The Ball Problem
Max Behr

Conditions Result in Deterioration of Skill and Place Premium on Physical Power
January 1, 1927 in The Country Club Magazine

Mr. N.S. Main, in the October 29th issue of London Golf Illustrated, observes that ‘it is one of the greatest attractions of golf that the players is left unfettered in his choice of methods and implements . . . for the fundamental charm of the game lies in the atmosphere of freedom which surrounds it, and the number of limits and standards should be kept at the barest minimum.’

This pervading atmosphere of freedom is not peculiar to golf; it is an attribute of all sports in distinction to games. But freedom does not presuppose the doing away with authority. The origin of authority is simply changed from without to within. The follower of a sport must discipline himself if freedom is not to beget license. And, in its connection with the ball, it is exactly this that has come about through a misundersanding of what the nature of golf demands.

In a game the contest if for the control of a common ball. Skill opposed to skill, and hence is relative to the tasks which the opposition creates. But in all sports skill is expressed along parallel lines. That is to say, in sports, there is a conceivably ideal way in which the task of skill may be accomplished by all contestants. We are conscious of this in the playing of a golf hole, and, according to our abilities, we succeed or fail in paralleling this line. Thus golf belongs within the category of a sport. And in a sport skill is comparative in solving similar problems. The actual opponent in golf is nature, the human opponent being merely a psychological hazard except when his ball happens to interfere upon the putting green.

Now the ball is the intermediary of skill in pastimes where use of it is made. But in games, due to the opposition of skill, the physical limitations of the players supply a counter balance which determines what the speed of the ball must be. This is evident if we imagine lawn tennis with its tight strung racket being played with a ball a quarter or half again as resilient as the ball now used. The augmented speed of such a ball would overbalance agility of the players to meet it, and the game would degenerate to a mere contest of pace, and slam itself out of existence. Hence the standardization of implements in games cares for itself. The gamester is not free to choose.

But golf lacks this counter balance inherent in an active opposition. The golfer is free to choose. Therefore what the size and weight of the golf ball should be becomes a problem of sportsmanship. And we shall not go far wrong if we define a true sportsman as one who endeavors to adjust his implements down to a point where they will just sustain his skill in order that upon it, and it alone, must depend the decision of the contest. Perhaps it may be unwise and impractical for golfers to completely identify themselves with such an ideal. Nevertheless, the reopening of the question of a standard ball has arisen because the 1.62-1.62 ball has gone too far in the opposite direction. Play with it has resulted in an unbalancing of the elements of skill. Let us see what is meant by this.

If we analyze skill at golf we find that, roughly, it consists in the ability to control direction, pace, trajectory, and cut. And to be effective these elements of skill must be coordinated in the necessary combinations to conquer the difficulties which hazards impose. And, further, if this coordination is to require intelligence, the intermediary, the ball, must be so balanced with the hazards it has to contend against as to keep these elements in a continual flux. Such a universal call upon skill is imminent in all games. But if physical means are granted which encourage an over-emphasis being placed upon any one of the elements, instinct, which always seeks the easiest way, triumphs over intelligence. Hence, skill becomes impoverished to the extent that physical means permit the dominance of any one of the elements to the destruction of their mutual interdependence.

True sportsmanship prescribes the use of physical means whereby any one of the elements of skill may be secured automatically. That was the reason for barring the ribbed-faced club. The cultivation of skill to give the ball underspin became minimized to the extent that it could be produced mechanically. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club barred the Schenectady putter because it was thought that in some way it rendered easier the control of direction on the putting green. It also barred the steel shaft for sentimental reasons, if not from fear that it gives greater distance. If the latter was a consideration, it is a mistake; but the steel shaft does offer a greater factor of safety in the control of direction. Against this, however, must be set the fact that only a favored few get possession of first-class hickory shafts. Hence, in the interest of equity the R and A may some day standardize it. But the manufacturer of the golf ball who is in business for profit, and who cares nothing for the health of golf, has been permitted to sugar the instincts of his customers with a ball that is a far greater offense to tradition than what the face of the club, the shape of the club, or the materials of which is made could ever be.

In these questions which arose in regard to the club, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club was undoubtedly guided by tradition. And tradition is never to be belittled, but always to be respected. By analogy, tradition may be looked upon as the topography of the visible, conscious life of man. Traditional ways of doing things are merely the final stream beds into which the gravity of cooperation has disciplined selfish instinctive ways into more considerate habitual ways. And the character of a people shows itself in the formation and color which this gradual discipline has induced. But these characteristics are always subject to change owing to the motivating force of instinct; whereas, in the interest of balance, the laws which are constantly enchanneling this force are immutable. Thus we see the thoughtlessness of those whose acts are guided solely by the disruptive force of instinct, and, also, the ineffectiveness of those who so adhere to tradition that they imagine that by dams and dykes they can nullify this force. Civilization is largely a drainage problem. That enlightened group of men who now propose that all tariff walls be done away with are merely suggesting that the map of the world be tile-drained. But, as it is not, cataclysms must continue to arise, and the latent power of instinct, ever ready to destroy, must continue to overflow its banks to ruin the cultivated fields of civilization.

In golf such a cataclysm was impending with the arrival of the rubber core ball. A sudden impetus was given to the stream of instinct to hit the ball a long way. It would never have been right to have denied this instinct by standardizing the gutty. The adoption of such a course by authority would have meant a change in authority. But the volume of instinct let loose was temporarily held in check by tradition. In the transition to the rubber core, the manufacturer adopted the size of the gutty. Air resistance still remained a sufficient restraint, preventing unintelligent instinct from overflowing the cultivated fields of skill. What, then, are the traditions of the golf ball?

The favored size of the gutty ball was numbered 27. This number stood for a mould 1.719 inches in diameter. This diameter was in close proximity to the average diameter of the feather ball and the hand-molded ball. But the weight of the pure gutta-percha balls varied considerably. This was doubtless due to the unequal density of the rods of gutta percha. I have calculated and found that the average weight of twenty two different makes of the year 1896 was 1.483 ounces, the heaviest being the Thornton at 1.545, and the lightest Paxton’s Distant at 1.385. It is manifest that to have attained greater weight with the solid ball it was necessary, either to enlarge its diameter, or to adulterate the gutta-percha with some heavier material. But this latter expedient must have resulted in some loss of resiliency. This would seem to be evidenced by the fact that the Eclipse ball at 1.70 ounces was no more popular than the pure gutta percha balls. As a material gutta percha was ideal in naturally setting a standard for weight and size in accord with the traditions of the feather ball. And according to the world of Old Tom Morris the first gutties could be driven little, if any, further than the feather ball they replaced. Had no such material as gutta percha existed, or been discovered in time, golf might still be the exclusive pastime of a few, if it had not passed forever from the face of the earth.

The author of the article from which my information about the gutty ball is taken, sums up the history of the golf ball, from the feathery through the hand molded ball down to the ball of his day, with these two very pertinent observations:

‘We are treading a well worn path when we are more careful of the diameter of the ball than of its weight. The makers are observing traditions of the game, probably without knowing it, when they make our balls of varied weights, but of the same diameter.’

But today the manufacturer of the golf ball is in possession of flexible materials. He is not handicapped by a material which established a natural balance between weight and size. Thus we see that, as the art of the rubber core ball making developed, the manufacturer tried to evolve a ball that would driver further and even further, just as previous generations had by leading and compositions tried to do likewise. This ambition was only natural. The seller of goods generally pandors to the blind instincts of his customers. Rarely do we find him an artist considering what the result must be when his good reach their destination. And the blind instinct that he catered to was an insane desire to merely hit the ball a long way. Having the means now to accomplish this, and one might say aided and abetted by uninstructed authority, he proceeded to add weight and reduce the diameter of the ball, and the traditions surrounding this most important implement of all went by the boards.

The question arises whether the traditions of the ball are worthwhile considering. The hand molded gutty was certainly an advance over the feather ball; the machine molded gutty over the hand molded; and, notwithstanding the fact that the gutty probably required greater skill to play, for other and important reasons, the Haskell was an advance upon it. Now if we leave the weight of the ball out of consideration, the size of these older balls alone created a sporting balance with the hazards they had to contend against. The palpable hazards of the ground are largely subject to the control which the player has over direction, trajectory and pace. But his control of these is predicated upon his control of the hazards to which the ball is first subject. And these primary hazards are gravity and air resistance. Gravity is a constant factor, and its operation is fast or slow in the degree that air resistance creates inertia. But the present standard ball shows by the length of its fall that it is not air resistance so much that brings it to earth, but the pull of gravity. When the wind is against or across, air resistance has an effect upon it, but it is rare when this is ever sufficient to alter type of stroke. And this is the crux of the whole question. All active games and sports require some indeterminate, debatable hazard which tends to flux the elements of skill into ever new correlations.

We can by bunkers drive the player to a high shot, and by undulations perhaps break him to play a run-shot. But it is only by forcing the player to again consider the resistance of the air to the ball that we can acquire a variable hazard calling upon him at all times for variety of stroke to cover like distances. The present ball places in the hands of the player places a tool whereby he may satisfy his natural instinct to hit the ball the same way every time. He has only to be careful to select a club with the right lift. And then he lets go at the ball with a standardized length of swing. The resistance of the air being no longer an influential hazard, pace is exaggerated and trajectory is largely subject to mechanical control. Indeed one of the very greatest American professional expressed the opinion to me that he did not think it was practical today to play any other than full shots. And he attributed the state of British golf, not to any deterioration of skill, but to the fact that the present ball had robbed it of expressing the more versatile skill that it possessed. There is food for thought in that opinion.

Thus it would seem that the former cultivated fields of skill have become flooded, and are no longer to be seen for the debris of brute force and machine skill that has been deposited upon them. And the unbridled instinct of the undisciplined, unschooled mass of golfers, rushing it knows not where or cares, has created such a noise that authority has bowed its head before the flood.

It should be self-evident that if golf is again to require the skill it once did, air resistance must again become the hazard it once was. We know from psychology that it is only when instinct meets with opposition that intelligence is born. And with the need of greater intelligence through the opposition of air resistance there will come a renaissance of skill in golf. What we are witnessing today is not any high degree of skill in stroking the ball, but the mere control of physical power in hitting it.

The deterioration of skill brought about by the present ball has caused a mischievous repercussion throughout the length and breadth of golf. The inordinate distance the ball can now be driven has cause in golf architecture a very definite infirmity of principleas all deductions from quantity values are apt to induce. Quantity must be opposed by quantity. Consequently the size of our greens and the width of our fairways have become restricted, and the rough made damnable. Instead of being an art where the medium penalty is used to create ideas calling for intelligent application of skill, golf architecture has become a system of penology. Thus instinct is met by instinct, and the under the stimulus of impulse the mind is subject to the delusion that two wrongs can make a right. Little is being done to curb instinct; our fairways are mere troughs through which it is allowed to vent itself. We are locking up this wild desire for distance just as we cage wild animals.

And instead of picking the ball clean from the turf as we once could, we must now go down after it and litter the landscape with our divots. This change from the traditional way of stroking the ball had thus had a most deleterious effect upon greenkeeping. And a further effect, especially noticeable in the United States, is the demand to keep the greens in a soft condition. The golfer cannot stop the ball so the greens must. This has caused overwatering which has seriously damaged the health of the turf. Indeed the evil ramifications caused by the present ball could fill a book.

The problem of the ball is the most serious that golf has ever been faced with. It is one that our authorities must solve successfully. And while they are about it, the question before the golfers of the world is plain as a pike-staff. Are they going to be sportsmen and accept a ball that requires skill to propel, or, in their infantile worship of mere distance, are they going to continue to be downright game-hogs?

The End