Golf Ball Autopsy


Not everyone knows what’s inside a golf ball. I do. Or I thought I did.

When I was a kid a friend of mine taught me how to open golf balls. You need a hacksaw (Sw. bågfil) and preferably a vise (Sw. skruvstycke). It’s impossible to open them with a knife or wire cutters – you’re guaranteed to stab yourself if you try. After removing the dimpled hard white shell, we found a layer of soft black rubber, then tens of meters of tightly rolled-up thin brown rubber band, and at the ball’s centre a small limp ampoule of soft black rubber that felt like it contained oil. I don’t recall opening that. In essence, the balls I opened in the 80s were like balls of string, only consisting of rubber band.

Over the last year I have collected two messed-up golf balls from the ground in order to pass the lore on to my kids. One, a Callaway HX Hot 3, looked like it had been gnawed by a large sharp-toothed dog. The other, a Spaulding Top-Flite 6, had been set on fire and then put out before the whole shell caught flames.

Opening the two balls with my kids last night, I found to my surprise that neither contained any rubber bands. Both instead consisted of a solid ball of very hard rubber, orange in the Callaway and blue in the Spaulding. The Callaway also had a layer of hard clear plastic inside the shell.

So now I wonder, like archaeologists often do when faced with a small sample of finds, if the difference I have documented is due to change over time or if I am dealing with two separate functional or symbolic categories of golf ball that have co-existed for decades.

Disclaimer: I would be embarrassed if anyone imagined that I play golf. I just live next to a golf course where I occasionally go skiing in the winters.

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  1. #1 Russell
    January 7, 2010

    When I was a kid, I managed to get one open with just a pocket knife. I think I would have said it required a lot of patience, and thought it was pretty neat that it was essentially a sheathed ball of rubber band. I figured the core was just used to start the wrapping. What I wondered was how they managed to make the wrapping uniform.

  2. #2 kevin
    January 7, 2010

    The solid-core variety have been around since at least the 80’s, I’d guess. I recall getting a few such duds when searching for the rubber-band variety when I was a kid.


  3. #3 Russell
    January 7, 2010

    Kevin, you make me feel old.

  4. #4 Matthew Putman
    January 7, 2010

    Actually this is funny you mention this. I grew up with the opposite experience. When I was a child my father was doing research and development at a tiny firm that he ran with his cousin and my grandmother. One of the projects he worked on was the solid core golf ball. So we had these all over the place. They were toys from work. Still, it wasn’t until more recently that nearly every ball started to use them. They were always known to fly further, but were thought to be harder to control. Though I don’t know this for sure, I think Tiger Woods, or another famous golfer started using them religiously, and that help the concept take off.

  5. #5 phisrow
    January 7, 2010

    I had the same experience as you(rubber wound when I was a kid, tried it again and found only solid polymer).

    That doesn’t really push us over the line between “sad little pile of anecdotes” and “actual data”; but it wouldn’t much surprise me if there has in fact been a general change in internal structure.

  6. #6 Ian Tindale
    January 7, 2010

    Rubber bands in the one I cut open as a child, also (in the sixties). This is clearly an example of evolution at work, demonstrating irreducible complexity doesn’t prevent an intermediate stage from being overly complex before becoming optimised after enough developmental runs.

  7. #7 jimspice
    January 7, 2010

    I also hacked open balls as a kid, but did so with trepidation as the rumor held they were prone to explode.

  8. #8 Ingvar M
    January 7, 2010

    In a recent episode of “How stuff works” (on Quest, UK), they showed solid core golf balls being made. Seems at least one ball manufacturer (as opposed to a ball design firm) makes only solid core, these days. The colour of the core indicates properties of the core, but I have no handy key for checking what’s what.

  9. #9 Martin R
    January 7, 2010

    The cores we checked out last night each had a seam, indicating that they’re cast in moulds consisting of two hemispheres.

  10. #10 Larry Ayers
    January 7, 2010

    I dissected a few golf balls when I was a kid during the late sixties. Under the yards and yards of rubber band wrapping there was a sealed ampoule of a dark viscous substance. The word amongst my peers was that the goopy stuff was deadly poison and possibly explosive.

  11. #11 Mike
    January 7, 2010

    When I was a child, back in the 70s, the rumour was that golfballs contained acid – people usually claimed battery acid! I remember dissecting one and finding the tightly wound rubber band. I think there was a small rubber ball in the centre – I can’t remember whether this contained anything or not, but I didn’t find battery acid in there.

    It’d be interesting to find out how widespread the ‘acid’ rumour was – I have spoken to a few people who also grew up in Northern England who were also told they contain acid. I never heard the rumour about them containing explosive.

  12. #12 Don in Rochester MN
    January 7, 2010

    I was never told that golf ball cores had an explosive, per se; rather that the core was under pressure and that when the windings were released, the core would blow up because of that pressure. My friend Kim and I found that hard to believe, so we dissected several to check it out. It was a little disappointing to get to the core with no explosions. This was in the 60s in northern MN . . . .

  13. #13 A.P. Ferguson
    January 7, 2010

    Not to make y’all feel even older, but when I was a kid in the early ’90s my dad and I sawed open several balls out of our big box of cart path scuffed rejects. We got some yellow and white solid cores, but then my dad decided to try a “balata” ball. This resulted in a small rubbery core explosively launching out of the groove from the saw. We then put the tools away before my mom found out.

  14. #14 Doug K
    January 7, 2010

    my experiment using a sharp penknife in the 60s, found the rubber-band style with a hard rubber ball at the core. Cutting into that core released a liquid under extremely high pressure. It didn’t explode and didn’t burn the skin (much). We concluded our investigations before testing the liquid for flammability 😉

    I am with John Gierach, philosophically opposed to golf..

  15. #15 qetzal
    January 7, 2010

    @Mike (#11):

    We used to cut them up as kids in the late 60s / early 70s as well. All the ones we did were the type with rubber band wound around a hollow fluid-filled core.

    We also heard the rumor about battery acid inside the central core. We cut them open anyway. As I recall, the fluid was clear, a bit more viscous than water, but not as viscous as cooking oil or motor oil. We didn’t really think it was any kind of acid, but we still avoided touching it. Just in case, right?

    Interesting to think that the battery acid rumor might have been so wide-spread, especially since there was no internet or similar media to spread it around. (FWIW, we lived in Houston at the time.)

  16. #16 Pär
    January 7, 2010

    Your friendly local golf player here, at your service.

    Golf balls come in two flavours – solid-core and wound, with the latter being all but extinct, which is why any found golf ball is more likely to be of the former kind.

    Solid-core balls come in several flavours as well – 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-piece constructions, all with different characteristics. Typically, 2-piece balls fly far, 3-piece balls are softer, 4-piece balls are more expensive, and 5-piece balls are for show-offs.

    It would appear that the Top-Flite is a 2-piece, and the Callaway a 3-piece construction. The numbers stamped on the balls are just for in-game identification purposes, btw.

  17. #17 ArchAsa
    January 7, 2010

    Martin, you’ve got way too much time on your hands…

  18. #18 Martin R
    January 7, 2010

    Thanks for enlightening us, Pär! I did wonder about those digits. Unlike you I don’t have the necessary reserves of coolth that would allow me to play golf and still have any face left.

    BTW, you should try listening to the Drabblecast, Sherman is your kinda guy!

    Åsa, opening golf balls is a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.

  19. #19 Alistair Wall
    January 7, 2010

    In the early nineties, I worked on an atlas of eye injuries that had a whole chapter on injuries caused by dissecting golf balls. Some of the chemicals caused injuries that were difficult to treat, especially as the golf ball manufacturers were reluctant to disclose what they were.

  20. #20 Tor
    January 7, 2010

    Gosh — I grew up among golf balls, too, but I don’t think the idea of opening one ever even occurred to me. To think what I missed out on! No use starting now: those new solid-bore ones seem very inferior.

  21. #21 aweb
    January 7, 2010

    Solid Core Golf balls caught on when MArk O’Meara, a solid but otherwise unremarkable player, won two of the four “major” tournaments in 1998. He was Tiger Woods’ friend, and while many players were using a solid core ball at this point, I recall that being frequently mentioned at the time. Within 2 years, Tiger Woods also switched to a solid core ball, and that was the end of the wound balls.

  22. #22 Another Kiwi
    January 7, 2010

    Hi what a cool topic. I also sawed open golfballs in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s and found kilometers of rubber band about 2mm wide when stretched around the very soft inner core. The rubberband was just tied around the soft centre which my older brother assured me was deadly poisonous. We found that taking the shell off older golfballs and dropping them was diverting because the bands would spontaneously unwind flicking the ball around in a satisfyingly dangerous way. Modern golfballs appear to have evolved to be almost boring inside, suggesting major holes in the irreducible complexity doctrine. I’m just sayin’

  23. #23 John
    January 7, 2010

    I once took on a side job drilling holes halfway through golf balls, hammering in spikes, and selling them to kite flyers as sand stakes. The wound, fluid centered ones made a gushing mess when you drilled into the center, so I quickly discovered that you could tell the difference either by dropping them or by spinning them. A solid ball would bounce off of a smooth concrete floor nearly back into your hand, while the fluid centered ones only bounced back about 2/3. Spinning was less obvious and took longer, but a fluid centered ball doesn’t spin nearly as long.

    I’m assuming the fluid centered balls may be more forgiving; the fluid center decaying spin that causes a hook or slice, sacrificing ultimate performance for reliable playability. Maybe that fluid doesn’t bounce off of the club quite as hard as a solid ball, either. Solid balls will drive all of the spin into aerodynamic reaction, creating more lift. But only if you hit it just right, if you hit it crooked it’s going to hook or slice all that much harder. But it works great if you’re Tiger, which is great for selling unforgiving product to ordinary Joes. Plus, they’re all that much more likely to get lost in the rough, which ultimately sells more balls, right? Hmm…

  24. #24 Nathan Myers
    January 7, 2010

    My brothers and I used to cut them open in the early ’70s. At that time, balls from golf courses were always the wound variety, and the solid ones were used on driving ranges. I don’t recall that we ever cut open the fluid-containing bit; not for fear of poison, but just because we weren’t interested. We assumed it was some random oil.

  25. #25 Vince Whirlwind
    January 7, 2010

    1970s, Europe & Australia: rubber-band cores.

    Looks like the fun police have got to the golf balls now.

  26. #26 Tony P
    January 8, 2010

    Back in the 1970’s when Uniroyal still had a plant here in Providence my friends mother worked there. She used to bring us golf ball centers. Those suckers would bounce like there was no tomorrow.

  27. #27 Martin R
    January 8, 2010

    Said John, selling them to kite flyers as sand stakes

    That’s intriguing. Were the spikes used to anchor kites to the ground?

  28. #28 Pär
    January 8, 2010

    John, check this for a brief discussion on the spin characteristics of the different ball types. It’s actually the other way around.

  29. #29 hoerath
    January 8, 2010

    when i was a kid (around 1988) we cut open 3 golf balls after hearing the battery acid rumor…. i live in the midwest and had heard about it from one of my older cousins. All of the balls were old in 1988. THey could have been leftovers from the early 60’s. The third golf ball we cut open seemed just like the other two until we got to the core which sprayed a fluid everywhere. I remember it getting on one side of my neck and all over my hands which were holding the hacksaw. The area turned red and burned really really bad but after rinsing with soap and water for a few minutes it started to fade. I have touched battery acid (which seemed to burn worse) but whatever was in the golf ball i opened was not benign. I don’t know enough to say it was acid but it was something strong. It certainly seems like it would have blinded me if it got in my eyes…….

    I feel sort of lucky to have the explosive acid reaction to openint a golf ball… i googled it assuming lots of people would have had the same experience as me!

  30. #30 Martin R
    January 8, 2010

    Hmm… 1960s… Acid in golf balls… Turn on, tune in, drop out, play golf!

  31. #31 Adrian
    January 15, 2010

    I remember cutting open a golf ball in either the late ’50’s/early60’s and finding the rubber bands. Cutting through these there was a core which exploded a viscous white substance into my face when punctured. I don’t remember any burning, just a difficult to remove glue-like stuff. What is it about cutting golf balls up, I didn’t realise it was so widespread.

  32. #32 Kerstin
    January 15, 2010

    I wish to thank you all, boys of all ages, all over the world, for the amusing and utterly interesting knowledge on the topic “whats inside golf balls and why”. I am not a golfer and have never cut open a golf ball, but I was delighted to read about your experiences!

  33. #33 Martin R
    January 15, 2010

    We do it to impress you girls. (-;

  34. #34 David M
    February 2, 2010

    I just cut open a Titleist Tour Balata, and even though I was careful the thing ruptured and sprayed everywhere. The shell was very soft, and only about 2mm in I hit the rubber bladder on the inside. The compression of the rubber bands around it squeezed out the liquid. Some got in my eyes and it didn’t burn, but I flushed them anyway. I drained the remainder of the liquid and kept dissecting. As I removed the shell, the rubber band core literally popped out and unwound in a pretty spectacular unraveling. Now I have a shell, a wad of rubber band bits, and a deformed and empty rubber bladder. I have one more, which I’m going to try and open more carefully and see if I can keep the bladder intact.

    Another blog claims that Titleist says the liquid they use is a mix of saline solution and corn syrup.

  35. #35 Charley
    May 18, 2010

    welll i didnt know tht you couldnt cutt it with a knif wow i was realy going to try my self

  36. #36 dodemont
    February 3, 2011

    sorry i’m french
    I work in a science museum in Paris(“palais de la découverte”)
    I want to use your photo for my new exibition. I would like to know if I can use your photo for my experiences on EPDM (with your copyright)


  37. #37 Matt
    April 22, 2011

    Thanks for this! I was confused when I opened a ball last night with my kids and found a hard rubber solid core. I t was very hard to cut open – we used a hcksaw and vise, and we all wore safety glasses. The kids were excited to see the rubber bands and liquid core, so it was a bit disappoining to find none of that… Oh well, thank goodness for YouTube!

  38. #38 Silvia Krupinska
    October 29, 2011

    Hi all, I’m Silvia Krupinska, I’m an Organic Contemporary Sculptor. What a useful group! I’m trying to use the golf balls for sculpting, and I opened my first yesterday. A friend of mine told me, that I need to get oil out, and then I could work with it better. To my surprise and delight, I found no oil, but pink, blue, yellow polymer in 3 and last one had green stringy looking fibre inside. It worked well for me, getting different colours! I have lots more to crack.

  39. #39 elizabeth
    March 29, 2012

    someone in my classes uncle opened a golf ball and inside there was a little ball and he opened it and got acid in his eyes and now he has completely no vision in his right eye. and we found a news paper online from 100 years ago and this kid at the ball with acid and his blood vessels exploded and he died

  40. #40 Lauri
    April 9, 2012

    Ya know opening golf balls in the late 60’s & 70’s was not just a guy thing, us girls did it too. It was really fun trying to figure out how we were going to dissect it, played with the blac ball & the rubber band ball all the time. Never heard about any poison or acid in it though! My stepson & husband opened one up today, & I was trying to find out what was inside nowadays. Man, we had a good life, our kids today aren’t as lucky as we were!!!

  41. #41 Random
    May 6, 2012

    I was a kid all through the 90s (21 now) and the only golf ball I hacked open (vice and pruning saw) had rubber band wrapped around the core, to my amazement the tension of the rubber band the shell was holding back gave way once open and it started unraveling so quickly giving enough energy to spin the golf-ball around in the dirt like it was alive, that kept happening for half a minute.

  42. #42 Ron
    May 13, 2012

    I opened the elastic wound type of golf ball with a hacksaw and then Stanley knife when I got to the rubber band bit.
    The end result was that I got the fluid from the wee ball in the centre squirted in my eyes. It didn’t burn, nor did I lose my sight, the surprise caused some panic though. Not quite as bad as inhaling petrol on my first goes at syphoning ! The stuff that came out of the ball in the centre was a sort of gloopy beige liquid which was difficult to remove from my eyes as it seemed to set a bit once in the air. I’m sure someone told me it was some sort of glycerine mixture ? It had a funny smell I would recognise again.
    Anyway, glad to hear there are plenty of other boys who were inquiring enough to hack at anything that they wanted to see the interior of !

  43. #43 Denny
    United States
    July 9, 2012

    Until the late 1990’s most quality golf balls had a rubber core, sometimes solid and sometimes filled with air or water (not poison) with rubber band type windings at high tension. A balata cover (surlyn for cheaper balls) finished the process. TopFlite Strata changed that with a balata covered solid core ball that had modest success on tour, but led to the introduction of the Titleist Pro-v1 in the fall of 2000. Billy Andrade won the Las Vegas Open with that ball and wound golf balls soon became a relic in the golf world. Today, the typical pro-line ball has fairly large solid core, with one or two mantle layers to lessen spin characteristics with the driver and a urethane cover to allow lots of spin on approach shots to the green. I am almost sure there are no wound golf balls manufactured today. Quality and consistency is much better with solid technology.

  44. #44 Marlene Pollitt
    Burnside, KY
    October 6, 2012

    This is Sat. 10-6-12 and i am in need of 2 golf balls with tr band centers. I purchased a box of golf balls and to my surprise they no longer had the rubber bands. This Fri. i am doing a lesson and need the golf balls with the rubber bands. Can anyone tell me where and what type i need to get, if they still make them this way? Thank You

  45. #45 nunu
    October 29, 2012

    well i was opening a golf ball yesterday and found a hard rubber ball in the inside of it what i wanna know is what kind of golf balls have rubber bands if you know feel free to email me about it because i wanna know

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