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In the beginning of golf history, early 15th century, golf balls were made of wood. Soon the players realized that this didn't exactly give them the control they wanted, so they started sewing leather pouches that were stuffed with feathers. The pouches were sewn while wet and the feathers were wet as well. When dried, the feathers expanded and the leather shrank. Pretty clever if you ask me... This was in the late 15th century.  

Anyhow, in 1840s the gutta-percha gum was discovered. It came from the Malaysian Palaquium tree and it was heated and molded into a small ball. It was very inexpensive and much more durable than the feather balls. The guttie was a huge success and made the game a little less exclusive. Soon players started to notice that old and worn balls flew longer and straighter than new, smooth, ones. They realized that the marks and scratches made the ball go longer. The makers of the gutties adapted and started manufacturing the balls with different patterns and marks on the balls. Being a purely experimental practice, the results varied. Today we have well developed theories of aerodynamics and know how this works. See Why are Golf Balls Dimpled?

In 1898 the first rubber golf ball was produced. It had rubber thread wound around a rubber core. After a while the makers started putting shells on top of the rubber thread to make it more durable. They choose balata, a latex from the tropical bully tree. It was strong and lasting. In 1908 William Taylor started putting dimples on the balata surface of the ball, which increased the length of the ball flight. 

It took until 1930 for the golf ball to become standardized to weighing 1.62 ounces (45.93 grams) and having a minimum diameter of 1.68 inches (4.27 centimetres). Today initial velocity, driver distance and symmetry are also being regulated. 

Until recently, the balata ball from the early 20th century has been the one in use. However in the late 1990s a new type of solid core balls, with a thin polymer layer inside a urethane shell were becoming more and more advanced. Today most professionals use this new type of synthetic sold core balls, which provide greater ball control and distance. The latest model from Titelist, Titleist Pro V1 have been at the top of the leaderboard constantly since its introduction in October 2000.

The golf ball market is worth over $ 1 billion per year, and the big names are Titleist with some 45% market share, Spalding (Top-Flight and Strata) with a little over 20% and then follows Maxfli, Precept, Wilson, Nike, TaylorMade and Callaway.

 

Source: britannica, scientific american