland.
Interestingly, new gutta-percha balls had very inconsistent flight paths, so players would let their caddies knock them around a bit—they flew straighter after a bit of wear and tear.
The Eclipse by William Currie & Co. of Edinburgh and the Helsby by the Telegraph Manufacturing Company are just two of the Scottish brands and makers of the day.
In the United States, William Leslie of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made “gutties,” as gutta-percha balls were known, at the beginning of the 20th century. However it was also around that time that gutta perchas were replaced by rubber-core (also called “rubber-wound” and “wound” by collectors) balls.
Coburn Haskell of Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the first companies to promote rubber-core balls. People would even have these balls recovered—Haskells that have been recovered bea...
Rubber-core balls are still used today, though the patterns on their outsides have varied. Prior to World War I, you could find balls with ringed patterns and dimples in all sorts of shapes. Some of the more creative designs included a Henley ball from 1915, whose triple-line latticework resembled the British Union Jack.
By the 1930s, the round dimple pattern became the prevailing ball design—balls from the ’30s-on tend to be less desirable to collectors. Still, until World War II broke out, players could find balls with other patterns, such as the flashy Burbank ball made by Stowe-Woodward Inc. of Massachusetts, which had a sleek, curvy design.
In general, the first half of the 20th century was an important period for golf. During World War I, the game was depressed, especially in its home country of the United Kingdom, which was engulfed in war. But in the 1920s, golf spread like wildfire, thanks in part to stars such as Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, and Tommy Armour.
Some ball makers such as the Worthington Company of Elyria, Ohio, got some of these stars to sponsor their balls. In the ’30s, Worthington released Tommy Armour golf balls named after the three-time major champion.
In the past 60 or so years, golf balls have become less interesting as collectibles. However, because of technological advances, there are some highly collected balls out there. One style that has come to prominence is the personalized golf ball. These balls, which have facsimile signatures and were often used by famous people such as George H. W. Bush or Spiro T. Agnew, are desired by many collectors. Similarly, famous golf courses and legendary tournaments have imprinted their insignias and logos on balls, which are collected as souvenirs.
Another area of ball collecting that has expanded is the game-used ball, as well as ones autographed by famous golfers such as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. And some of the hottest collectibles in golf right now are two-tone golf balls that Ping used to produce.