fueling the fairway

That little white plastic ball that you knock around the course on a sunny morning: it’s a dimpled symbol of rewarding relaxation and a cursed talisman of frustration. The golf ball is the great equalizer of the links. Slice or hook or right down the middle (or sometimes with a splash), it’s one crucial piece of equipment that that doesn’t really vary that much from pros to duffers. All those birdies and triple-bogies are made possible with petroleum, so let’s take a look at the history golf ball.


Va Wooden Ball3
  • There’s all kinds of speculation and mythology about the beginnings of the game. Some say it was Roman. Some say Dutch. But from the early days of golf in 14th century Scotland, the ball they played with was carved out of beech wood. Carpenters would actually make them by hand. The good part: people could play a fancy new sport we now know of as “golf.” The bad: as you can probably imagine, these things didn’t exactly handle like a dream.
Va Leather Ball3
  • Moving forward to the 1600s, an improvement was made with the “featherie.” These were leather satchels filled with goose feathers. It was a huge step in “technology,” but unfortunately, they were difficult to make and behaved differently when wet. There was even a particular golf ball maker who managed to get a 21-year monopoly on the right to make them. Crazy, right? Every ball that wasn’t stamped with the official bench mark was confiscated. Even with those considerable downfalls, the “featherie” was pretty much the standard for the next 300 years.
Va Gutta Ball3
  • Back in the middle of the 19th century, there were only about 20 golf courses in the world — the average joe couldn’t just walk into a store and buy a “featherie.” So a young fella named Robert Paterson figured out that if you heat up the sap from an exotic Malaysian tree and mold it into a ball, you could actually mass manufacture a golf ball. This was called the “gutta-percha ball” or “guttie” and it blew minds. Because of the significantly lower cost of production, this invention turned golf from a pastime of wealthy Brits to an international phenomenon. 
Va Rubber Ball3
  • Then in the 1890-something, a visitor to the B.F. Goodrich plant wound up a bunch of rubber bands into a ball and bounced it off the ground. A lightbulb went off when he realized that it had crazy energy. He and his golf buddy at Goodrich worked to perfect the invention by coating it with balata tree sap for durability. There were all kinds of innovative improvements over the years, like dimple patterns and experimental core materials, but the petroleum-based rubber-wound ball reigned the links for the next 60 plus years. 
Va Modern Ball3
  • The modern ball that pros and not-pros use today was born out of the weirdness of the 1970s when researchers invented a petroleum-based polymer called polybutadiene. They learned that a solid rubber core with a dimpled thermoplastic cover hit the dream of distance right down the middle, while still being even more affordable to manufacture. While the recipe has been improved over the years — three-piece, four-piece, five-piece, etc — it’s still used as the elastic core in almost all golf balls today.
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