Noted Architect Keith Foster Donates
Two Rare Golf Balls To USGA


February 18, 2009

By Rand Jerris

Allan Robertson was the pioneer of a new breed. Born in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1815, Robertson emerged as the first true golf professional in an era when the game's popularity was dramatically increasing. As a club maker, instructor, greenkeeper and player, Robertson served the needs of Scotland's most venerated community of golfers for several decades.

 
One area where Robertson demonstrated particular expertise was in the manufacture of feathery golf balls. The process was labor intensive – three pieces of thick leather were stitched together, stuffed with the breast feathers of a goose, and painted with several coats of lead white paint. The process took several hours to complete. Even the most accomplished ball makers produced no more than four or five in a single day. As a result, feathery golf balls were expensive – the price of a single ball was as much as four times the price of a single club.

But just about the time that the first golf professionals emerged in Scotland, the game experienced a radical transformation with the introduction of a new golf ball made of gutta percha. Gutta percha is a natural substance akin to rubber that is harvested from trees native to the Malaysian peninsula. When processed, refined and allowed to cure, gutta percha becomes tough and resilient.

It is unclear today who made the first golf ball from the new material. While there are several fanciful tales that have been passed down, none can be supported as fact. What is certain is that many golfers immediately embraced the new ball for its many benefits. It was much easier to make than a feather ball – one simply rolled or molded the pliable material and allowed it to dry – and thus considerably less expensive. It was far more durable than a ball made of feathers and leather. It flew farther and straighter. And it was readily recyclable – if a ball was damaged in the course of play, one simply dropped it in a pot of boiling water, allowed the material to soften, and reformed it into a new ball.

Two rare Allan Robertson golf balls, a Gutta Percha, left, and a feathery, right, were recently donated to the USGA Museum by architect Keith Foster. (USGA/John Mummert)

Robertson, it must be acknowledged, harbored significant concerns about the new ball. While he certainly worried that its improved playing characteristics might render established golf courses obsolete, far greater was his worry that the new ball threatened the livelihood of the feather-ball makers. According to one story, Robertson bought up every gutta percha ball he could find in St. Andrews and tossed them into a roaring fire.

In spite of the objections of well-respected figures like Robertson, the new gutta percha ball quickly became the norm. Within a year or two, Robertson himself took to making the new ball, and even to playing with it. Using a gutta percha ball, he became the first player to break 80 on the famed Old Course at St. Andrews, returning a remarkable card of 79 that was not bettered for many years.

More than 150 years after the arrival of the gutta percha golf ball, the USGA Museum has received a remarkable gift from noted golf course architect Keith Foster – magnificent examples of a Robertson feather ball and gutta percha ball. Both balls are clearly and boldly stamped with Robertson's mark – "ALLAN" – and are among the finest examples of his work that survive today.

Through the years, Foster had quietly amassed a rather extensive collection of important golf artifacts, focusing his collecting interests largely on golf course architecture. "I've always loved and appreciated the great and storied history of the game," he recently explained. "Over the years, one's collection tends to expand. Rather than focus on quantity, I was hoping to acquire select pieces that were early and rare."

He had originally purchased the two balls about 10 years ago, attracted by their rarity as well as their remarkable state of preservation. "Thankfully," Foster noted, "those before me took very good care of these early Allan balls." But in recent months, he had come to understand that his possession of these treasures had reached a natural end and he concluded that the time had come to share them with others. "I felt that I never really owned the golf balls," Foster confessed. "Yes, I bought them privately and they were mine for a time. But who better to have them than the USGA? I personally have found the USGA to be true stewards of the game."

Since it was established in 1936, the USGA Museum has amassed an extensive collection of golf balls, comprising well over 2,000 examples from the 18th century to the present. The collection includes outstanding feather balls made by important makers such as Thomas Gourlay and Old Tom Morris, as well as several fine examples of early gutta percha balls. But Foster's gift filled two important gaps in our collection, for we previously lacked any example of Robertson's work, feathery or gutta percha. The importance of these two golf balls is furthered by the simple fact that these two balls were never used for play, and thus are in remarkably fine condition. It is no exaggeration to say that these two specimens can be counted among the four or five finest examples of Robertson golf balls that survive today.

Rand Jerris is the director of the USGA Museum. He can be reached via rjerris@usga.org. Located in Far Hills, N.J., the USGA Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. For more information, including directions, please visit www.usgamuseum.com/visit_museum.

 

  





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