The big revolution – the mid-1800s – Gutta-percha comes to golf
It was the introduction of the Gutta-percha golf ball, or “gutty” as it was to become affectionately known, that kick-started the next golfing revolution.
By the mid-1800s the game was growing in popularity and many more club-makers had started business around the East coast of Scotland.
This included famous names such as Old Tom Morris, Willie Park, Ben Sayers and the Auchterlonie family.
These club makers had all grown up with the feathery ball, but very quickly adapted to the revolutionary new gutty ball.
The Gutty ball was reputedly invented by the Reverend Adam Paterson in 1848. He was a clergyman at St Andrews, and a keen golfer.
The story goes that his father received a package from the Far East, wrapped in gutta-percha.
Gutta-percha is a genus of trees native to South East Asia, which produces a resinous sap that can be made into a latex like substance.
He discovered that, by heating the gutta-percha, he could mould it into a ball shape, and he thence proceeded to try it out on the links. The first gutty ball.
The rest is, as they say, history!
The advantages of the gutty over the feathery were that it could be produced relatively inexpensively and could also be repaired by reheating, whereas a feathery could cost more than a club.
This fact alone led to the game becoming available to a larger proportion of the population, but even so this was mainly restricted to the well to do.
The first gutty balls were smooth surfaced and as such did not travel as far as a feathery, but over time players began to realise that as the gutty ball became scuffed it developed better flight characteristics and generally flew further when scuffed.
So after about 1880, all gutty balls were produced with patterned surfaces in order to increase the distance that the balls flew.
By 1890 mechanisation and industrialisation had led to gutties being massed produced in moulds which further reduced the unit cost of the balls and made the game even more affordable. It was this increasing mechanisation that effectively killed off the hand-made ball makers.
The advent of the railways also meant more and more people being to visit place like St Andrews which further fuelled the growth of golf as a sport.
The author Horace Hutchinson wrote in 1899:
“Had the gutta-percha golf ball not been invented, it is likely enough that golf itself would now be in the catalogue of virtually extinct games, only locally surviving, as stool-ball and knurr and spell.
But as matter of history, the gutta-percha ball was invented; golf became cheap again, and with its cheapness it became popular.”
James Balfour, Captain of The R&A in 1894 and British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, wrote a fascinating book in 1887, called My Reminiscences of Golf at St Andrews Links.
The following extract provides not only an appreciation of the immense revolutionary change brought about by the introduction of the gutty, but also provides a glimpse into the “upper class” relationship with golf prior to the this revolution.
First of all he discusses the feathery, how it was made, how it performed, and the changes over the years leading up to the introduction of the gutty . . . . .
He now follows up with a commentary on his first introduction to the gutty, and its superior qualities over the feathery, which he had, until then, been used to playing with . . . . .
About the gutty manufacture and maintenance. . . . .
And how the ball makers were initially were resistant to the gutty through fear of losing their livelihood. He mentions the fall out between Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson as a consequence of Old Tom playing a game with a gutty . . . . .
The hard gutty ball spelt the demise of the long-nosed woods. The shallow face and flat surfaces of the clubs made it difficult to get the gutty to fly high, and the very slender necks were fragile such that they suffered damage in repeatedly hitting the gutty, which was much harder and denser than the feathery balls.
This led, in the 1880s, to the design of a new type of club, which were shorter, stronger and had a more rounded face. The face was convex, similar to modern clubs, which led to them being called Bulgers.
These wooden clubs were refined by club-makers in the period up to the turn of the century, so that they became more streamlined and pleasing to the eye. They were fitted with back-weights and some had inserts on the face to provide added protection.
Bulgers that were designed for hitting from the fairway had a brass sole plate fitted to protect the club from the hard links surfaces. These were called Brassies and were the equivalent to a 2 wood.
Club heads up until this period had been made using local Scottish Beech, Apple, Pear or Holly, but in the 1890s they club-makers started to use imported American Persimmon wood. Persimmon provided the ideal combination of strength, durability, consistency and playing quality and was the wood of choice for discerning golfers from that time right up until the 1980s when metal headed “woods” took over from wooden constructed woods.
Club design was also impacted by the arrival of Hickory from America in 1860. These were used as club shafts until steel shafts appeared in the 1920s By the 1930s hickory had had its day.
Iron headed clubs had been around since the 18th century, but only seldom used and only for troublesome shots, such as escaping from rough or rutted cart tracks. This was because they caused severe damage to the feathery ball.
However the arrival of the gutty, which were not so easily damaged by the iron clubs, made their use more appealing and practical.
So from the 1870s there was a huge growth in the numbers of club-makers producing irons, usually in cohort with a blacksmith.
The general name given to an iron club was Cleek and the blacksmiths who made them were known as Cleekmakers.
One of the famous cleekmakers was Robert White, who supplied iron cleek heads to Robert Forgan and Tom Morris. Another was Tom Stewart who also supplied Forgan and Morris.
Unsurprisingly, St Andrews was the centre of cleek-making.
The early cleeks were smooth faced so would not impart the spin and flight characteristics on the gutty that we are used to these days.
By 1890 there were many types and styles of iron available and there were therefore fewer woods in a players set of gold clubs.
The woods might include a Driver, a Mashie a Spoon and a Baffing Spoon (Baffy).
The irons would include the following types of club: -
The Rut Niblick was tremendously useful as there was no relief from obstructions in those days – the rules were that you played the ball as it lied.
There were no limits on the number of clubs that constituted a set. You could have as many clubs as your caddie could carry.
It is also unlikely that these were matched sets. A Golfer would collect together and play with an extremely eclectic variety of different clubs.
One of the most devious of clubs was the Sabbath stick, which were golf clubs disguised as walking sticks, with the club head sitting neatly into the palm of the hand. This enabled church going golfers to play a few holes on a Sunday, at a time when the Church of Scotland frowned upon such activity.
The Gutty had revolutionised golf such that more people could afford to take up the game, but it was still a sport for the well off members of society.eGolfShare Home › The History of Golf › The Gutty golf ball