Much like DePauw University professor Harry Brown’s own childhood experience: my brother, my cousins, my uncle, and I once took an old Titleist, clamped it down in a vice, and started tearing open the balata cover with the finely serrated edge of a hack-saw. We knew what we were going to find. The uncle in our group, John, was only a few years older and functioned more as a big brother than a “ranking” relative. He had shown us dozens of black and dark blue rubber balls, several with wide gray dots covering an entire side, and we did all the things boys do with little, explosive rubber balls—throwing them against the walls (and at each other) as hard as we could. Finding hundreds of old golf balls wasn’t difficult for us given that we were growing up on the little nine-hole layout my grandfather had opened three years before I was born. But even though we were immersing ourselves in the science and the history of the little spherical projectile on a daily basis, we never consciously considered its place in the pantheon of modern American pop culture, nor in the realm of sports science and engineering, and certainly not in the field of ecology and environmentalism.
—–In Object Lessons: Golf Ball (Bloomsbury), Brown considers all of these matters plus the larger, more existential questions the ball raises, ranging from our relationship with science to the golf ball’s role as an imprint of our existence.
—–“I had read a lot about the history of the game, and I thought it would be interesting to look at [it] from the perspective of the ball, and then look at the way we relate to it and put our identities, our emotions, and everything into it,” Brown explains. To underscore the originality of his approach, Brown dissects the three most influential golf instruction manuals: Bobby Jones’ Golf is My Game, Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, and Jack Nickluas’ Golf My Way, and reveals how each of them largely ignores the ball’s role in the enjoyment of the game. In fact, even when Brown doesn’t directly allude to our collective focus on golf’s many distractions—oversized drivers, scientifically weighted putters, gimmick training tools, and myriad private instruction camps—his constant redirection to the little sphere on the ground between our feet heightens its absence in much of golf’s literature.
—–Brown’s “front nine” chapters (heading “OUT” as the contents suggest) focuses on the history and development of the ball, from its early days as a block of wood carved on a lathe, to its elitist era as a very costly hand-sewn leather bag, to its renaissance as an inexpensive rubber-based gutta-percha golf ball. This transition from the leather-hide, wet-feather variety (costing as much as $20 per ball in today’s figures) to the gutta-percha is the singular moment, as Brown sees it, for both the evolution of the ball and the game itself:
“It was when kid in Scotland [Robert Adams Paterson] cobbled together a ball, the gutta-percha, using packing materials because he couldn’t afford the balls which were actually in use [the feathery balls made of bull hide and wet feathers]. It was a moment of spontaneous invention. It wasn’t a factory owner; it was some kid who wanted to play golf and couldn’t afford to play. He just made, all by himself, a new kind of ball, and that new kind of ball democratized the game. Not only did it fly farther, but it was a lot cheaper, and it drew so many more players into the game which led to the construction of so many more courses and really led to the expansion of golf outside the British Isles. So, I think the modern game was founded in that moment, when he made the first gutta-percha golf ball.”
—–Concentrating on two landmark court cases—one addressing technology, the latter addressing the trademarking and marketing of the golf ball—Brown takes us to “the turn,” and on our “back nine” we discover the larger, metaphysical value of the object in our lives…and beyond.
—–“I saw this as a case study in the human relationship with technology. I thought it was interesting…how golf ball technology is related to ballistics,” Brown says, also adding that, “I take it beyond the human experience. What is a thing when it’s not connected…when it’s not defined by its relationship to human beings?”
“I had read a lot about the history of the game, and I thought it would be interesting to look at [it] from the perspective of the ball, and then look at the way we relate to it and put our identities, our emotions, and everything into it…”
—–From the exhilaration we feel at the moment of impact on a great swing, to the art of “finding” the ball in the air after we’ve struck it, to the littering of over 100,000 balls on the bottom of Loch Ness…Brown’s examination of the golf ball is less a study of the object sitting at the center of the once most-popular recreational game in America. Rather it’s a study of what the game once made us feel; what it makes us feel now; and what the game, the ball, and the people who made them will evolve into in the centuries to come.