The Story of the “Home of Golf” Series 6 – Robert Adams Patterson (1829 – 1904)

Introduction

In the 1850’s there were only about 20 golf courses worldwide, with most in Scotland. The high cost of equipment meant that it was mainly a game for a few wealthy people. Balls were particularly expensive and they did not last long. The ball of choice for wealthy golfers from 1620 to the about 1850 was the ‘feathery’. A tremendous boost to the development of golf came with the invention of the gutta-percha ball, known as the ‘Guttie’.

This ball made the game cheaper to play, particularly when production was mechanised early in the 1870’s, Golf could now become the sport of the masses. New courses and golf clubs were built. Production of golf equipment also grew to satisfy the increasing demand.Instead of a leisure activity it became an international sport. The gutta-percha ball served golfers for about 55 years creating a golf boom in the second half of the 19th century. An improved ball, the Haskell was available from 1903 and development has continued.

The Invention

In 1848 Robert Adams Patterson was a divinity student at St Andrews University. The Reverend James Patterson was a missionary in Malaya. He sent a statue of the Hindu deity ‘Siva with his consort’. This statue is now in the office of the Principal of St Andrews University. The story is that the soapstone statue was sent to Patterson’s father to pass on to the University. It was said to have been packed for safety in strips of gutta-percha. James younger brother Robert saw his father heat and mold some gutta-percha, to repair some footwear. He then heated some more of the material and made a golf ball. He painted it white and tried it out on the links. After a few attempts the ball fell apart. He made some more but the results were not satisfactory.

When he had completed his studies he emigrated to America. Before leaving he told his brother about his experiments which he thought was worth some more consideration. In 1846, his brother sent an improved version to London but there was almost no interest in the novel golf ball. However the ball was gradually taken up by a number of ball makers, particularly in England. From early in the 1860s, the feathery’s days were over.

Comparison with the Feathery

The Guttie lasted longer than the feathery but still deteriorated by today’s standards.

It was not so vulnerable to moisture but did not survive well in cold weather or very high temperatures.

The Guttie would go further, one report says maximum of 225 yards and another says up to 246 yards. Initially it tended to duck in flight but this was overcome by scoring. Then by hammering and later molded with surface patterns, then raised dimples followed by recessed dimples.

It was easier to control in the air and on the green and so made it easier to learn the game.

Gutty balls could withstand the blow from iron clubs so metalworkers began to craft iron-headed clubs.

As already mentioned, the price was a significant factor.

Resistance to the Guttie

The old ball making families initially resisted the change. The Gutties fiercest opponent was Allan Robertson of St. Andrews. He fired Tom Morris for playing with one. Nevertheless, he changed his point of view later. He realised that though the profit per ball was less the increased volume compensated. Also, that the public were choosing them was the new reality. Later rubber companies such as Dunlop began mass-producing balls and killed off the handcrafted ball business.

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