pga’s no-dimple experiment harkens to golf ball’s distant past

In late June the white-coats in Titleist’s R&D labs thought to produce, for whatever reason, a dimple-less golf ball and ask tour pros to hit the thing. What would it do? How would the pros react? Most GHS guys, and the hickory golf guys, too, know exactly what would happen. And, as the video below shows, it did. The professional reactions are priceless.

Click here for a story by Jonathan Wall on the dimple-less experiment on the Golf Digest website.

Veteran hickory player, and gutty ball champion (the National Hickory Championship), Mike Stevens was not surprised that the professionals knew so little about the development of the ball. Stevens, who teaches golf in Tampa, Fla., and organizes hickory tournaments for the Florida Hickory Golfers, said, “For the past 20 years or so, manufacturers have only talked about the core. Those of us older players went through new iterations of the dimple pattern. All balls back then were wound centers, so a change in dimple pattern was where research was concentrated.”

The far past history is lost on current pros, though, who focus purely on present-day results. After all, golf is their livelihood and any advantage will help them keep and maintain a tour card.

“Golf has not done much to educate people on the history and development of equipment and balls. Only us old timers who appreciate the origins of the game seem to care,” said Florida’s Mike Stevens. 

“Technology has changed so much of the game it is barely the same as 30 years ago, let alone 130,” said Tom Johnson, host of the Foxburg Hickory Championship, an annual gutty golf tournament held over one of the country’s earliest golf courses in Foxburg, Pa.

Like Stevens, Johnson finds modern players’ lack of historical knowledge of the early game lamentable. “It is hard to comprehend the history of the game is not taught to pros earning Class A cards, let alone tour membership on whatever tour,” he says. “The lack of club and golf ball knowledge is one thing, but designs, how golf took off in the country in the early 1900s through 1930 are extremely important parts of the history that should be part of the program.”

Still, he says, “I suppose there are professionals who do understand the history of golf, and the sampling of the twenty-somethings is the problem.”

Well, of course we understand that history – GHS members and those of the Society of Hickory Golfers. A little knowledge of the game’s heritage only increases one’s appreciation of the sport. It’s a feeling echoed by Randy Jensen, author of Playing Hickory Golf (2010), and himself a multiple winner of the NHC and other gutty events.

“I think every professional and avid golfer should play both some gutty golf and 1920s hickory golf to get a better feel for how the game has evolved down through the years,” Jensen said. “Not only is it interesting, but educational AND entertaining!”

Golf writer and golf auction expert George Petro considered the Titelist experiment and sent the following essay on the evolution of the golf ball.

By George Petro
Seeing Tour Pros drive a dimple-less Pro V1 ball only 120 to 150 yards is no surprise as it’s long been known that surface markings greatly influence ball flight. This became evident in the late 1840s with the appearance of new golf balls made from the sap of the Malaysian gutta percha tree. The early examples were hand rolled with smooth surfaces that ducked quickly after being struck. However, they flew well after suffering dents and chips. Makers soon scraped the surfaces of new balls with claw hammers or used chisels to indent favorite patterns. By the late 1860s, small hand-cranked lathes were used to cut thin parallel lines in a crisscross linear “mesh” pattern. While smooth molds had been used from the late 1850s, in the 1870s molds incorporated mesh patterns (though typically with deeper and wider lines than the machine-cut method). 

From left: a large feather ball; hacked smooth gutta percha; hand hammered in Forgan style; machine line cut gutta.

Balls through the 1890s were largely variations of the mesh pattern or its new competitor, the bramble pattern consisting of outward bumps that were preferred by some because they stopped quicker on the greens. A rare unconventional pattern and the first ball patented in the U.S. in 1897 was Willie Dunn Jr.’s “Stars and Stripes,” representing the American flag as a marketing tool.   

Unpainted pure “gutta” balls were blackish-brown in color. They were relatively brittle so other materials began to be mixed in for resiliency. A famous alternative to the gutta was the Eclipse patent ball of 1887, a yellow-brown “molded” mesh, apparently made of gutta plus India rubber and cork, resulting in a ball without the “click” of usual gutta and dubbed the “putty.” It and subsequent such hybrids were referred to as the “gutty.”      

In 1898, the Maponite Co. produced an alternative solid ball, cheaper than the gutta/gutty, especially as there was a shortage from use in insulating electrical cables. It was of a synthetic composition available in various colors. Production ceased soon after the revolutionary Haskell ball, patented April 11, 1899, composed of tightly wound rubber threads around a central core, with a gutty cover, which gave greater distance in part to greater roll, though considered by some as too lively around the green.  

From left: molded mesh Eclipse patent; ornate mesh The Ocobo; Stars & Stripes gutty; Maponite blue.

The early Haskell’s thick cover initially had a mesh pattern but was remolded with a bramble configuration and less brittle cover in 1900 and it went on to dominate by 1903 when the R&A voted not to ban its wound construction. In 1901, American sports giant A.G. Spalding & Bros. still sold nearly a million bramble gutty balls after sponsoring Harry Vardon’s tour of the U.S. in 1900. In 1904, the U.S.-based Haskell Golf Ball Co. lost its patent rights in British court, spurring fierce competition from abroad, though maintained its American exclusivity. Spalding paid for licensing rights and produced the wound Wizard in 1903.  

From left: Vardon Flyer bramble gutty; original Haskell rubber core; burst Haskell bramble; and Pneumatic core.

Ever-enterprising, Spalding also purchased the 1905 patent of Englishmen John Taylor for the modern dimpled cover, which imparted improved flight and durability. Spalding first ball from this patent appeared in 1909. While the mesh and bramble patterns persisted, numerous imitations with rings and circles, different enough to avoid law suits, followed. Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open with a bramble. 

In 1915, British courts rescinded Taylor’s original patent, ending restrictions on competitors with the dimple pattern which then became almost universal post 1930s. The biggest rival to the dimple became the “recessed” square mesh ball (like the Dunlop Maxfli). While of questionable utility, there are numerous uncommon but novel surface patterns of great interest to collectors (such as the 1908 Terrestrial Globe bramble, 1933 Faroid and 1935 Burbank swirling grooves). 

From left: “Terrestrial” map of world, Faroid, Burbank swirl, and Spalding. All used numerous patterns other than the dimple.

The best featheries, which preceded the gutties, could be hit 180 to 220 yards by skilled golfers under usual conditions; distances comparable to the later gutties, but they were painstakingly produced, very expensive and were disadvantaged in wet conditions and for putting. The wound rubber ball with dimples immediately achieved 30 yards over the gutta. 

Often unappreciated is the effect of excessive paint thickness on early balls of any pattern, thus diminishing effectiveness, especially if relatively shallow to begin with.

By 1922, tighter windings around specialized cores and thinner covers alarmed the regulatory bodies, leading to restrictions in maximum weight and minimum size, both of which increase distance. Eventually, symmetry requirements in construction and surface patterns as well as limitation of initial ball velocities and total distance were instituted. 

From left: Spalding dimple; Army & Navy Co-op Society No.1; small Silver King recessed square mesh; Cayman.

Massive efforts to return to a much cheaper “solid” ball construction, analogous to the gutty, occurred in the 1960s with the Faultless Co. ball, Spalding’s Executive, and Ram’s Surlyn cover all leading to the famed Top-Flite in 1971 and others with new dimple patterns. 

Better players still favored shorter balls like the “Titleist Professional” in the late 1990s, which featured a liquid core, wound construction and tour balata cover. This ball, said the pros, had better feel, higher spin and short game advantages. (Balata, by the way, appeared in 1906 with the Spalding “White” ball, which had a cover of the dried milky juice of the bully tree – balata). 

This largely changed in 2000 when Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open with the Nike Tour Accuracy and Titleists’ multi-layer ProV1 immediately appeared. The current host of balls allow selection for different feels (low compression no longer means shorter) and different spins, drags and launch which, paired with player strength, technique and club construction, all synergize to produce a dizzying spectrum of possibilities.

On the other end of that spectrum was the Cayman ball, which became a reality in 1983 after Nicklaus pushed MacGregor to make a ball appropriate for play on specially designed short layouts (two hours for 18 holes) like his design on Grand Cayman or on executive courses, small driving ranges or even football fields. The Cayman traveled about 60 percent of the distance of regulation golf balls. This solid ball is composed largely of Surlyn with the usual diameter of 1.68-inch, but weighing only 0.7 of an ounce, well below the maximum allowable of 1.62 ounce, and with dimples replaced with the old bramble surface pattern, likely to help approach shots stop more quickly.

FINAL NOTE:   Similar to the recent dimple-less Pro V1 demonstration, in 1932 a Silvertown rubber core ball was made without surface markings that “refused to fly much beyond 100 yds” (from The Story of the Golf Ball, by Kevin McGimpsey, 2003).