This golf ball from the 2012 Masters is a great example of a collectible tournament ball.
According to the National Golf Foundation, there are more than 39 million active golfers in the United States. Compare that to last year’s Major League Baseball attendance of 73 million and you find that baseball may still be America’s pastime from a spectator standpoint, golf is one of the most popular participant sports.
Add in the millions of casual fans who tune into the sport’s major tournaments and you have the foundation for the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today. The popularity of the sport has created a burgeoning collectibles market in the form of clubs, autographs and ephemera, including golf balls.
The origin and history of golf dates back several hundred years, and the modern game dates back to the 15th century on the greens of the Scottish Highlands. The golf ball has seen many evolutions over the last 600 years, and today collecting golf balls has become a hobby all its own.
The earliest known golf balls were made of hardwoods and crafted by hand. Genuine examples are extremely rare and can command thousands of dollars at auction.
The first significant change to the golf ball became known as the feathery. Made of feathers stuffed into a leather covering, the feathery was first used during the same time frame as the wooden ball. When the process of creating a feathery changed in 1618, it made them easier to produce. This type ball was used well into the 1800s.
In 1848, the reverend Dr. Robert Adams began creating golf balls made out of a substance called gutta-percha, which came from dried sap of the sapodilla tree, and these balls became known as a “gutty” balls.
Both featheries and gutties can be found rather easily and, depending on their origin, use and condition, can range in price from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. One of the most beautiful and prestigious golf clubs in the country, Pebble Beach, has a shop with numerous antique and vintage balls available for sale.
The modern golf ball as we know it today, with a rubber core, was first introduced in 1898 by Coburn Haskell and the BF Goodrich Company of Cleveland. It’s ironic that a blue-collar industrial city would give birth to the very staple of country-club living, but the necessary rubber used in the ball was processed all over northeast Ohio. When Walter Travis won the U.S. amateur golf championship in 1900 using one of these new balls, it became standard issue for all golfers and officially heralded the end of the gutty era.
An example of a wooden golf ball. Genuine examples are extremely rare and can command thousands of dollars at auction.
This 1856 feathery ball represents the first evolutionary change of the golf ball, moving away from a wooden ball to a leather shell stuffed with feathers.
Feathery balls faded from popularity once the “gutty” ball was introduced. Composed of gutty-percha, the balls were made from the sap of the sapodilla tree.
In addition to samples of golf balls that illustrate technological advancements, the use of branding on golf balls for marketing purposes provides an infinite array of collecting possibilities. Today, golf balls can be found with logos printed from companies whose industries range from banking to airlines, food manufacturing to textiles and every type of company between. The wide-ranging popularity of golf has created a collecting niche with seemingly limitless possibilities.
Other popular golf-ball collecting options that have gained prominence in recent years are course-specific balls, autographed balls and game-used balls. All of these provide an opportunity to acquire collectibles with true investment potential.
An original rubber core ball by Coburn Haskell.
Many professional golfers use signature-model balls authenticated by the various manufacturers like Titleist, Callaway and TaylorMade. Often times, upon completion of a tournament, tour players will toss their golf balls into the gallery, leaving a lucky fan with a truly memorable experience and potentially valuable collectible. The key to turning these types of balls from a mere souvenir into a true collectible is the authentication.
Depending on the player’s tournament results and career achievements, if the lucky recipient is able to have a photo taken with the player or, better yet, have the ball autographed, that gallery member will walk away with a great piece of golf memorabilia.
Much like other sports, the venue often defines the event or tournament. Collecting logo golf balls from historic courses can create a truly worthwhile collectible, especially if you have the opportunity to play them. Hundreds of thousands of such course balls exist, so the real appreciation of such a collection would be in the varied assortment of balls collected. Course logos do change over time, so older balls from courses like Augusta National, home of the Masters Tournament, can carry a premium depending on era and condition.
Some of the more popular courses to pursue from a venue-collecting standpoint would be those that have hosted one of the major PGA tournaments: the U.S. Open, the Masters, the British Open and the PGA Championship. These courses include St. Andrews, Augusta National, The Merion Golf Club Muirfield, Baltusrol Golf Club, Oakland Hills Country Club, Oak Hill Country Club, Winged Foot Golf Club, Medinah, and Pebble Beach, to name a few.
The difference between a souvenir and a true collectible is authentication. Get a photo with the player or, better yet, get it autographed.
Storage of your golf-ball collection can be visually appealing—just be sure that there’s UV protection to preserve logos and autographs.
The U.S. Open and PGA Championship, in particular, hold a host of collectible possibilities, as the course rotates from year to year unlike the other two major tournaments. Complete lists of past and future events can be found for both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.
Storage and preservation of golf balls require minimal effort, needing only to be kept out of direct sunlight to reduce the chance of yellowing and fading of any logos or autographs. Numerous display pieces exist and make for a very impressive presentation. Acrylic golf-ball holders made with UV protection are available for minimal cost and should be used to store all autographed balls.
So, if you are looking to start or add to an existing golf-ball collection, remember to create a theme, research thoroughly and acquire pieces only from reputable dealers.
Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.
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