for featheries or once-despised gutties has sent prices soaring.
COULD you fall in love with a golf ball? Collectors fought over one at a Phillips auction last month until it was carried off for pounds 19,995. It is now basking in the Soto Grande region of southern Spain, in the collection of the Bolivian tin millionaire Jaime Ortiz-Patino, whose private golf course, Valderrama, will host the 1997 Ryder Cup. The collection is one of the world's finest.
As the Phillips auctioneer, Bob Gowland, remarked jubilantly: "Golf balls are going crazy." The top six balls in his sale made a total of pounds 60,000. That craziest price was for a grubby brownish specimen of about 1830 stamped with the maker's name, "D Marshall".
Despite the recession and the withdrawal from the market of fanatical Japanese golf-course owners when their economy hit the rough five years ago, American and British collectors have pushed golf-ball prices ever higher - though it is often Mr Ortiz-Patino who pips them at the pin.
Why? Odd though it may seem, old golf balls have a sinewy charm. The pounds 19,995 ball is handmade. Hold it (although you are unlikely to get the chance) and you will find it light, firm and warm to the touch. The casing is untanned bull's hide; the inside is packed with down plucked from geese that grazed commons in Georgian times. Such balls are known as "featheries".
To make a feathery, three pieces of hide - two discs and a rectangular middle strip - were softened in alum crystals dissolved in water, stitched together with waxed thread, turned inside out through an unsewn quarter- inch gap to hide the seam, stuffed with feathers, then sealed with the skill of a modern keyhole surgeon.
As well as skill, the process required strength. A top-hatful of goose down, still warm and moist from being boiled, had to be stuffed in under pressure. That called for a steel stuffing rod with a crutch handle leather- strapped to the craftsman's body. He pushed soggy feathers into the still- damp ball, inserted the rod's blunt tip into it and thrust again and again until the ball was packed tight. As the ball dried the hide shrank and the feathers expanded. A most satisfying little item.
The ball-maker's art is now lost, overtaken by technology. Even an experienced craftsman, probably apprenticed to a golf club "pro", could make no more than four featheries a day. They sold for one to five shillings each (equivalent to pounds 2.50 to pounds 12.50 today) depending on how nearly spherical they were. Almost all have rotted away in golf-course ponds or long wet grass - or exploded in spectacular snowstorms of feathers when mishit. Hence their rarity.
Only the richest of today's golf collectors could afford the thrill of driving an antique feathery from the tee. (Even those without the maker's name can fetch pounds 3,500). Has anyone, I wonder, ever had the nerve to try it? A good hit would be akin to cracking a bottle of Napoleonic wine. The agony of a feathery explosion would belittle the wildest prescriptions of de Sade.
Some have risked less and putted one. Among them is Edward Monagle of Christie's, who is mounting the first British auctioneer's sale of golfing memorabilia in America - in Pebble Beach, California, next Friday. He reports: "If you putt a feathery with an old-fashioned, long-nosed club it gives a most satisfying `Ping!', just like a modern Top-Flite."
Which is what golfers have always found irresistible. Mr Monagle's initiation into the pleasures of the game came at the early age of 12, when he happened to strike a ball with the centre of his club. "There was a `Click!', and the ball flew effortlessly. It was an indescribable feeling. To this day, I've never experienced anything quite like it."
There you have another explanation of feathery fanaticism. In the course of golfing history not every type of ball has thrilled with "pings" and "clicks". For a period of 50 years, after four centuries of knocking about with friendly featheries, and before the birth in 1898 of the modern ball with its tense but responsive heart of wound-up rubber thread, golfers did the rounds with something nicknamed a gutty: a dour black thing made from hard gutta-percha rubber imported from the colonies.
When golfers hit it, they felt they had hit stone. It had no "give". Instead of responding flexibly, the gutty simply distanced itself - further than the feathery. And going the distance, confused and discomfited players told themselves, was all they wanted. So, though unloved, the gutty clung on.
But how boring. Disrespectful makers put scrap metal inside to force an extra few yards out of them. They also took to disfiguring them with random hand-hammered indentations, having been told by caddies that gutties with "smiles" gashed into their faces by mishits on the course proved more aerodynamic.
It is ironic that the world record price for a golf ball - pounds 20,585 - is for a hand-hammered gutty. Mr Ortiz-Patino bought it through his London dealer, Titus Kendall, at Phillips in 1992. It was discovered in Victorian times, already some 40 years old, walled up in the old clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews.
The ball bears the imprint of Allan Robertson, a great golfer and the greatest of a great family of feathery ball-makers, who died in 1859 aged 40. How he came to be seduced by gutties is something of a mystery. When they first appeared, he used to burn them. He fell out with his apprentice, "Old" Tom Morris, also a great golfer and ball-maker, because Morris used a gutty in a tournament. Robertson's abandonment of featheries is said to date from the day he knocked a gutty round St Andrews' old course in an astonishing 79 strokes.
Clubs are still more valuable than balls. The record price for a club, an 18th-century iron made by a blacksmith, is pounds 92,400 - also paid by Mr Ortiz-Patino. But as players begin to take a keener interest in golf history, the fact that balls dictated the design of clubs, instead of vice-versa, is boosting the importance of balls as collectables. Those brazen gutties, for example, used to break the graceful necks of old-fashioned, long-nosed wooden clubs. By the end of the last century, club heads had had to adopt the short, stout, globular shape still used today.
The most dramatic surge in auction prices for vintage golf balls is in less expensive 20th-century varieties - a sign that new collectors of modest means are entering the market. For example, First World War balls with the familiar modern dimpled surface now sell at auction for around pounds 50; a couple of years ago they could be had for a fiver. And early 20th- century rubber-core balls, with intriguing indentations such as stars, crescents or double triangles, can fetch anything from pounds 200 to pounds 2,000. It is worth tipping out the contents of grandpa's golf bag, Mr Monagle advises, for these are the kind of balls he has found lurking at the bottom of a bagful of clubs worth only pounds 80. !Reuse content