Like most sporting equipment, the modern day golf ball has come a long way.
In order to truly appreciate the present day golf ball - and all of the subtle and almost imperceptible ways it improves each of your shots - let’s take a quick look at the history of how golf balls were made.
Early Golf Ball Designs
It’s believed that the small wooden balls archaeologists have uncovered over the years date back to the 1300’s and were the earliest forms of golf balls.
The balls were made from hardwood and were likely used in sports other than golf at that time, however, it is widely agreed upon that a stick-and-ball game played with the similar objective of hitting the round hard balls into a hole was being played at that time.
If you’ve ever hit a baseball in the wrong part of the bat and felt the jarring thud in your hands and forearms, you can probably imagine what it was like to the hard wood balls we mentioned above.
Given the obvious incentive to innovate, the next iteration of the golf ball came around the 15th century and was made from small leather pouches stuffed with boiled chicken or goose feathers - hence the name, featheries.
These balls were then painted white and sold for what would be approximately $20 a piece today!
While featheries were certainly an improvement to the hard wood balls used before, they were awful to play with when they got wet, fell apart relatively easily and cost too much for the average person to use.
Fast-forward to the early to mid 1800’s and a new approach to making golf balls was born. Made from the dried sap of the Malaysian sapodilla or gutta percha tree - the next evolution of the golf ball - referred to as a guttie - solved many of these issues.
Gutties were much cheaper to make (pouring sap into a mold), flew further thanks to the rubber consistency (something we’ll discuss in modern golf balls) and could be easily reformed if they got too dinged up.
However, it would soon be discovered these ‘dings’ were actually a good thing for the trajectory of the golf ball and were in fact the inspiration for what is now the modern day golf ball dimple.
Rubber band ball
Then, in the late 1800’s Coburn Haskell and his golfing buddy Bertram Work stumbled upon an idea that would launch the golf ball into the modern era of synthetic materials.
Work was an employee of the tire manufacturer B.F. Goodrich. One day, while Haskell was waiting for Work he picked up some rubber thread, wound it into a ball, bounced it on the floor and it almost hit the roof - and in that moment the idea for a rubber-cored golf ball was born and is still used to this day.
What Are Golf Balls Made With?
Following in the footsteps of the Haskell/Work rubber band core, today’s golf balls are still made with rubber cores, they’re just a little more evolved.
Modern golf balls use a high speed molded core made of butadiene rubber, which is then shaped into the exact spherical size required to fit inside the ball.
The rubber core is then surrounded in most cases with one or multiple additional layers called mantles. The word mantle is derived from the same term used to describe the different layers under another popular spherical object's surface - The Earth.
Mantles are typically made from either rubber or plastic and are there to help control ball spin and can also provide additional ‘action’ on the ball, providing a more explosive clubhead connection and therefore, more distance. There can be anywhere from 1 to 3 mantles in any given ball.
Finally, there is the shiny dimpled exterior that encases the rubber core and the mantle(s), this is known as golf ball cover.
The cover is made from either one of two synthetic materials: Surlyn or urethane. Surlyn is a thin, rigid and durable plastic resin, while urethane is a softer material that is slightly less durable, but that provides a little more control over the golf ball when it comes to spin.
How are Golf Balls Made?
To begin, a large mass of rubber is cut into rubber plugs (imagine a wine cork made of rubber), which forms the beginning of the rubber core. This rubber plug is then put into an injection mold that forms it into a perfect sphere.
Depending on how many mantles are going to be used, the rubber core is then put into 1 or more mantles using automated equipment that drops the ball into the half-sphere shaped mantle.
Once the mantles have been added, the core + mantles are placed into a previously molded and dimpled bottom half of a ball shell, which is then sealed off by the top half of the shell, forming the full ball.
After the ball has been formed, it is then painted (usually white, but nowadays they come in every colour of the rainbow!) and stamped with a logo and a number.
Finally, the ball is given a last coat of gloss to ensure all of the stamped printing stays on) and to go give it that eye-catching new ball shine!) and then dried, completing the process.
Understanding what your golf ball is made of and the varying effects the different materials used can have on your shots, should provide you a leg up when selecting the right ball to suit your game.