The Balloon Ball
by John Vander Borght
Over the years there have been many people express concern about the distance that the golf ball travels. As each new advance in golf ball or golf club technology has occurred, many people have lamented the new distances being achieved and proposed that restrictions be made. While restrictions have been placed on the ball, in almost all cases, they did not roll it back, just placed limits at was already the edge of technology. During the history of golf, there has been only one serious attempt to roll back the ball. This occurred in 1930 when the USGA broke from R&A and unilaterally changed the specifications for a golf ball.
There were no rules on golf balls in the 19th century. In May of 1902, the Brooklyn Eagle ran an article advocating the standardization of the golf ball and lamenting the new rubber-filled Haskell balls. One major argument against it was ‘…it is contended that the greater distance to which the new balls can be driven spoils the present courses by making the holes too short and defeating the strategic purpose of the hazards, which have been arranged for the driving capacity of the gutta-percha ball.’
A counter argument in the same article was, ‘Against these contentions it is urged, first, that it is sufficient to establish the size and weight of the ball as in other games, and since there is a mathematical limit beyond which it is physically impossible to propel a ball of the present size and weight, which has already almost been reached, that it is against human nature to prevent its attainment.’ Another statement in the article was, ‘Finally, that in cases where holes are spoiled by the use of the new ball, the proper remedy is to rearrange the hazards or alter the tees.’
The article ends, ‘To our mind, the only contingency which would justify the establishment of so drastic a standard as the opponents of the new balls propose would be the invention of a ball that entirely defeated the superior skill and strength of an opponent, or which made the game impossible in the spaces at present devoted to its pursuit. Nobody has suggested that the new balls do either of these things.’
Things continued unchanged for nearly two decades more. Finally in the 1921 revision to the Rules of Golf a standard ball was approved with the following wording, ‘The weight of the ball shall not be greater than 1.62 ounces avoirdupois, and the size not less than 1.62 inches in diameter. The Rules of Golf Committee will take whatever steps it thinks necessary to limit the power of the ball with regard to distance, should any ball of greater power be introduced.’ This ball was what many of us who grew up in the second half of the 20th century called the ‘British ball’. At the time, it was accepted by both the USGA and the R&A. But, within 3 years the USGA felt that this ball was going too far and were starting to lobby the R&A for a change.
In July of 1926 the New York Times reported that W.C. Fownes on returning from a meeting with the R&A said, ‘The main reason for opposition to a change in the ball there is the same as it is here,’ he said. ‘There is a general impression that a larger and lighter ball, such as we advocate, would curtail length. Sight is lost of the aid that such a ball would give to the average player, inasmuch as it would be easier to hit on the fairway. The experimental work which we started, however, will be continued, and I think that at some time in the not too distant future we will have a ball that will be more satisfactory than the present one.’
The USGA was proposing a ball that would be 1.68 inches in diameter and weight 1.55 ounces. This ball would later be known as the ‘floater’ or ‘balloon’ ball.
In spite of the commitment of the USGA to gain the joint approval with the R&A for any ball changes, by 1929 they were ready to act on their own. On April 30th the R&A voted down a movement to change to a bigger and lighter ball, saying it would make the game too difficult. The USGA says that’s the idea, in light of so many better players now in the game. In an article in the New York Times on September 8, 1929, Fitzhugh L. Minnigerode wrote, ‘In this proposed change in size and weight of the ball it is the United States Golf Association that is being reactionary. They say the game is too easy, that with the small heavy ball now in use the professionals get such great distance and such accuracy that the game is entirely too simple and this lighter and larger ball will make golf a much more difficult game.’
He goes on to say, ‘Outside the professionals and the best amateur players, who constitute perhaps 1 or 2 per cent of the folk who play golf, it will be remarked at once that the game needs no more difficulties. Even with the ball in use today, the average number of strokes it takes to negotiate an ordinary golf course has increased by six to ten strokes a round. This is due to the ever lengthening of the courses.’
Never-the-less, the USGA approved the ball for play beginning on January 1, 1931. In designing the new ball the officials felt ‘that golf clubs would not face the burden of course alteration and that the new ball would be an aid to the mediocre player and expert shot maker as well.’
It didn’t take long for the screams to start. By May a satirical article by H. I. Phillips in the Washington Post, he has a mythical Senator Dumm complaining to Representative Dummer about the new ball, ‘If that ball behaves tomorrow the way it did today I will conclude that it was devised by a malicious rules committee to make the life of the average golfer more exasperating.’
Interestingly the professionals found that there was no significant difference in their scores with the new ball, but the amateurs complained loudly. As the Southern courses started play for the year, the players reported balls being blown off the greens and the ball being uncontrollable in the wind. Once the hot weather arrived the players found that the balls didn’t roll as accurately either. But they did like the size of the ball as it made it easier to hit woods and long irons from the fairway.
The New York Times reported later that year that the primary complaints by players about the ‘balloon’ ball were that ‘they were losing distance on their shots, found it increasingly difficult to play into the wind and finally that the ball did not have the true putting qualities of the old ball on the green.’ The professionals also expressed their displeasure with the new ball. At the Canadian Open they were allowed to use either ball, all but one player used the British ball. The American players said they selected the heavier ball because it putted better.
Westbrook Pegler wrote for the Washington Post, ‘At any rate, nobody has had anything good to say for the new ball as against the old, its best friends merely remarking that it is all right, whereas those who don’t like it are numerous and violent.’ He continued, ‘The only argument, or apology for the change has been that by suppressing the spirit of the golf ball, the golf association moved to restore the prestige of certain proud golf courses which the great artists of the game amateur and pro, had been humiliating in recent years. With drive and roll on baked fairways they were close to the green, and courses which had been engineered at great expense with a great variety of agonizing pits, tangles and swamps to confound the ordinary player were being humiliated consistently in the great tournaments. This was due, in part, to the nature of the ball, in part to the parching climate and in no trifling part to the gradual refinement of skill.’
Pegler continued, ‘But it was on duty of the golf association to rush to the defense of the golf courses. The golf course will humiliate thousands of players for every player that humiliates one of them and it does the duffer good to follow around on burning dogs while some marvel of the game, in beautiful revenge, makes a sucker of the golf course that has made a sucker of him. The golf course needs no sympathy. Like the roulette wheel, it stands to win.’
Some players did like the new ball. Bobby Jones was among those who declared themselves well satisfied with the 1.55-1.68, termed by its supporters the ‘alibi’ ball.
By September it had become evident that the new ball was a failure in the eyes of the golfing public, both professional and amateur. The USGA was forced to look at changing the standard. But, the players were really only unhappy with one aspect of the ball which was its weight. The size of the ball was ‘universally popular’ according to H. H. Ramsay the president of the USGA. Therefore in November of 1931 the USGA announced that a new ball that would be 1.68 inches in diameter and 1.62 ounces in weight would become the standard effective January 1, 1932. This is the ball that we all play today. The R&A finally switched over to this ball in 1990.
The USGA continued to put restrictions on balls. In 1942 the USGA put the velocity limit of 250 feet per second +2% in place. In 1984, the Overall Distance Standard when hit by Iron Byron of 280 yards +6% was introduced. Beginning in June of 2004, this will be increased to 320 yards, by using a new titanium driver and a faster swing speed than in the past.
Perhaps the reason the USGA and R&A are reluctant to roll back the ball may be in part due to their memory of the debacle of the ‘floater’ and how the general public reacted when it was introduced.