Rules School: Golf Balls And Clubs

Nov 10, 2011

By Dr. Lew Blakey

This article is the third in a six-part series exploring the history of the Rules of Golf. The objective of these articles is to give the reader greater clarity on why Rules changes occur and what types of things are considered when making, or not making, a Rules change. In conjunction with The R&A, the USGA writes, interprets and maintains the Rules of Golf to safeguard the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The next revision in the four-year cycle will take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

In the early days of golf, the game was played with a ball made of feathers tightly packed into a leather cover that was both expensive to make and of short playing life. The introduction of the hard gutta-percha ball in 1848 provided the game with a more durable ball but also one that flew much farther, thus bringing with it a new problem that made courses much shorter to play. An even longer ball came into use in the early 1900s with the invention of the rubber wound ball.

At this time, although there were intricate rules for many elements of the game, there were no rules governing golf balls. With the development of balls that flew farther than those of traditional design, there was a call for regulation, and this became a prominent topic in golfing journals during the period 1900-1920.

Discussions between the USGA and The R&A began in earnest in 1920 with an informal conference at Muirfield, Scotland, with the objective of setting parameters for the ball’s size and weight, specifically to limit performance. For a short while, it seemed that there was agreement on a maximum weight of 1.62 ounces and a minimum size of 1.62 inches in diameter and The R&A amended the 1920 Rules of Golf in May of 1921 to that effect.

However, divergence in opinions soon appeared as The R&A moved in the direction of preferring to limit the specific gravity of the ball, not its size and weight, which would have the effect of producing a floating ball. However, over the next few years, both the USGA and The R&A conducted experiments with various sizes and weights. The USGA concluded that a ball of lighter maximum weight of 1.55 ounces and a larger minimum size of 1.68 inches might be a desirable solution to the perceived problem of increased distance that a ball carried. The R&A remained to be convinced and concluded at its spring business meeting in 1929 that it would postpone any action on the ball specifications until further investigation.

The USGA unilaterally implemented its conclusions to take effect as of January 1931. The reaction of the golfing public was swift as evidenced by letters from readers and an entire page in the July 3, 1931 edition of LIFE magazine that included a petition to be presented to the USGA stating that “We believe that the new ball is a failure. We vote that the old ball be restored to official standing.” The USGA lighter ball was labeled the “balloon ball” and consequently in 1932 the USGA promptly responded with a new standard - the maximum allowed weight was increased to 1.62 ounces and minimum size of 1.68 inches was retained as the larger minimum size was popular with American golfers.

Thus, although the USGA and The R&A agreed on a standard minimum weight of 1.62 ounces, an official stalemate existed beginning in 1932 regarding the size of the ball, with the USGA specifying a minimum size of 1.68 inches and The R&A allowing a smaller ball with a minimum size of 1.62 inches.

Even with adoption of the joint code of 1952, the two sides agreed to disagree, with each side continuing with their respective standards except that for international competitions the smaller size ball was permitted even if held in the United States. Eventually in 1990, the Rules of Golf adopted the USGA specifications of a minimum size of 1.68 inches for use worldwide.

As to clubs, a minor rift developed between the USGA and The R&A over the use of a putter with attachment of the shaft at the center of clubhead. The R&A banned this type of construction for putters in 1909 but the USGA interpreted the Rules as allowing such putters. It wasn’t until 1952 that The R&A agreed with the USGA position.

Beginning in 1914, steel-shafted clubs were not allowed by either the USGA or The R&A, as they were not seen as a permissible departure from the traditional form and make of golf clubs. The USGA relented and approved steel shafts in 1924 followed by The R&A in 1929.

With the approval of steel shafts, players soon noticed that these shafts were long-lasting but did not have the torsion of hickory, thus limiting the ability of the player to work the ball. A new technique evolved where players carried a large number of clubs to achieve the desired result. This development offended traditionalists who were accustomed to carrying only a few clubs, perhaps as few as five or six, and the USGA responded in 1938 with a preamble to the 1938 Rules of Golf specifying that a player carry a maximum of 14 clubs. Interestingly enough, there was no penalty statement associated with this prohibition until 1939 when the USGA added a penalty of disqualification.

When The R&A added the 14-club limit in 1939, there was no penalty statement. In 1952, the joint code included the restriction to 14 clubs with an associated penalty of disqualification. In 1956, the Rules were again revised to relax the penalty of disqualification to a loss of hole in match play and two strokes in stroke play upon discovery of a violation.

Dr. Lew Blakey serves on the Amateur Public Links Championship Committee and has worked as a Rules official at all four professional majors – including 14 U.S. Opens. Email questions or comments to clairelu@comcast.net.

Discussions between the USGA and The R&A began in earnest in 1920 with an informal conference at Muirfield, Scotland, with the objective of setting parameters for the ball’s size and weight, specifically to limit performance. After several rounds of debates, disagreements and changes the Rules of Golf adopted the specifications of a minimum size of 1.68 inches and weight of 1.62 ounces in 1990. (USGA Museum)


Beginning in 1914, steel-shafted clubs were not allowed by either the USGA or The R&A, as they were not seen as a permissible departure from the traditional form and make of golf clubs. The USGA relented and approved steel shafts in 1924 followed by The R&A in 1929. Byron Nelson (above) was one of the first players to embrace the use of steel shafts. (USGA Museum)


Dr. Lew Blakey, the author of this article, has worked as a Rules official at all four professional majors – including 14 U.S. Opens and eight Masters Tournaments – and numerous other USGA sectional qualifiers and national championships, including two Walker Cups. (USGA Museum)