The great golf ball scandal of the early 20th century – The Property Chronicle
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The great golf ball scandal of the early 20th century

Golden Oldie

Close-up of golf ball with club during sunset

ARTICLE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SPRING 2019

Slammed as a device of weak-wristed cads, a new ball managed to take over the entire sport within a few years

Sports change – rules are modified, equipment is improved,  and skills are developed. Usually such change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Sometimes, however, the transformation is more dramatic, as in the introduction of the rubber-cored ball into British golf at the beginning of the 20th century.

Golf had originally been played with balls made from feathers, but these had been replaced in the late 19th century by ones manufactured from gutta-percha (a rubber-like polymer from tropical trees) that were both less expensive and easier to repair. At the turn of the century, the gutties were challenged by the Haskell, a rubber-cored ball named after its American inventor Coburn Haskell, a cycle manufacturer and dilettante sportsman, who patented the idea in 1898. 

The new ball was created by winding elastic thread tightly around a central core and then compressing it within a protective cover. Its built-in elasticity offered golfers greater distance both off the tee and on the fairway. Additionally the new ball was also easier to play out of a bad lie because of its tendency to rise. 

Forget that it was twice as expensive as the gutty and that it was harder to control on and near the greens: to the average club golfer this was wonderful news. 

Traditionalists voiced their protest. The new ball would effectively shorten holes and ruin the layout of courses. In the words of a staunch opponent, elite amateur player John Low, “it was a man’s job to drive a gutta-percha ball the requisite 180 yards; a lad may easily do it now.” 

In his opinion, the renowned and challenging links of “St Andrews had become an ideal course for the second-rate player … Formerly the greens could only be conquered by long driving, but now the holes are within the compass of infirm old gentlemen.” 

Opponents of the innovation called the new ball ‘bounding Billy’, because of the extra run that it gained from its elasticity, and those who played with it were, by inference, ‘bounders’, complete with the social implications that the word carried. 

It was the professional players who formed the real resistance group. They had honed their skills on the old type of ball. More than that, they felt that the new ball would undermine their income from the ‘pro shop’ – it lasted longer and did less damage to clubs, thus reducing the demand for repairs, and, unlike the gutty, could not be made or repaired in the club shop. Yet these same professionals were not averse to taking advantage of the excess demand for the rubber-cored ball in the early days and charged their customers high mark-ups. 

In any event, as the Scotsman proclaimed, “nothing that the professionals can do will hinder the great body of amateur golfers from buying that ball which gives the greatest pleasure, be it rubber-filled, or anything you like.” Those golfers who wished to lower their scores bought the new ball.

J. H. Taylor, foundation president of the PGA, maintained that 1902 was the “critical year that saw the end of the gutty’s long and honourable reign”. In the early months of that year, the manufacturers of gutties continued to bring out new versions of their balls, but late spring and summer cast the die for the gutty’s fate. In the final of the Amateur Championship on May Day, both the winner, Charles Hutchings, and the losing finalist, Sydney Fry, played with Haskells – and then, in June, professional Sandy Herd won the Open in June with a rubber-cored ball. Most amateurs quickly decided that the rubber-cored ball was their preferred option.






Golden Oldie

About Wray Vamplew

Wray Vamplew

Wray Vamplew is Emeritus Professor of Sports History at the University of Stirling and Global Professorial Fellow in the Academy of Sport, University of Edinburgh. Currently he is writing Games People Played, a global history of sport for Reaktion Press and is General Editor for Bloomsbury’s six-volume Cultural History of Sport. He can be contacted at wray.vamplew@ed.ac.uk

Articles by Wray Vamplew

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