The history of golf equipment – The feathery era

The Feathery Golf Ball

The feathery golf ball was the first that was constructed from other than wood and it had a huge influence on the design of golf clubs in the age that it was used. 

The history of golf clubs and balls is so intrinsically interwoven that it is difficult to separate the two, as we shall see.

Early golf club design

Whatever the origins of golf were, and this is very unclear as we have discussed in the “Origins of golf”, we can safely say that there was a form of golf being played in Scotland in the 1400s, if not before.

It is highly probable that there was some influence on the equipment being used then from the game of colf that was played in the Low Countries at around the same time.

Both of these games used a similar shaped style of club called a “longnose”.

William Inglis c1712-1792, Surgeon and Captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers

Holding a Longnose wooden club, typical of the Feathery era

David Allan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Early golf clubs

There are no records of what these early clubs looked like or what they were constructed of, but given that James IV of Scotland instructed a local bow-maker to make him some clubs in 1502, it is probable that both the clubs and balls  were made from local wood. 

They were probably made from a strong wood such as Scottish Beech because the clubs would have to endure some heavy punishment from both the wooden balls and the rough terrain. 

What is certain is that these clubs would have been very expensive to make and to repair, which is why the game was restricted to the rich and upper classes of society.

The feathery ball

Damage to clubs was greatly lessened by the introduction of the feathery ball in the early 1600s, which replaced the wooden balls, and which endured for another 200 years.

Club heads were still made from tough wood such as beech, apple, holly and pear and club shafts from ash or hazel, which were more flexible.

Iron clubs caused too much damage

Irons were seldom used because they caused unwanted damage to the feathery ball, but in the latter part of the 17th century the rut iron was introduced to help extract the ball out of holes, scrapes and ruts. But the rut iron was probably used by its owners judiciously so as not to cause damage to the ball. 

A group of Feathery golf balls

You can easilly to see the seams, which were hand stiched

Courtesy Geni via Wikimedia Commons

By this time a host of different trades were involved in club making. 

This included bowyers (bow-makers), carpenters or cabinet makers for shaping the wooden heads; shipwrights, who were skilled at making the spliced joint; fishermen’s tarred twine or leather for whipping the clubs; and blacksmiths for making the early crude iron heads. 

A Top Hat full of feathers

The feathery balls were made from hand sewn leather casings stuffed tightly with goose or chicken feathers. It took a top hat or bucket full of feathers to stuff one ball. The ball was assembled by wetting the feathers and the leather. As the leather dried it shrank and as the feathers dried they expanded, combining to result in a very tight and hardened ball. They were then painted white. 

The problem with feathery balls was that when they got wet they lost their shape and started to come apart, so a golfer of the time needed a lot of balls.

Also the clubs tended to break easily and so the golfer needed to carry more than one of each type of club

Alan Robertson, of St Andrews, depicted making a feathery golf ball, around 1840-50

From a photograph of a display at the British Golf Museum, St Andrews

The feathery balls and the clubs were still very expensive and hence the sport of golf was still restricted to the upper echelons of society. It could cost up to five shillings for each ball, which was then equivalent to several weeks wages for the common person.

The growth of club-makers

There is little known about the detailed design of golf clubs during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but during the latter part of the 1700s specialist club-makers began to arise as more golf societies and golf clubs were formed and more people took up the game. 

Some of the clubs that these club-makers made have survived and we therefore know much more about the golf equipment from this period.  

Some of these club-makers were exceptionally talented, and still are, highly renowned for their craftsmanship. 

James McEwan

The McEwan family club-making business was started in 1770 in Edinburgh by James McEwan. The business lasted 150 years and for 6 generations. McEwan clubs are extremely rare and highly sought after by today’s golf memorabilia collectors, who rank McEwan clubs as epitomising the highest in quality and the utmost in craftsmanship. These clubs bear the mark of the Scottish Thistle.

The McEwan stamp, that was present on all of the clubs that they made

Hugh Philp

Hugh Philp started making clubs at St Andrews in1812 as a side line to his building business and he was so successful that seven years later he was appointed “Clubmaker to the Society of St Andrews”. He was known for his very sought after putters which were considered to be superbly balanced. 

Following his death in 1856 his business was continued by his nephew Robert Forgan, trading under his own name. Along with his brother James, the Forgan’s established a business that was to last for a hundred years until it was absorbed by the Spalding Group. At its height, the business employed forty to fifty men and manufactured around 600 clubs per week, which were all handmade. 

Hugh Philp Middle Spoon c1830

Notice the metal weight attached to the back of the club, which was typical of wooden clubs of this era.

Hugh Philp Long nose splice neck play club c1840

A Play Club was the equivalent of what is today know as a Driver

Hugh Philp longnosed putter

Robert Forgan

Robert Forgan began importing hickory imported from the United States in the mid-1800s, from which he made shafts as an alternative to the local ash and willow. Hickory was very quickly established by other club-makers as the shaft of choice, although the other woods still continued to be used where lower priced clubs were required. 

In 1863 Robert Forgan was commissioned to make a set of clubs for The Prince of Wales, who was then Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Thereafter Forgan’s were given the Royal Warrant which enabled them to stamp the Prince’s crest of three plumed feathers on to their club heads


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Golf Clubs in the early 1800s

Players in the early 1800s would have commonly used a set of clubs comprising of around nine varying types of woods. Players are depicted in paintings with caddies who carried the clubs loosely under their arms, rather than in a bag, as nowadays. 

A set of clubs might consist of: 

  • Two Play Clubs (driver) – in case one broke during the round.
  • A Grass Driver – for use on the fairway
  • Two or three Spoons – for use just off the fairway
  • A wooden Niblick – for use from more difficult lies
  • Two or three Putters

Note, the shafts of the drivers were around 45 inches which is very similar to today’s driver shafts).

Putters were used for a variety of purposes. The Driving Putter for shots into the wind and a good distance from the green, the Approach Putter, with a lofted face for short shots into the green, and the Green Putter for putting on the green itself. 

All of these clubs would be of the longnose variety, perfect for play with the feathery ball, and, except for the putters, would have been fitted with lead back-weights to add to the balance and swing weight of the club.

They would have taken quite a few feathery balls with them, not just in case they were lost, but because they had a tendency to become out of shape or even split at the seams.

Even after 200 years of progress, golf was clearly still a wealthy mans sport.

Next – See how the game and equipment was revolutionised by the invention of the gutty ball.

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