Golf ball technology has come a long way since they were stuffed with feathers

Technology |  2 min. read

Why should Dustin Johnson, or Rory McElroy, or Justin Rose care about petrochemicals?

Because their chances of putting on the green jacket come April 14th depend on it.

You won’t find “petrochemicals” on anybody’s list of what to watch for at this year’s Masters – but there wouldn’t be a Masters without petrochemicals – because there wouldn’t be any modern golf balls without petroleum (which is what petrochemicals come from).

That wasn’t always true, of course.  In the beginning, all you needed was a tree, since both clubs and balls were wood.  Then came feathers (that was the inside) in a leather cover.  It’s said the featherie was a fine ball, but since even an expert could make only a handful a day, many of us would be out of balls long before we hit the back nine.  That was followed by gutta percha and rubber (back to trees again, although you could make these balls and still leave the trees standing).

Of course, it isn’t oil anymore by the time Titleist or Callaway enter the picture.  And by the time, Justin Rose is placing his ball on the tee, it isn’t even petrochemicals anymore.  But those chemicals are building blocks for today’s golf balls (along with about a zillion other things).

Making a typical ball – means mashing, stretching, chopping and molding synthetic rubber with other ingredients to form a core, and then a cover (the pros use polyurethane for its soft feel) is molded around that.  The petrochemicals in that mix?  Most often, the polyurethane made from benzene for the cover, and a mix of polybutadiene and zinc diacrylate made from butadiene and ethylene for the core of the ball.

And there’s a lot riding on those balls.  Patrick Reed won the Masters last year, and he took home a check for $11 million.  In fact, even if you didn’t make the cut at the Masters, you still got $10,000 – which buys a lot of golf balls.

A lot of us (who play golf) don’t use exactly the same balls the pros use, but we’re teeing up with petrochemicals too.  For amateurs, a popular ball cover is made from Surlyn®, which is the brand name for a ethylene-methacrylate copolymer made using ethylene and propylene.  Today’s balls make for better golfing (and you can buy these days for durability, for distance, for balls that drop and stop on the greens) – and they cost less than golf balls used to.  A good thing – since by one estimate, there are 300 million golf balls lost every year.


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