Thursday, 2nd July 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Putting the Bounce in the Ball

Posted on 30. Aug, 2010 by in Golf

Putting the Bounce in the Ball

Playing golf near the rainforest which revolutionized the game

MANAUS, Brazil

Normally when I play golf, I clutter my head with an excess of swing thoughts – turn, extend the arm, swing to two o’clock, and so on.

But standing on the first tee of the Manaus Golf Club outside the Brazilian city of Manaus, I complicated my life even more by posing a historical conundrum – if Manaus had never existed would we still be playing golf with featheries?

Needless to say, with all that mental baggage my first drive on this hilly course was not a thing of beauty.

Still, I was delighted to be in this Amazonian corner of Brazil, a five-hour flight inland from the sensual coastal city of Rio.

Manaus, population 1.7 million, owes its fame to two lucky breaks of nature.  The first is its location, at the confluence of the vast Solimoes River and the similarly huge black-water Rio Negro.  These two riverine behemoths join at Manaus to form the mighty Amazon, a river so big it carries one fifth of all the fresh water in the world; in one day it carries more fresh water than the Thames in England carries in a year.  A friend who wanted to kayak the length of the Amazon from its source in Peru had to keep paddling a hundred miles out to sea before he could taste salt water.

So, Manaus served as a convenient port that enabled traders, explorers and beetle collectors to open the interior of South America.

The course was deserted on the Tuesday afternoon I played, but the club secretary, Celso Sato, had organized for me to play with Denilson Macado, the caddymaster.

Although he’s only been playing for four years, Denilson, 26, has a fluid swing and plays to four.

He was beating me handily.  But I had a good excuse.

With a couple of friends, I had just returned from two weeks exploring the upper Rio Negro in an open canoe, following the route of Alfred Russel Wallace, a mid-19th century British naturalist.  We had been sleeping in Indian villages in hammocks, swimming in the black waters, fishing for piranhas.  Great fun, but I was exhausted.

I thought I had left the jungle behind, but as we stood on the tee box of the 5th hole I was surprised to see a mini-forest, smack in the middle of the fairway.  This wasn’t just a few decorative bushes, this was a patch of some two dozen good-sized trees, about 130 yards from the tee.

I remembered the advice of a caddie I had in Thailand.  “Left side no good,” she scolded.  And her advice would have been appropriate in Manaus, since the left side contained bunkers and scrub.  “Right side no good.”  True again, because to the right of the fairway forest was a small bunker and just next to it was out of bounds.  No chicken-out zone.  “Straight good.”  Denilson smacked a drive that somehow weaved between the palms.  I punched a drive that landed in the middle of them, but I had a line to the green.

I found it rather refreshing to have a forest in the middle of a fairway, here at the entrance to the Amazon.

But I was disappointed that there were no rubber trees, and my mind drifted again towards tales of how the British had almost destroyed Manaus.

Manaus became rich because of a single tree, found only in the Amazon rainforest: Heavea brasiliensis.  Rubber.

The discovery of rubber in this region corresponded with the industrial revolution, and the two concepts fed each other.  At its peak, rubber financed a civic flowering in which the citizens of Manaus enjoyed electricity and public trams several years before either Paris or London. The streets around the Manaus Opera House (designed by Gustav Eiffel, of eponymous tower fame), where world-class singers from Europe performed, were paved with rubber so that theatergoers would not be disturbed by the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. In a story that local historians swear is true but which still sounds like an urban legend, the richest of the rich would send their laundry to Lisbon, since they feared the tea-colored local water would stain their delicate bedclothes.

And then the British screwed things up for the Brazilians.

In 1873, a British agent named Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds from the forests near Manaus, and sent them to London’s Kew Gardens, where they were propagated and subsequently dispatched to British colonies in Southeast Asia.  Unlike the Brazilians, who harvested the milky sap from the wild trees, the British figured out how to grow rubber as a cash crop, on vast plantations.  Even today, in Malaysia and other countries, it is a common sight to see dark, orderly rows of Hevea trees.  The Brazilian rubber business, based on harvesting a wild crop, crashed.

“Rubber has certainly changed sports,” I mentioned to Denilson.

“Sure,” he nodded.  “Without borracha we’d have no footballs.”

“What about rubber in golf balls?”

“That’s good too.  Your honor.”

I stood on the tee of the par three 6th hole and hit a pretty nice seven iron to the edge of the green, surrounded by bunkers.

Uma boa tacada,” Denilson said.  Good shot.  “But wrong green.”

Challenged by limited space for his nine-hole layout, Brazilian architect Nelson Ferreira had to be creative to make it interesting for players going around a second time to complete the 18.  On some holes he took the easy way out, by providing alternative tee boxes.  But on a few holes Ferreira got creative.  On the 6th and 15th Ferreira had built two completely separate greens, perhaps 70 yards apart.  The 6th plays to 175 yards, the 15th plays to 132 yards.

I checked the plaque next to the tee box.  T. Miyaki had a hole-in-one on this hole, as did N. Mizamoto, not to mention M. Okamura and Y. Kaito and…

Denilson saw my curious expression.  “Just about all our hundred members are Japanese.”

Brazil boasts perhaps the largest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan, and many of the members of the Manaus Golf Club are third and fourth generation Nikkei (checking this phrase that refers to overseas Japanese) who manage factories in the city’s tax-free zone.  Production of televisions and toasters has replaced rubber as the commercial saviour of this city surrounded by rainforest.

On the 7th hole, Denilson’s favorite, we stood on the tee and gazed towards a huge orange ball of a setting sun.  Hidden frogs made froggish noises, a flock of red parrots flew overhead and when I turned back I saw that a full moon had risen.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was playing like a jerk.

I was so tired that it was easy to become philosophical.

“Denilson, rubber has revolutionized golf,” I said. “Rubber is what makes golf balls go far.”

We headed towards the 8th tee.  “Denilson, all golf balls use rubber, don’t they?”

Denilson looked at the brand name of my ball.  “A minha bola é melhor do que a sua, porque é feita de borracha.”  My ball is made from rubber, but not yours, he said.

Surprised, I pulled out another ball of a different brand. “What about this one?”

SimEssa também é boa.” That one is ok.

Now I had a great excuse for slicing my drives – up to now I had been using a ball that was made of synthetic rubber.

I learned a few weeks later that neither Denilson’s ball, nor the new one I put in play, contained any natural rubber at all.

“No golf balls today use natural rubber,” Tom Kennedy, of Top Flite Golf Company confirmed.  All the balls we play – and that includes balls used by the pros and the weekend hackers – are made of plastic and synthetic rubber.

I asked Kennedy, the company’s senior vice president of research and development, to walk me through the evolution of golf ball design.

Initially golf balls, called featheries, were made of leather stuffed with goose feathers.  Adequate, but with hardly any bounce and with aerodynamics of a wet sock.

Then, in 1843, a Brit named William Montgomerie sent samples of a natural latex called gutta percha, derived from the dried gum of the Malaysian sapodilia tree, to scientists in London.  They demonstrated that the material could be molded after heating in hot water and that it retained its tough state on cooling (and Michael Faraday discovered that gutta percha was an excellent electrical insulator, leading to the practical applications of electricity and the telegraph – developments which revolutionized the world).

About 1845 the first gutta percha golf ball was made by Robert Paterson of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Soon thereafter, natural rubber, from a Brazilian tree that is related to the Malaysian sapodilia, provided the rubber thread windings for a new generation of balls, covered with gutta percha. With this revolutionary ball, made of an outer from Malaysian natural rubber and an inner core made with Brazilian natural rubber, hackers started to see their drives sail previously unimaginable distances.

The next evolution came about 1903 when the gutta percha cover was replaced by balata, originally obtained from the milky latex of the Manilkara bidentata tree, native to Puerto Rico but also found from Mexico to Brazil.  Then during the 1930s a process was developed to vulcanise the balata, which strengthened the material.

The natural rubber era ended when synthetic balata, developed in the 1960s, replaced natural balata.  All contemporary golf balls use various forms of synthetic rubber, some 20 million to 30 million pounds a year.

But as I said, I didn’t know all that at the time.  So, we’re on the 8th tee, and quite willing to believe that Denilson knew what he was talking about, I switched to what he said was a natural rubber-centered ball

And I got hot.

On the 8th hole, a 371 yard dogleg right, I hit a solid drive. I was a bit nervous about the second shot because this green, like most of the greens on this course, is shaped like an inverted saucer and poor approaches won’t hold.  I landed just short, pitched to about six feet, missed my par putt by an inch and had a tap-in bogey. I’ll take a tap-in bogey any day.

“Pretty good, this rubber ball,” I said, laughing.

The par three 9th is another of those holes with two greens – the 9th plays to an elevated green protected by deep bunkers 177 yards away, the companion 18th green is shorter, at 154, both require tee shots over water.

This time I drove towards the correct green, but landed in the bunker in front of the green.  Got out cleanly. Pushed my par putt a foot past the hole for another tap-in bogey, just as the sun set.

I now know that my ball didn’t contain one molecule of natural rubber. In fact I sort of knew it before but was willing to suspend belief.  But I’m not proud — I’ll take whatever assistance I can.  And now I even have a new swing thought – rubber core, rubber core, rubber core.

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