Looking Back at Balata Golf Balls (And Explaining What 'Balata' Is)

Does anyone make or sell balata balls today?

A balata tree being tapped for its latex-like sap in the South American country of Guyana
A balata tree being tapped for its latex-like sap. Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Not so long ago in golf history, balata golf balls were the ball of choice for low-handicap golfers, and something the rest of us aspired to play. But what is balata? Why did balata balls disappear from golf? Can you buy them anywhere today?

Balata Starts as a Tree Sap

"Balata" refers to a naturally occurring, rubber-like material that was once used for the cover on golf balls. "Balata balls" were used by professional golfers and low-handicappers because the soft, balata cover allowed for much higher spin rates on iron and wedge shots, and greater control over ball flight by those highly skilled golfers.

Balata is one of the names of a tree that grows in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The tree is tapped and the soft, viscous fluid that later hardens into the rubber-like material of golf ball fame is harvested just as one would harvest sap from a rubber tree or maple tree.

First Use of Balata for Golf Balls

In the timeline of golf balls, balata balls arrived on the scene in the early 1900s. Spalding began producing golf balls with balata covers in 1903.

What Made Balata Balls the 'Pro's Ball'?

One of the main reasons balata was thought of as a "pro's ball" or "low handicapper's ball" was because that soft, balata cover cut so easily on mishits. Mid- and high-handicap golfers don't make good, proper contact on a regular basis. If you bladed a balata ball, that cover was sure to cut, rendering the ball unplayable. Nicks, dents and scratches were common, as well, on mishits, or, for example, as the result of a balata ball bouncing off a paved cart path or into rocks or smashing into trees.

In my earliest days as a golfer, a relative bought me a dozen personalized golf balls with my name emblazoned on them. But, not a golfer, he bought balata balls - thinking the pricier balls were naturally the best balls. But they definitely weren't for a beginning golfer like me. That dozen balls was cut up in no time. I probably scuffed, dented and cut a ball per hole until the balls ran out.

So balata balls were used by better golfers, while recreational golfers used golf balls made with harder, cut-resistant cover materials (Surlyn, a trademarked name and material developed by DuPont, is often remembered as the alternative to balata).

Balata balls eventually disappeared when golf manufacturers began developing alternative cover materials (such as urethane) in the 1990s, materials that offered the soft feel of balata but were far more durable.

Do Any Companies Make Balata Balls Today?

No, as far as we know there are no golf ball manufacturers, large, small or specialty, that make new golf balls today using balata covers.

Can You Buy Balata Golf Balls Today?

Why would you want to? Current golf balls are several orders more advanced technologically than the last generation of balata balls. But maybe you're just curious and want to know what a balata ball felt like. Or maybe you have some vintage golf clubs and want to go all the way with some vintage balls, too.

Unused, still-in-package balata balls are difficult to find, but not (for now) impossible. But your best bet is eBay or other online auction sites or retailers of vintage sports equipment. We recently noticed Titleist itself selling stock of Titleist Tour 100 balata balls on Amazon. They were asking $40 for a sleeve of three, so if you do find any they'll be pricey.