Gutty golf ball
Gutty golf ball 1896
Diameter 4,3 cm
Weight 42,5 g
When the ballmaker of St Andrews, Allan Robertson, beheld his first gutta percha golf ball in 1848, he was so alarmed at this threat to his profits from featheries that he bought up every sample he could find and set fire to them. The sight of his apprentice Tom Morris playing with one filled him with equal fury.
But there could be no turning back.
Originally extracted from a Malaysian gum tree, samples of the sap known as gutta percha first arrived in Britain via Singapore in 1843. Soon it was being used to insulate telegraph wires.
Early gutta percha golf balls were formed by winding softened strips of the material into a ball which was then heated, pressed into a solid sphere and dropped into cold water to harden. But the new balls did not travel as far as a feathery – on average 170-200 yards comared with 200-220 yards – and had a tendency to split.
Only in the 1870s, after extensive trails, was a more suitable composite of gutta percha and vulcanised rubber perfected by the Caledonian Rubber Works in Edinburgh. Known as the ‘gutty’, this improved type of golf ball would go on to be produced by some 40 companies all over Britain. This one, a Melfort Machine gutty, was made by the WT Heneley’s Tyre & Rubber Co. of London.
Not its surface pattern. The first gutta percha balls were perfectly smooth. However golfers soon noted how balls’ aerodynamics improved once they became nicked. Thus began a series of further trails; first, grooves were hammered by hand, then by machine-cutters. Finally the patterns were formed by mouldings, with each company touting their own designs as the best.
Far more affordable than the feathery, the gutty transformed golf. In 1859, 35 British golf clubs were listed. By 1895 there were 959. By 1901, it has further been estimated, there were 20 million gutty balls in Britain alone. And yet, as we shall discover, like the feathery too were about to be rendered obsolete…