Robert Patterson's invention of the smooth gutty ball in 1845 changed the game, and the change was a slam dunk.
By 1850 the gutty ball was firmly entrenched and the feather ball was
well on its way to obsolesence. Compared to feather balls, gutta percha
balls were easier to make, cost only half the price, were more durable,
went farther, rolled truer, and were more accurate.
Because Patterson's smooth gutty ball was easy to replicate, other
makers were soon producing their own. It wasn't long before golfers
figured out that a smooth gutty with strike marks flew better than one
without. By the mid-1850s, ballmakers were marking up the surface of
every gutty they sold.
The period of time when golfers used smooth gutty balls was short,
which is why a smooth gutty ball made during that period is not just
fundamentally historic, it is exceedingly difficult to collect. And for
more than one reason.
To begin with, it is important to recognize that these balls were formed one of two ways—either by hand or from a mold.
According to James P. Forgan, a ballmaker by profession who worked in
1856-1857 for his brother Robert Forgan as his first apprentice, the
initial smooth guttys were made by hand:
"At first the gutta-percha was in the form of a sheet, which was cut
up in pieces, and when softened in hot water was drawn out in the form
of a ribbon and wound up into a ball and pressed with the hand on a
smooth board, and then it was heated again and pressed until it was as
solid as possible, and as there were no moulds at that time, the ball
was rounded in the hands, and after some practice, a good ballmaker
could make them very round indeed. Then they were dropped into cold
water to harden, and had to be constantly moved in the water to keep
them round, for if they were left still in the water, the part that was
above the surface would be swelled out of shape. The golf balls were
made in this manner for some years." (Golf Illustrated, 27 Dec. 1907: 13)
The ball offered here is hand made. The
ball is clearly asymmetrical with no evidence of ever being in a mold. To further demonstrate this, one need
only set it carefully on a level surface and then let go. The ball will
quite literally rock and roll around in random directions until it settles. Pick up the ball,
rotate it, set it back down, let go, and watch it do the same thing all over again in the
During the earliest days of the gutty ball, smooth molds did exist
but not many. Robert Patterson made one to produce his smooth gutty. His
brother recalled that Robert then made molds to sell to dealers in the
trade (see TCA2 v2 p762). By the mid-1850s, most ballmakers were using
smooth molds. From roughly 1860 until the late 1880s smooth gutty ball
molds were used to make every golf ball produced during that period of
time. The surface of the smooth guttys produced by these these molds was
either cut by hand to make hand-hammered guttys or cut by machine to
make machine-cut ("line cut") guttys. Either way, the ball was initially
made smooth, and if it did not undergo the next step of having its
surface marked up, it would remain smooth. No doubt a few of those
smooth balls made between approximately 1855-1890 have made it to our
day. Such balls, while very collectible, are not the same as the smooth
gutty balls made for use when the gutta percha ball was introduced. The fact that the ball offere here was created by rolling it around between a pair of hands indicates that it was created in the first few years after Paterson introduced his gutty ball.
Smooth guttys used in the late 1840s/early 1850s were often painted, but not always. This particular ball retains none of its original paint, if it ever had any, and instead the dark brown gutta
percha itself is visible as is the crazing to the surface. This is a not a good thing, its a great thing! The crazing in the gutta percha is actually
oxidation, not abuse. The oxidation is not readily visible when viewing the ball from arm’s length, but when you zoom in to
view the ball, the oxidation cracks are easy to see as shown in the 2 large closeup
photos that accompany this lot. The ball is not damaged, it’s just 170 years old and the surface of the
ball has dried out over the better part of two centuries that it has been around. Fabulous!
As another indicator of its age, this ball has clearly been used to play golf. The surface of the ball bears a fair number of light strike marks and dents in the gutta percha.
This hand-made smooth gutty is in outstanding original condition. The wear and the oxidation born by the gutta persha is exactly what a collector wants to see. These elements demonstrate both its great age and its use as a golf ball. Overall, this ball is a treasure. Not only is it highly collectible, it is major league significant to the history of the game!
This ball is at the front of the group shot in the accompanying images.