I read a question and comment on the blog the other day by someone who was asking about what happened top balata golf balls. He said they used to be so much softer and you could spin them a lot more when you wanted to hit intentional hooks or fades and what happened to them.
Well, what happened to balata golf balls is that, first and foremost, back in the good old days of those balls, the balata cover was very soft. If you mishit one, especially anywhere near topping one, it could cut a gash completely through the balata cover and expose the rubber winding on the inside. They were expensive balls to play with if you were one to top a few shots now and then.
The other problem was that Surlyn was invented. Surlyn covers are much harder and are more able to take a top shot and not cut. In many cases, you can barely even nick them. They also reacted a lot better if you landed on the cart path where they didn't gouge up so badly you couldn't use them again. So Surlyn basically made the balata golf ball obsolete.
The other problem is that to build a balata golf ball to a heck of a lot longer. In fact, when I've asked people questions in the old days, how long did they think it took to make balata golf balls, I got everything from an hour to half a day. In reality, when Titlest was making them, it took almost a full 30 days. From the time they took the raw, rubber products, cured them and did all the other things to make the ball — the cover, the rubber windings and the liquid center — until it was ready to roll out and into the sleeve, took 30 days. So it was a very timely and expensive process.
When Surlyn came out and they started making two piece balls, the Surlyn cover with the sold center. Now we have some with two and three covers, and I think I've read about one with four different covers. Those balls are a lot more inexpensive to make because the materials are all synthetic and not pure rubber and they show a high profit margin for the manufacturers. For most golfers, especially if you don't hit the ball consistently solid, they're a better golf ball in terms of wear and tear for you, as long as you just don't lose them.
The other issue brought up is that balata golf balls had a lot more spin and you could work the ball better. That's true. If you're a golfer that has the ability to work the ball, that is, hitting an intentional draw or fade or slice if you want, you'll find that over the years, with the advent of perimeter weighted clubs, which don't allow twisting as much, and now with the Surlyn ball with the cover being harder and the dimple pattern reducing the spin (and therefore the ball stays straighter), even intentionally wanting to hit a draw or hook is harder to do. In many cases, you have to do twice as much of the under release or over release to get it, and you still get only half the spin you used to get with a balata ball.
On the other side of the coin, for those who have a little more trouble hitting the ball relatively straight, less spin will help them not have as big of fades and hooks if they hit bad shots. So that's a good aspect of the harder golf ball of today, as well as the fact that the wear and tear is a lot better for the golfer who can now play longer with the same ball.
So, balata really is a dinosaur and I believe it's gone forever. Sad to say, balls are not as workable. But I think they are making better playability balls for all golfers. I would like to see them make balls with softer covers where you can get a little bit more spin and work the ball for those who have the ability to do it. I still think softer is better as far as workability of the ball, especially around the green. I think we're starting to see that with a number of the manufacturers offering balls where they are advertising “these balls are softer and have more spin.” They're trying to get back to making a ball that hopefully has a little bit more of the touch and feel workability of the balata, but I don't think we'll ever see the true degree of that when we had balata golf balls.
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