Shutterstock.com/ debra millet

Darwin was a big proponent of evolution in nature. However, if you want to see one of the greatest examples of evolution, all you need is golf. If you look at a modern golf ball the intricacy and design that has gone into that 1.68 diameter sphere are remarkable. Since the 14th-century golf balls have been used around the world and the changes in the last 500 years have been astounding.

Like all good history stories, we begin with a debate. Many people believe that the first golf balls ever used were wooden. However, there is little record of this taking place and some think that a different sport used golf balls that were an inspiration for what golf would become. Whatever is the truth, there were men in Scotland hitting wooden balls with sticks and that is close enough for us to call it the first golf ball.

To others, the first true golf ball was the hairy ball introduced in 1486 and it was the main ball used up until 1618. The ball was sewn leather that was stuffed with the hair of a cow or straw. While the feathery golf ball was introduced to replace it in 1618, many people stayed with the hairy ball because it was far cheaper. The feathery golf ball was expensive to make but far harder and therefore able to fly further. The key difference was that instead of stuffing the ball with cow hair, it was stuffed with goose feathers. More feathers could be packed inside that would make it harder. 

In 1848 the Guttie ball was invented and the world moved a step closer to the modern ball we know today. For the first time, leather was left behind. This ball was created from sap of a tree that was very similar to rubber. Golfers found the balls far more durable. The more times a guttie ball was hit the more marks would be left on it. People found that the marks actually helped the ball fly better and so the manufacturers started to place vertical and horizontal grooves in the ball.

In 1898 rubber was finally introduced as the core of the ball. In the beginning, they were made with the same pattern as the guttie ball but it was soon discovered that inverted dimples would make the ball perform even better. In the mid-1960s the outer layer of the ball was also replaced with a synthetic material that was much more durable. This ended the large scale evolution of the golf ball but it has been ongoing incrementally ever since.

In 1967, Spalding patented the first solid golf ball. Today different manufacturers use a variety of layering techniques to get different attributes from the ball whether it is required to go further or produce more spin. The ball continues to enhance and evolve in line with the demands of the game. While some certain aspects of the ball must be consistent across all manufacturers (to ensure they can be used in competition) the administrating bodies have purposefully left a lot of room for further innovation so that the golf ball can continue to evolve.

When you think of balls used in other sports they have gone through many iterations and significant changes but they really haven’t changed that much. The golf ball has truly evolved over time and changed the game of golf itself. It is a testament to evolution in the sport. If Darwin could compare the wooden or hairy balls of the 1400s to the rubber core balls with synthetic covers and inward-facing dimples used today, he would surely be impressed.