History & the Applied Science of Golf Swing Theories: The Gutta Percha Ball Era


Since the invention of more affordable and softer Gutta Percha golf ball in the 1860s, losing a golf ball was no longer a fiscal tragedy. Players started to give a good slash at the ball with less focus on the direction and control.
Much of the swing mechanic in this era, in the regions of Carnoustie, St. Andrews, and Hoylake, became part of the development of the golf swing. With the softer gutta percha balls allowed the grips to be reduced in size (less padding on the grip) leading to easy to produce longer backswing. The large amount of torque in the hickory shafts also required a hands and arm dominant motion with longer backswing to maintain control over the whippyness of the hickory shaft.
The first known book of golf instruction can be dated to this period, with the publication in 1857 of A Keen Hand, by H.B. Farnie. The focus of technique was primarily on a long-running disagreement as to whether an open or closed stance was the better way to address the Gutta Percha ball, which was difficult to get high in the air.
In the book, The Art of Golf, Sir Walter Simpson (1887) gives a vague, theologically possible yet physiologically improbable, description of how to generate more club head speed: "“The player whose driving is feeble should hit harder. Unless it is because he is nipping, in which cases he ought not to nip.” Sir Walter Simpson also recognizes the importance of psychological aspect of golf in a blunt yet very applicable way, even by modern standards: "“The more fatuously vacant the mind is, the better for play. It has been observed that absolute idiots … play steadiest .... Alas! we cannot all be idiots. Next to the idiotic, the dull unimaginative mind is best for golf. In a professional competition I would prefer to back the sallow, dull-eyed fellow with ‘quid’ in his cheek, rather than any more eager-looking fellow."
Also notable golf instruction book from the late 1800s is by Horace G. Hutchinson. In his book, Hints on Golf (1896), Hutchinson makes a description of what Club Path is in the modern day swing as having "to make the club travel as long as possible in the direction in which you wish the ball to go."
Such written advises were useful and insightful, to a degree, but the information was not readily available. Golf instruction was starting to develop in this period. It has been noted that there were more demonstrations in a lesson and the focus of the instruction was on getting people into the right frame of mind for golf.
Historically, it is noted that there were some affiliated similarities among same regional golfers. Carnoustie swing were known to be a huge, hands-around-the-neck stroke so long that "it seemed to club must inevitably hit the left knee." St. Andrews swing featured a closed stance, centered ball position and a strong grip, to induce a low hook that was demanded due to the fierce wind, with "a huge sway, a full shoulder turn, and the high rising of the right elbow and the left heel, with a throughswing that was a long, gradually accelerating sweep." Hoylake swing had a shorter, more compact features that was from the hard turf which inclined the players to sweep the ball with a flat swing plane.
The notable player at the time was Thomas Morris, also know as Young Tom Morris. He displayed a commonly used gripping technique of holding the club with hands about one finger-width apart. He had a lengthy backswing which again was common technique of the time to control the whippy hickory shaft. It is said that his long shots were usually low to medium in trajectory, which kept the ball in play in the windy conditions. He is also known to be among the first players to intentionally shape shots and utilized backspin. This is contributed to his creative use of the rut iron, a club designed to escape ruts from cart tracks on the course. He used the lofted club, similar to that of modern sand wedge, for short approaches, hitting high shots that spun. Putting method of Young Tom Morris was noted to be quite unconventional for its time. He had an open stance with the ball positioned back in the stance (close to his right foot).
The next big changes in the swing mechanic came in the early 1900s when Haskell ball and steel shafts were introduced to the game and the players started to take a more refined and scientific way of moving the golf club.
(To be continued in the next section - Era of the Haskell Ball & Steel Shaft)

Lee J.H. Lee,
PGA of Canada Class A
Emirates PGA
Titleist Performance Institute Level 2
Lee is the Executive Director at the Links Times. He is also the creator of Hush Golf. He teaches golf from Sharjah Golf & Shooting Club (United Arab Emirates) and at the Bear Mountain Golf Resort (Canada). Follow Lee on Twitter @leejhl@UAEgolf and @linkstimes. Also Friend Lee on Facebook at Facebook.com/leejhlee or Search "Dubai Golf Chat with Lee"