Patented Balls

In the centuries since Mary Queen of Scots invented the term “caddy” while swinging a spoon at St. Andrews, the golf ball has undergone its own Darwinian evolution. From its Edenic genesis as a leather  ball stuffed with goose down (the “feathery”) to the boiled rubber rock of 19th century (the “gutta percha”) the various branches and family trees of golf ball genealogy have diverged in almost endless genomic progression. If you believe the adverts, we’ve come a long way from 007’s Penfold Heart to the modern-day 2-piece, 3-piece, and even 4-piece balls.

The modern day rock is a 2-piece ball designed for distance and the pocketbook of golfers looking for a bargain. A good discount store can fill your bag with Dunlop Locos before you can say “I’m crazy for golf” and have you headed to the course in a heartbeat, while a 4-piece balata ball can set you back $59 per dozen and leave you spinning in 1000 rpm heartbreak because your game didn’t miraculously improve when you upgraded to Titleist Pro V1s.

While there may be a difference between the wooden balls smacked around the gorse by pre-Industrial Age shepherds and the high-tech rockets of today, whether there is any real difference between the multitude of high-end balls on offer now is anyone’s guess. For every golfer who swears by the Pro V1 there is another who favors Nike, or Bridgestone, or Srixon, or Callaway, or Dunlop, or Wilson, or some other version of dimpled magic.

Here’s a number for you:  1051. For the historical minded, it is not the year that Britain was last invaded (1066), but rather the number of golf balls listed on the United States Golf Association’s List of Conforming Golf Balls. With that many balls in the air, the obvious question arises:  is any one of them better than the rest? Despite the patent claims and the hundreds of millions invested in creating and protecting trademarks, the question is neither simple, obvious, nor perhaps even capable of being properly answered.

In 1913 Ted Ray routinely drove the ball a still-prodigious 300 yards; in the 1920s Bobby Jones could do the same; in the 1940s Ben Hogan and Slammin’ Sam Snead pounded it out there; and in the 1960s Arnold Palmer smacked a lifeless Dunlop 343 yards in a long drive contest with a persimmon-headed driver. Despite our technological gains, there are not many men at the country club hitting it 250 yards with any regularity, let alone the monster drives of PGA legend. Sometimes it seems that every claim of advancement is simply a hollow boast made by someone who hasn’t taken the trouble to peer into the catalog of history and verify their claim. Or even worse, misinformation fed to us by some company that wants us to buy their overpriced  goods.

The obvious, if cynical, conclusion to be drawn from the plethora of competing and mutually exclusive claims in the marketplace is quite straightforward and is simply this:   the long and glorious history of the snake oil salesman continues unabated, as one might expect.

For further inquiry into the question of whether changing your golf ball can change your life, I recommend Scratch, a tale that starts with gross manipulation and meanders through junk science, greed and pop psychology on its way to proving that golf is still a game played entirely in the six inches between one’s ears.

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