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.

Old Tom Morris, pictured here around 1860, was one of the first advocates in favour of the Gutty.

Indeed, he was dismissed from Allan Robertson’s employment, for practicing using Gutties rather than Featheries

University of St. Andrews Library Photographic Archive

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What is 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. 

the Reverend Adam Paterson 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. 

A Gutta-Perch tree being tapped for sap in South Thailand

Gutta-percha trees are native to South East Asia and Australia. Their sap is similar to rubber.

It was discovered by Western explorers in the middle of the 17th century.

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. Initially they were hand-hammered to create the patterns.

How did the Gutty revolutionise golf?

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.

A Hand-Hammered Gutty Golf Ball

Notice the uneveness of the pattern and how the ball has become mis-shapen due to use

A moulded gutty golf ball –  ‘Thornton 27 Patent’ Moulded Mesh pattern

Notice that the pattern is now much more consistent by being mass-produced by moulding

It is this mass-production that enabled the price of the balls to be reduced and to make the game more affordable to a larger part of the population

Commentaries from the time

Horace Hutchinson

The golfer, winner of two Amateur Championships, and 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.”

Horace Hutchinson and Leslie Balfour Melville at the starting box St Andrews c1895

Horace Hutchinson was a prolific author on golf and other subjects and was a good golfer, winning the Amateur Championship twice. He was also the first Englishman to become Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1908.

Photograph from the book “Fifty Years of Golf”, Horace Hutchinson, printed 1919

From his book “Golf” in 1995

Earlier, in 1995, in his book “Golf” Hutchinson had made the following comment

“A considerable number of years ago we should have found that it was made of a compact mass of feathers stuffed within a leather casing. This is, however, quite matter of history, and about the feather ball there is no need for us to trouble ourselves further. It is as absolutely obsolete as the flint arrow-head.

The feather ball was superseded by the gutta-percha ball.

All golf balls at the present day are made of gutta-percha, of different qualities and by different processes, or of some corn pound into which gutta-percha largely enters.

The first gutta-percha balls were made smooth, without any of the ‘nicking’ which we now see upon them. It was found that, though they possessed the advantages of cheapness and roundness to a degree with which the feather ball could not compete, they nevertheless, did not, at first, fly so well as did the older fashioned ball.

Some observant golfers remarked that they showed a remarkable tendency to fly better after they had been subjected to a little hacking with the iron. From this observation resulted the easy practical deduction of hacking the balls before they were painted.

This was at first done with the reverse end of a hammer-head, broadened out for the purpose into something of a chisel-like shape. Then was devised a mould with ridges upon it which stamped the ‘nicking’ upon the ball in course of moulding. And these ‘machine-made’ balls, as they are termed, have now come into general use, to the almost total exclusion of ‘hand-hammered’ balls, as those nicked by the old process are called.”

James Balfour

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

Balfour came into a vast inheritance at 21, and had an extremely priviledged upbringing, which goes some way to explaining his superior view of life and of the populace.

He entered Parliament in 1874, he achieved prominence as Chief Secretary for Ireland. From 1891 he led the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, serving under his uncle, Lord Salisbury, whose government won large majorities in 1895 and 1900. He succeeded his uncle as Prime Minister in 1902.

Aloof

He was heavilly criticed, at the time, for his aloofness. The following indictement by Harold Begbie, was particularly scathing:

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1902-05, Captain of the R & A, 1894

“This Balfourian manner, as I understand it, has its roots in an attitude of mind—an attitude of convinced superiority which insists in the first place on complete detachment from the enthusiasms of the human race, and in the second place on keeping the vulgar world at arm’s length.

It is an attitude of mind which a critic or a cynic might be justified in assuming, for it is the attitude of one who desires rather to observe the world than to shoulder any of its burdens; but it is a posture of exceeding danger to anyone who lacks tenderness or sympathy, whatever his purpose or office may be, for it tends to breed the most dangerous of all intellectual vices, that spirit of self-satisfaction which Dostoievsky declares to be the infallible mark of an inferior mind.

To Mr. Arthur Balfour this studied attitude of aloofness has been fatal, both to his character and to his career. He has said nothing, written nothing, done nothing, which lives in the heart of his countrymen. To look back upon his record is to see a desert, and a desert with no altar and with no monument, without even one tomb at which a friend might weep. One does not say of him, “He nearly succeeded there”, or “What a tragedy that he turned from this to take up that”; one does not feel for him at any point in his career as one feels for Mr. George Wyndham or even for Lord Randolph Churchill; from its outset until now that career stretches before our eyes in a flat and uneventful plain of successful but inglorious and ineffective self-seeking”.

Despite these criticisms, his writings on golf, which was a huge pastime for him, are very interesting and provide a intriguing insight into the social strata of the time, and his view of it.

But provides an interesting glimpse of the times

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 social history and, in particular, the “upper class” relationship with golf prior to the this revolution.

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.

Balfour in full swing

Photograph from Horace Huthcinson’s book “Fifty Years of Golf”, published 1919

About 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 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. 

A group of golfers in a match at Scotscraig Golf Club in Tayport, Scotland, circa 1852. From left to right: George Whyte-Melville; Vice Admiral William H. Heriot-Maitland-Dougall, George Glennie, Col. J. O. Fairlie, and Sandy Pirie (caddie). Dougall was a resident of Tayport and Glennie was the head professional there.

c1852

Photograp from the book “Thomas Hodge: The Golf Artist of St. Andrews” by Harry Langton

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.

The resistance of the old Feathery makers

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”.

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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.

This gradual change in design is illustrated in the photographs, below, of a selction of wooden clubs from this transitional time period.

Selection of wooden golf clubs dating from 1880 to 1900, from left:

  1. Scottish Golf Company (SGCMCo), pear shaped beechwood head, 1895-98
  2. McEwan “Bulger”, 1890’s semi-long nose Bulger face Play Club
  3. Park Brassie, fitted with a leather insert and a ram’s horn slip between the face and the full brass sole plate. The back of head has three circular lead weights
  4. Forgan Long Nosed Brassie, circa 1885 golden Beech head
  5. Mitcheson Long Nosed play Club, 1885-1890 with a slightly hooked face.
  6. Forgan Long Nose, circa 1880 Beech head Play Club

A selection of wooden golf clubs from 1890 to 1910, from left:

  1. Mills “BA” Aluminium Brassie
  2. R Munro Compact Head Brassie, circa 1895 
  3. Talylor Edinburgh Brassie, circa 1895 example with a horn slip between the full brass sole plate and leather face
  4. Scott Patented Fork Splice, circa 1902-1910
  5. Willie Park Compressed Head Spoon, circa 1890, with face having a full leather insert, a brass sole plate and three circular back lead weights
  6. Harry Vardon Driver, circa 1897-1903, persimmon head Driver with a leather face insert
  7. Slazenger Screw Socket Brassie, circa 1901

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 golf 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.

Harry Vardon’s own set of golf clubs c1905

Photograph from his book “The Complete Golfer”, published in 1905

“Modern Golf Clubs” c 1896

Photograph from Willie Park Jnr’s book “The Game of Golf”, published in 1896

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

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