History of the Ball

FineGolf’s ‘History of the ball controversy’:


FineGolf would like to recognise that this summary article is based on Nick Park’s brilliant series of articles on the history of the ball in the 1980s published in Golf Monthly.

The size, weight, surface covering and compression of the ball all affect how far the golfer can hit it and control it in the wind and around the green.

The ball makers have continually researched what is the most aerodynamic, durable and reactive covering and though these issues have an effect on the skill requirements of a golfer, few have suggested that they should not continue to be free to improve the ball in this area, so let us leave that to one side.

Secondly, modern golf equipment does help hit the ball farther than the old hickory clubs but though the equipment makers adverts might suggest otherwise, remarkably, equipment has only helped by some 15% in the last 100 years. So it is primarily the ball that is the issue. Read a discussion on equipment CLICK HERE

Thirdly, we must also recognise that one of the reasons the ball is being hit so far by the very best players is that they are fitter and stronger, which should, in fairness, be applauded.

Nevertheless top tennis players are also fitter and their regulators saw the need to de-power the tennis ball for everyone, which resulted in a contraversial nevertheless across-the-board improvement in the game of tennis.

So if it is the ball that has changed so much what are the salient historical events that might help inform the present discussion in learning how to solve the modern problem of a too powerful ball and not keep repeating the same mistakes.

The history starts with golf played with ‘feathery’ balls that were expensive and people like Allan Robertson of St Andrews had an almost monopoly on their production.

Around 1860 the gutta-percha, a type of solid rubber, which was cheaper and less cut-able took over until 1900 when Haskell, an American, invented a compressed, wound-rubber-core ball which could be hit significantly further than the gutta-percha, though was more difficult to control around and on the green.

After Sandy Herd won The Open Championship at Hoylake in 1902 with a Haskell, the gutta-percha gradually lost appeal and the era of how the ball should be regulated was undertaken by golf’s organizers.

It was the introduction of the ‘small heavy’ ball around 1909 that accelerated this need for regulation, in a sport that was now growing fast.

John Low of Woking GC, who had such a large and helpful influence on the introduction of ‘strategic design’ of inland courses at this time, was appointed chairman of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club Rules Committee and in 1919 it announced its intention

“to limit the power of the ball, in order to retain the special features of the game”.

Bernard Darwin in 1920 called for “a ball that demands and responds to greater skill and variety of stroke.” We will see how the implementation of these guiding principles was frustrated at every turn.

At this time ‘regulation’ was seen in terms of ‘limitation’ on minimum size and maximum weight. The USGA (who continue to be the regulators of the game in the USA) were not in full agreement with the R&A on what needed to be done and it is most commentators’ opinion that the result in 1921 was a compromise, based on 1.62oz maximum weight and 1.62 inches minimum diameter.

John Low nevertheless announced that “an important principle had been established that the players, not the manufacturers, would henceforth decide the sort of golf that shall be played”, which as history was later to show, proved a wildly optimistic proclamation. John Low emphasised that the ‘limitation’ was not a ‘standardisation’ of the ball. He went on to assert that “If or when experience proves the weight too high or size too low it is a simple matter to alter”.

Soon after the announcement of the ‘limitations’ Abe Mitchell and George Duncan, two leading players of the era, played a match at North Foreland with 1.62 x 1.62 balls and found they travelled further than any other ball on the market!

John Low replied to the ensuing criticism “we desired to cause the least possible inconvenience and financial loss to the ball makers. Therefore we set the minimum limit size at a figure which will not involve the scrapping of any moulds now in use.”

J H Taylor, arguably the most respected professional golfer of the era, was scathing in a letter to The Times saying “a mistake has been made which must be frankly owned as such by the Rules Committee”. He called for the ball to ‘float’ when in water i.e. be lighter and larger and

“we should be compelled to learn and re-learn how to control the flight of the ball in every kind of wind and circumstance, which is the quintessence of golfing skill, an art that is now being lost simply because there is no occasion for its employment”.

The ball makers were in apoplexy over Taylor’s letter and the national newspaper letter columns ran hot with argument. Harry Vardon gave the most concise thoughts on the subject, saying that

“an overall distance limit should be applied”

– a suggestion well ahead of its time.

Throughout the 1920s golfers could use their knowledge and skill in choosing to use different balls on different holes. A 1.62 inch ball into the wind and a larger, lighter one for greater control on firm ground downwind, for example.

In Britain and the USA exhaustive tests were carried out to find a ‘suitable’ golf ball, but little progress was made and the 1.62 x 1.62 ‘limitation’ turned into the ‘standard’

In 1929 the USGA broke away from the R&A and announced “From extensive and constant research, the conviction has grown that a 1.68 inch minimum and 1.55oz maximum ball, best meets all requirements of play”. They felt it was: “fair to the average golfer and a little more exacting for the expert and complimentary to the architecture and playing values of the course”.

The new larger, lighter ball would better respond to the skill and control of top players and the longest hitters would lose some length. Until, that is, the ball makers found a way round the law, and the ‘resilience’ factor was still unrestricted!

The American, baked, summer fairways had been a main factor behind pressure to change the ball. The USGA then found the need for change eroded by the new idea of fairway watering, an inevitable extension of the practice of watering greens.

The clubs with money had been introducing soft fairways on which the heavier ball was easier to control and it comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that the 1.68 inch x 1.55 oz ball introduced in 1931 in America was a failure, even though the USGA conducted a strong PR campaign to promote it. Only one year elapsed before the USGA amended the dimension to the heavier 1.68 inch x 1.62 oz.

The New York Times reported the new ball specifications were “Brought out as an attempt to curb long driving and to prevent old courses from becoming obsolete as a result of the 1.62 x 1.62 balls’ constantly increasing ballistic properties. The new sphere, quickly dubbed the ‘balloon’ ball, immediately aroused a storm of criticism…. although at the end of the season it was not as violent as it was at first”.

The best golfers could use either the 1.55oz or the 1.62oz weight and their overriding concern was that golf be played on challenging courses which allowed the cream to rise to the top.

Watered fairways restored the challenge for them more effectively than the lighter ball. For the recreational golfer increased skill was needed to control the balloon ball in the wind and everybody had long since forgotten that up to 1909 and the arrival of the ‘small heavy’, all golfers faced that extra difficulty as a matter of course. A typical ball in 1909 would have been both larger and lighter than the one which all classes of American golfers rejected in 1931.

By 1930 both John Low and Arthur Croome, who had also been a leading figure in trying to control the ball-makers, had died which marked the end of an era and the R&A Rules Committee confirmed Britain would not follow the Americans in their choice of a bigger ball, justifying themselves by declaring: “The advantages of the proposed change are not commensurate with the disturbance of conditions of play and manufacture likely to result there from”.

The ball makers were pleased their moulds would be spared, though ball-maker A.E. Penfold noted that UK manufacturers will undoubtedly lose a distinct trading advantage and exports will fall.

After almost continuous argument across the 1920s, the 1930s years of depression saw the debate fall silent until ball-maker Spalding in 1935 announced an injected lubricant which enabled the rubber windings to deliver more power.

Robert Harris of Carnoustie, the new chairman of the R&A Rules Committee, organised more tests and the R&A announced in 1938

“the adoption of a less powerful ball would be to the advantage of all classes of golfers”,

but nothing came of it as world war soon intervened.

Nevertheless, in 1941 the Americans overcame the technical difficulty of measuring a ball’s resiliency with the Armour Machine, a breakthrough, as Nick Park says, that should figure prominently in any golfing Hall of Fame.

No ball would be legal from 1942 if it proved capable of leaving the clubface at more than 250ft/second (at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and at sea level).

This inclusion of resilience meant that for the next 30 years only minimal additions in length would be achieved, even if the ball makers’ adverts did not reflect this harsh truth in the years to come.

In 1946 in Britain, before the ball makers had geared up their peacetime ball production lines, Roger Wethered, a champion amateur golfer and long-time member of the R&A Rules Committee, admitted later that he made the mistake of being talked out of supporting a move to go to the American larger 1.68 inch ball. The moment was lost and it was not until much later that Britain eventually fully came in line again with the Americans.

During this period Henry Cotton and ’Laddie’ Lucas came out in favour of the larger ball that required more accurate striking, while Lord Brabazon of Tara continued to argue for the small ball.

The arguments were quite confused but it was generally recognised that the small ball was easier to strike into the wind but more difficult downwind and around and on firm seaside greens. The smaller ball enthusiasts argued without much objective evidence that it suited dry British seaside courses.

Nevertheless with automatic watering systems coming into the U.K., soon British greens no longer remained firm during dry summers and lush American inland type golf was soon to carry all before it with the era of target golf reaching its peak of appeal in the 1980/90s.

In 1964 the British PGA made the 1.68 ball compulsory, in 1974 the R&A brought it in for The Open Championship and in 1990 it eventually became the standard for all amateur golf.

In summary what makes a ball better or worse to play? 

The choice is between a ‘small heavy’ for distance, or a ‘larger lighter’ for control around the greens.

Historically the gutta-percha and the floater increased the requirement of skill and reduced distance, giving the advantages of being able to play in a smaller area and quicker. And it was these issues that seemed to exercise Nick Park’s thinking of where the future lay as can be read in the concluding chapter of his Golf Monthly1988 Series CLICK HERE

Nick Park presciently summarised

“We must get round more quickly – on less land – if golf is to retain its share of participation in 20 years time.”

Does the evolution of the golf ball suggest that whenever the ‘limitations’ on size and weight of the ball were attempted by the regulators they were overtaken by argument and confusion (perhaps enhanced by the ball-makers)?

Add to that, the fact that little was achieved but a continual lengthening of courses and the time it takes to play a round as the ball became more powerful.

Does the forgoing suggest that now that accurate measuring machines are available, a simple regulation should be introduced that in a standard test the ball should not go further than a certain, defined distance?

Such an introduction would continue to allow innovation in ball-making in construction and cheaper manufacture, while being a simple control that would encourage other helpful developments like:

1) natural (that some call sustainable) greenkeeping for fine, firm, quicker-running grasses, with the use of less water and chemical fertilisers and pesticides,

2) the building of shorter courses that require less land and maintenance cost,

3) the return of the 2.5 hour round of golf, at the same time as,

4) enhancing the skill and challenge required.


Is the modern golf game so focussed on maximising the short-term, commercial interests of the equipment and chemical manufacturers and putting more and more money into the TOP players pockets via TV that these aspects have come to dominate the sport?

Will the recreational game continue to wither and suffer or will the regulators stand-up to these powerful forces and start putting the interests of 95% of golfers first?

John Philp of Carnoustie CLICK HERE is not the first person to call for:

1. “The ball should be designed to fit the courses – NOT the courses to fit the ball”

2. “Skill and craft in winning championships should be that of the golfer – NOT the manufacturer”.



Reader Comments

On September 4th, 2018 Phil Beasley said:

In the early 70’s I had some training balls which were 1.70″ and 1.72″. These were awesome and you couldnt get the larger one up to 200 yds, even with a “Cannon”. Simple solution to all the rediculous distances now being achieved, – make the ball bigger

On February 26th, 2020 David Pepper said:

The suggestion of Phil Beasley is eminently sensible and a logical way to introduce a ball that does not go so far. It may also be easier for chipping and putting and rely once more on rhythm and timing to keep it straight! Its introduction can also be staggered like the present ball was when we moved from the 1.62 ball.

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