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Friday, February 7, 2020

O.B. Keeler on the Length Debate

I won't lie to you -- this is a long post. It's a reprint of an article that O.B. Keeler wrote for the 17 December 1921 issue of The American Golfer. (The article is so old that it's in the public domain, so it's safe to reprint it here in its entirety.) It was apparently part of a series he did, and this one dealt with the newly-standardized golf ball and the problem its length would cause.

The USGA and R&A say this debate about length and technology is a hundred years old. It is... and I think it's worth hearing how the argument sounded a century ago. I think it's remarkable how similar it all sounds -- for example, note that Keeler talks about 600 yards as the then-current limit for par-5s, and also about how the easier-to-play Haskell ball helped make the game more attractive to the casual player.

And if you've never read any Keeler before, enjoy this little taste of his style.

Why These Fads and Fancies?

Number 10—Ballistics

By O. B. Keeler

The dictionary defines "ballistics" as "The science that deals with the impact, path and velocity of projectiles." That is not precisely what I thought it was, but it is such a noble, rotund word, and so scientific withal, that I am going to let it go as a title where it stands. The golf ball assuredly is a projectile, with impact, path and velocity, and so much ballistical bally stuff has been written about it that a few stickfuls more or less will cause no considerable splash.

Recently we have got the golf ball in our power in at least one direction—we have the wretched thing standardized. That is, it must not weigh more than a certain weight (1.62 ounce); and it must not be smaller than a certain diameter, which I think is that same amount in inches; while it can be as much lighter or as much larger as desired—which doesn't appear to be much.

It seems we were tending toward a pellet about the size of an old-fashioned quinine pill, with a soupcon of radium in it, or something to give it a range that would result in the scrapping of all our standard golf courses and making them over on the Great Plains of the Middle West or the Desert of Sahara, or somewhere where there was more room.

Reaching a Standard

The Royal and Ancients and other golf arbiters decided something ought to be done about it—steps should be taken, resolutions adopted; measures taken, or something. It turned out to be measures; weights and measures, you might say. And now we have the standardized golf ball, with no especial sacrifice of power, velocity or range, if the advertisements may be credited.

As a matter of fact, they stopped the revision of the ball downward right about where it was; I think that a few brands were a shade smaller and a shade heavier than the present standard; but I do not recall a season with more punishment administered to long-hitting records than the past one.

So the golf courses are saved, it seems; and we moderate players won't have to battle our way with a drive and five screaming brassies to get in range of the eight hundred and nine hundred and thousand-yard holes, predicted not so long ago by the more excitable pessimists as the logical outgrowth of the smaller and heavier and higher-powered projectiles turned out year by year.

Six hundred yards will, for the nonce, remain the approximate limit—that is to say, a drive and two screaming brassies for the gentler players to get in pitching distance; for it generally is agreed that a brassie shot should not be expected to scream unless it travels more than one hundred and fifty yards.

Relieved of anxiety on that account, we may turn our attention for a bit to reflection on golf projectiles as they are and a little as they used to be, with no cluttering scientific flapdoodle to cumber us.

The golf ball was not always thus, a lively and expensive globule of rubber core and rubber strands and gutta-percha shell, with a range, when properly spanked, of upwards of a quarter of a mile, and a nervousness on the greens, especially when approaching the cup, that seems symptomatic of hereditary delirium tremens.

Twenty years ago, before Mr. Haskell—a man with a vision which probably by no means was commensurate with what he actually accomplished for and to humanity—devised the rubber-cored ball, the sedate gutty had held sway for some generations; about two, anyway. And before that was the "feathery."

I suppose prior to the feathery the hardy Caledonian shepherds used round pebbles—called rocks south of the Smith & Wesson Line—and drove, approached and putted with their shepherd's crooks, which look as much like golf clubs as some of the putters now in alleged use.

Days of the "Featheries"

The encyclopedia is uncertain as to when the feathery was superseded by the gutty, but it must have been a glad day for all concerned. The feathery, which I understand used to be imported from Holland in considerable quantities, was manufactured laboriously by sewing together a leather cover, all except a small hole through which the cover was turned wrong side out. The cover then was placed in a sort of mould the size of the prospective ball—1.62 inch or larger or smaller—and incredible quantities of soft feathers were tamped in it with a tool like a blunt chisel, and a hammer.

The leather was dampened while the stuffing was in progress and when not another pin-feather could be tamped in, the orifice was sewed up. Drying, the leather cover naturally contracted and the resultant ball was a pretty solid affair, and, it is said, fairly resilient, leaving the club "quite sweetly."

The feathery, in fact, appears to have behaved pretty well in dry weather and on dry turf. But when it got wet it was readily knocked lopsided, and the vertebræ of the feathers, to say nothing of their ribs, began to stick out, so that in a few holes the thing must have looked like a popular conception of a porcupine egg.

The first use of the gutta-percha ball, so I have been told, was marked by a dismal and depressing failure. Gutta-percha was coming rapidly into use for the manufacture of all kinds of articles, mostly moulded; and some golfing genius concluded that a moulded golf ball of that substance, painted or enameled white, would be a great improvement over the feathery, unstable of shape and tending to sprout feathers that in no way aided it to fly. One consideration, too, was that the gutta-percha ball would be smooth and would offer less resistance to the air in flight.

So the first gutties were duly moulded, smooth and fair, and painted, and seasoned a bit, and then taken out for trial—and they behaved in a most perverse and provocative manner. Fairly hit, they got up with a crisp smack, flew a short distance, and then ducked scandalously—the way a well-pitched spit-ball breaks.

"Gutties" Disappoint

Sometimes they didn't duck at first, but broke to the right or left, apparently with no reference to pulling or slicing—and then ducked. They simply would not fly. And after an afternoon of swatting and profanity—if golfers of that era were of a stripe with those of our unregenerate day—the inventor and his collaborators gave it up and in place of braining a group of sniggering caddies or boiling them in oil, they wreaked what they considered a cruel and unusual vengeance on the boys by giving them the entire lot of gutta-percha golf balls.

The gallant lads attacked this trove of missiles with zest, and at first they had no better luck than their ciders. Impetuous youth, however, swung harder and harder in the effort to compel the pretty, smooth globes to sail, and, as frequently results nowadays from hard swinging, hit the balls on the roof a good deal, and nicked them.

And presently, and gradually, a remarkable change took place in the conduct of those gutties. As they were battered, they began to fly; and the more they were nicked and cut and notched, the better they flew until, to the pop-eyed wonder of the youngsters, they outranged the best of the featheries.

This circumstance coming to the notice of the perpetrator of the new idea, he had sense enough to connect the dentation of the surface with the better flight of the ball. Smooth balls would not fly; nicked balls did fly. Ergo, the ball required a grip on the air to sustain it properly.

So they started out with another lot of moulded gutties—moulded smooth, and nicked by hand, with a clumsy tool; hand-hammered markings, unsightly and irregular, that yet did the business. In a short time workmen became somewhat skilled at the business; and marked the balls in patterns. And then the obvious ensued, and the molds were made with the marking in them—the squared symbols of the famous old Silvertown ball; the diagonals of the "Woodley Flyer"; and later the bramble or Agrippa marking, used, I think, on the Vardon Flyer, and brought over into the lively ball days in the old Red Dot.

The dimple marking came a little later, and there was much discussion as to whether the air got a better grip on the pimples or in the rugations of the depressed style, which has come to be the most general in modern times.

The Haskell or lively rubber ball proved, of course, the most radical and revolutionary innovation the game has known. It is directly responsible for the prodigious spread of the game, which, with the old gutty, was restricted in interest mainly to persons who were willing to study the art and work with it until they were at least decently proficient. No one not decently proficient at golf ever got any inspiring fund of amusement out of the hard-headed gutty. It had to be hit well to perform at all.

Old Alec Herd was the first notable player to use the new ball in a big championship, and with it he won the British Open of 1902 and established himself among the immortals.

An Orgy of Experiments

The fascination of the new ballistics was by no means restricted to players of golf. The manufacturers, after catching their breath, started out on an orgy of experimental production. They put nearly everything inside the rubber strands to serve as a core—everything from soft-soap and plain cooking water to some kind of acid that ruined the eyes of inquisitive children who cut into the missiles or bit them open. They made the balls smaller and wound the strands tighter, and Ted Ray and Abe Mitchell and others hit them farther and farther, until finally the legislative powers took hold of the situation to save the golf courses from further stretching, and for other purposes, as the conventional legislative bills recite.

And here is a matter in which even this modest deponent feels qualified to offer a bit of advice to that vast segment of the golfing proletariat known as duffers—and to the average golfer, as well; the golfer who plays around the hundred mark, and occasionally gets below it.

One of the first things the golf beginner does after outfitting himself with a lot of clubs and starting in to harrow a golf course, is to find out what kind of ball So-and-So uses—the long-hitter, the scratch man of his club. And the neophyte then decides that is the ball for him, and forthwith ties to it.

In approximately ten instances out of ten, that is not the ball for him. The small, high-powered, heavy ball used by the hard-hitting expert is a distinct handicap to the average duffer, who needs no additional handicaps. Because a certain ball yields enormous distance to George Duncan, Abe Mitchell, Jess Guilford or Bob Jones, or to some other expert, does not mean that the cramped, or flabby, or mis-timed swing of Messrs. Tom, Dick and Harry will get a maximum of flight out of it.

To extract the long flight tightly wound up in a high-powered golf ball, it must be hit firmly and truly and with a distinct and decisive kick; in a word, correctly and hard.

A ball of lower power, a less tightly wound ball, responds much better to a moderate blow and yields far better results, in distance and direction, to a partly missed shot, which is the kind of shot the duffer almost invariably uses. The larger and lighter balls are the ones for the duffer, or for almost any golfer not shooting regularly around 90 or better. They sit up better through the fairway, without the diabolical tendency of the smaller and heavier ball to nestle into every depression. They are easier to hit, which is no small part of the duffer's problem. And they get away with more life and verve from a light or uncertain stroke. Many experienced golfers contend that the lighter ball putts better; and all agree that it is easier to control in pitching to the green.

Yet the most usual combination seen in the ranks of dufferdom is the uncertain, erratic, choppy swing of the inexpert golfer and the type of ball used by his own professional and by the low handicap men of his club.

It is only ten years ago that Chick Evans, then playing a very pretty game, was using the largest-sized ball on the market; full weight, it is true; not a floater, but a ball as large as he could get. And he did well with it, and the same ball is still on the market—and it is one of the least expensive, too.

The late George Adair, of Atlanta, one of the most studious and thoughtful and intelligent of golfers, once told the writer that the floater was the best type of ball for all-around use, until a man had got to where he could shoot 90 with fair regularity. But there are comparatively few brands of floaters now on the market, and they are regarded with scorn, as suitable for women and children, by the average duffer, who hits grass-cutters around the course, viciously nicking the soft cover of the high-powered ball until he gets to a water hazard, when he puts the wretched pellet out of its misery by drowning it.

A few more yards on the drive, maybe even fifteen or twenty, is what the expert gets out of the heavy, high-powered ball now known as the standard. The duffer and I believe the average player get little except aggravation of the spirit and an occasional long wallop, when he happens accidentally to catch it just right.

It may be out of the province of ballistics to say so, but I believe that a vast majority of golfers would play better golf with a larger, lighter, and more durable ball than the new standard.

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