The history of golf equipment – The age of the Gutty

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!

Why the gutty?

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.

Commentaries from the time

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 . . . . .

Let us now turn to the changes that have taken place with the balls. Forty years ago, and indeed from time immemorial, the only kind of ball with which golf was played was made of leather stuffed with feathers till it was as hard as gutta-percha. In making it the leather was cut into three pieces, softened with alum and water, and sewed together by waxed thread, while a small hole was left for putting in the feathers, which was dome with a strong stuffing-iron. 

The hole in the leather, which did not affect the flight of the ball, but slightly interfered with its putting quality, was then sewed up, and the ball received three coats of paint. A man could only make four balls in a day. They were thus scarce and expensive, and were not round, but rather oblong. The only ball-maker in St Andrews was Alan Robertson. The trade was hereditary in his family, as both father and grandfather had likewise been ball-makers, He was assisted by Tom Morris and Lang Willie. They worked together in Alan’s kitchen, and the balls were sold at the window at the back of his house, at the corner of the Links and Golf Place. Alan charged 1s. 8d. a ball or £1 a dozen. Gourlay of Musselburgh charged 2s. for each of his. These balls did not last long, perhaps not more than one round. They opened at the seams, especially in wet weather. Indeed, wherever the seam of a ball was cut by the club, the ball burst, and became useless. This very frequently happened, insomuch that the caddies generally took out six to eight balls with them.

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 beginning of the year 1848 balls were first made of gutta-percha. I remember the commencement of them perfectly. My brother in law, Admiral Maitland Dougall, played a double match at Blackheath with the late Sir Ralph Anstruther and William Adam of Blair-Adam with another friend with gutta-percha balls on a very wet day. They afterwards dined together at Sir Charles Adam’s at Greenwich Hospital, and Sir Ralph said after dinner: ‘A most curious thing – here is a golf ball of gutta-percha; Maitland and I have played with it all day in the rain, and it flies better at the end of the day than it did at the beginning.’ Maitland came to Edinburgh immediately after and told me of this. We at once wrote to London for some of those balls, and went to Musselburgh to try them. Gourlay the ball-maker had heard of them, and followed us round. He was astonished to see how they flew, and being round, how they rolled straight to the hole on the putting green. He was alarmed for his craft, and having an order from Sir David Baird to send him some balls whenever he had a supply by him, he forwarded to him that evening six dozen! Sir David accordingly was one of the last who adhered to the feathery balls, and had to acknowledge the superiority of the others until his large supply was finished. 

About the gutty manufacture and maintenance. . . . .

At first they were made with the hand by rolling them out on a flat board; thus made, they were round and smooth. They were not painted, but used with their natural brown colour. When new, they did not fly well, but ducked in the air. To remedy this they were hammered with a heavy hammer, but this did not effect the object. They still ducked until they got some rough usage from the cleek or iron. This made cuts on their sides, which were not liked; but it made them fly. These cuts were easily removed by dipping them in hot water at night. I remember once playing with old Philp, the club-maker (who, by the way, was no contemptible player). I had a gutta ball, and he had a feather one. With the dislike which all the tradesmen then had for the former, he said, "Do you play with these putty balls?" "Yes," I answered. "But does not the cleek cut them?” "O yes," I said, “but if you give them a hot bath at night that puts them all right." "That’s the mischief o’t," he replied. Yet it was soon found out that this same hot bath, while it cured the wound, spoiled the ball. I remember an amusing proof of this. I and a friend on the day before the medal played with two guttas, and they worked beautifully, so that we resolved to play with them next day for the medal. But as they' had been a good deal hacked, we dipped them in hot water over-night, and removed these defects. When, however, we played off the tee next day before an assembled crowd, among whom were the ball and club-makers, both the balls whirred and ducked amid the chuckling and jeering and loud laughter of the onlookers; we had to put down feather balls next hole. The fact was, they required these indentations to make them fly. About this time it occurred to an ingenious saddler in South Street to hammer them all round with the thin or sharp end of the hammer. The experiment was completely successful, and the ball thus hammered came rapidly into use, and they were soon improved by being painted.

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 . . . . .

But the ball-makers were still bitterly opposed to them, as they threatened to destroy their trade, and both Allan and Tom resolved that they would never play in a match where these balls were used. In an unlucky hour, however, Tom good-naturedly broke his pledge, and played with a gentleman as his partner who had gutta balls. When Allan discovered it he was much annoyed with Tom. Tom, when he saw this, gave up his employment under him, and opened a shop of his own, where he made both kinds of balls, and also clubs. Allan in a little time followed suit with the balls, as he discovered that he could make a dozen guttas in a shorter time than he could make one feather ball, and the sale of them increased prodigiously. After that an iron mould was invented for making these balls, and on being taken from the mould, they were indented with the thin end of the hammer. But latterly the moulds have the indentations in them, so that the ball is now produced indented and ready for being painted. The balls are made everywhere now, but some are better than others, probably because the maker takes greater pains to use good gutta-percha”.

The impact of the gutty on club design

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.

The arrival of hickory

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.

The development of Irons

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: - 

  • Driving Iron – similar to an 1 iron and seldom used today
  • Cleek – 2 iron
  • Mid Maskie – equivalent 3 iron
  • Mashie Iron – 4 iron
  • Mashie – 5 iron
  • Spade Mashie – 6 iron
  • Mashie Niblick – the same as a 7 iron
  • Pitching Niblick – 8 iron
  • Niblick – For use from deep rough or bunkers
  • Rut Niblick – for escaping out of cart track ruts
  • Jigger – a very low lofted iron with a shortened shaft  for chipping with 

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.

Next - See how the rubber Haskell ball revolutionised the game even further

› The Gutty golf ball

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