Golf Balls Put Ace Collectors in the Green
Tiger Woods made forty million dollars a few weeks ago by turning pro and lending his name to Nike and Titleist products. You can well imagine that a sport referring to itself as "the Royal and Ancient Game," one with posh country clubs worldwide, and one where sponsors are prepared to wager forty million bucks on the promise of a gifted 20 year old is also a sport that attracts wealthy collectors of its history.
Golf is indeed, an ancient sport. In the Roman Empire a similar game, pagancia, was played with a feather-stuffed ball and bent sticks. Scottish parliament noted with some concern in March, 1457, that people were neglecting archery for it. In 1491, Scotland's King James IV, was so upset with his subjects wasting time in the pastures he decreed, "In na place of the realme there be usit futeball, golfe or othr sik unprofitabill sportis." The King, of course, continued playing golf as evidenced by golf balls being entered into his accounts by the high treasurer in 1503. Early American mention is made in an advertisement that appeared in the April 21, 1779 edition of Rivington New York's Royal Gazette: "To the Golf Players. The season for this pleasant and healthy exercise now advancing. Gentlemen may be furnished with excellent CLUBS and the veritable Caledonian(Scottish town) BALLS by enqiring at the Printers."
If by chance one of your ancestors responded to that 1779 ad, and one of those old golf balls is still hanging around, count your blessings. Prior to 1848, golf balls were made of three pieces of thin softened leather, usually untanned bull's hide. The two round ends and middle strip were sewn together tight with wax linen thread leaving only a small hole that served two purposes. The first was to hide the stitching seams by turning the ball outside in(balls with exposed stitches like a baseball are probably not golf balls), the second was stuffing. Feathers, the recipe called for as many as a tall hat would hold, were stuffed soggy through the hole into the dampened leather shell. The drying of the expanding wet feathers combined with the contracting leather resulted in a ball so compressed it could be driven 200 yards. Most authentic balls found today will still be hard. "Feather" balls were normally painted white, some where painted red for playing in snow. Making these first class balls was both and art and a science. A skilled worker could only produce three or four a day. Feather balls made after 1820 were often marked with the stamp of the ballmaker and numbered by hand with their weight in drams. Although hundreds of thousands of feather balls were made, they are scarce today. A single ball can be worth $1,000 to $12,000 and more depending upon condition and markings.
In 1848 the "guttie", a ball of solid gutta percha, hard rubber made from the sap of a percha tree, supplanted feather balls. They were a tenth the price and more durable, especially in wet weather. The first of these balls were smooth and twisted in flight. Golfers soon discovered the aerodynamics that caused nicked balls to fly truer and they began marking and scratching their smooth surface golf balls. These earlier gutties can be as valuable as feather balls. By 1870, all balls were manufactured with dimples or recessed markings that are collected for their variances today. In 1898 a rubber core ball similar to today's balls supplanted the guttie.
Balls like all golfing antiques come in thousands of varieties. Every time something new is invented, something old becomes antique.