Object lesson No. 16

21st April 2000 at 01:00
A confession. I do not like golf. This is because my first boyfriend cast me aside so he could spend more time on the local (cheap and hilly) municipal course. We were just 16 and it was a terrible blow.

Scotland's James II also did not like golf. It didn't break his heart but he wanted it "utterly cryed downe" because it interfered with archery practice. Back in 1457, bows and arrows were all a monarch had to defend his realm. James failed and golf flourished, although my ex might have struggled on those 15th-century courses as the balls were made of wood. For almost 200 years, people persevered with these tree marbles until someone came up with a better idea - small leather sacks filled with boiled feathers. Why was this progress? Because the "featheries" went further - which is, it seems, the main thing in golf.

Unfortunately, the new balls were difficult to make. A craftsman often managed to finish only four in a day. The sack had to be stuffed full of limp feathers, the hole stitched up and the thing hammered into a round shape before being painted white. Featheries were also fragile, tending to fall apart in the rain or if hit too hard. And hey cost five shillings.

In 1850 the "gutta-percha" hit the feathery into the rough. Using the latex from tropical trees, Tom Morris of St Andrew's was able to manufacture balls that cost only a shilling.

The gutty's cheapness won the game many new followers. They didn't mind it being hard and unresponsive and were happy to put up with a slight eccentricity - the gutty would fly through the air with the greatest of ease until it started running out of steam. Then it would dip sharply and unpredictably. The ball's designers scratched their heads.

If you have ever wondered why a modern golf ball isn't egg-shell smooth, the answer lies with the gutty. The dimples that decorate a modern Dunlop or TopFlite were the solution to its irregular flight.

And so the gutty ruled until the early 20th century and the arrival of the Americans. Coburn Haskell and Bertram G Work invented a new ball with a solid rubber core and a rubber thread wound around it. So good was the hit it delivered, such was the sense of power the player received, that the game boomed. Thousands were tempted to tee up. Their other halves just stayed at home and cryed.


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