Penfold Golf: History’s Great “What If?”
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Penfold Golf: History’s Great “What If?”

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Penfold Golf: History’s Great “What If?”

Chances are “Penfold Golf” doesn’t mean much to you. There is, however, compelling evidence to suggest it might be golf history’s great “what if?”. Today, Penfold is a fledgling lifestyle brand using nostalgia as its hook. But there was a time when Penfold was poised to be a golf ball powerhouse on both sides of the Atlantic.

Based on what we’ve learned through some research, there’s a better-than-even chance Penfold could have become what Titleist is today. That is to say, the No. 1 ball in golf.

A provocative statement? Certainly. Crazy conjecture? Perhaps. But it’s a story worth telling and, we hope, worth reading.

Penfold Golf

Penfold Golf: A Little Background

We’ve given you the Cliff Notes version of the Penfold Golf story but here’s the full monty.

Albert Ernest Penfold was born in 1884. A natural scientist, Penfold was a rubber savant responsible for some of the biggest innovations in golf. His first breakthrough came while working for the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company, commonly known as the Silvertown Company. The gutta-percha was the ball of choice back then and the common “gutty” was a dull gray and hard to find, even on the fairway. Penfold developed a way to make a pure-white gutta-percha ball. It was a smash hit, and Penfold was named director of golf ball development for Silvertown in 1911. He started piling up patents for Silvertown almost immediately, retaining the rights to one, for a lattice-type dimple marking. That patent would eventually play a huge role for Penfold.

By 1919 Penfold had taken his talents and patents to the Dunlop Company. Within three years, he developed the very first golf ball to carry the name Maxfli. Two years later, Penfold developed and patented a tennis ball manufacturing method to keep balls from going flat. By 1927, Penfold struck out on his own and started Golf Ball Developments Inc. and Penfold Golf Ltd. He set up a factory on Bromford Lane in Birmingham, England.

It’s here where the story gets more interesting.

Roll Back the Ball!

What would you call a ball that conforms to all the Rules of Golf but blows away the field in distance? In 2000, that would have been the NIKE Tour Accuracy Tiger used to smoke the U.S. Open field by 15 strokes (how Titleist still beat NIKE to the punch with the Pro V1 is another of golf’s great what-ifs).

In the early 1930s, the R&A was on a crusade to curb distance. Apparently, these professionals with their newfangled steel shafts were socking the ball too bloody far and making classic courses obsolete. The R&A devised a specification that would restrict ball flight and gave it to all the ball manufacturers in the UK so they could develop prototypes. Penfold quietly told his peers he could make a ball to those very specifications that would still outdrive any other ball.

And that’s exactly what happened.

“The first test of the Penfold production was held on a Sunday prior to the British Open Championship on a course near St Andrews. When the selected driver hit the first Penfold-designed ball, it carried far beyond the furthermost markers. Other Penfold balls gave identical results. Examination followed the demonstration and the Penfold test ball was found to conform to the letter of the restricting specification.” – Golfdom Magazine

The Penfold Advantage

Penfold’s secret was twofold. First, he developed a proprietary technique for winding rubber thread around the cores of his golf balls as well as the machinery with which to do it. His method maximized the tension of the rubber thread and prevented too many loops of that thread from crossing at the same point. The best golf balls of the day had roughly 2,000 pounds of internal pressure. Penfold balls exceeded that.

Penfold’s other area of expertise was with dimples. He experimented with a variety of shapes, depths and patterns, settling on making balls with dimples and other balls with a lattice-type marking, which he had patented. Penfold found the lattice balls fared better in the UK with its damper climate and softer fairways because they carried considerably farther.

And if you think golf ball lawsuits started with Titleist, Callaway and Bridgestone suing each other in the 2000s, think again. Penfold wound up getting sued over the lattice ball by his old employer, Dunlop. But holding on to the lattice patent proved prescient, as a British court ruled in Penfold’s favor in 1931.

Dimpled balls had a lower, flatter carry and more roll compared to the lattice ball. That made it perfect for the manicured fairways of America. So, in 1932, armed with an arsenal of dimpled balls, Penfold came to the U.S. Despite the Great Depression, Penfold opened a sales headquarters in Midtown Manhattan at 67 W. 44th Street (which later moved to 11 Park Place) and hired sales reps to cover the States, Canada and the Caribbean.

Penfold Golf and The Roaring ‘30s

Albert Penfold spent the 1930s commuting between New York and the UK., building his businesses in both countries. A June 1934 feature in Golf Illustrated titled “A Golf Ball Scientist” described Penfold as an engineer “dedicated to the perfection of the modern golf ball” and a “hearty, tweedy Britisher with an outdoor complexion and a cheery manner.”

“Penfold knows exactly to the last precise detail the reasons for any ball’s action in flight and usually has figured it out scientifically with pencil and paper before the molds are made.”  – Golf Illustrated, 1934

Penfold’s premium LL and LT balls were the Pro V1 of their day. They were a buck apiece in 1934 which would be over $19 a ball today. And, yeah, it’s marketing but Penfold’s ads at the time urged golfers to “see why this ball is everywhere conceded to be the world’s longest.”

By 1936, Penfold was ready to take it up a notch. A blurb in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said, “Penfold, the golf ball manufacturer of Birmingham, England, is opening an American factory in Bush Terminal. A well—Penfold insists upon artesian well water—has already been sunk.” With that, Penfold became one of the first, if not the first, golf ball manufacturers with factories in both Europe and the U.S.

It was also about this time that Penfold was planting the seeds of what would ultimately become the European Tour. In 1938, he put up $5,000 in prize money for the Penfold Professional Golf League, a 12-player round-robin tournament. Percy Alliss (father of Peter Alliss) won the first event and Sir Henry Cotton won a year later.

The ’30s were very good for Penfold. Everything was in place for the company to be a major player on both sides of the Atlantic.

And then war broke out.

The Siamese Prince and U-69

On the night of Feb. 17, 1941, the British merchant ship Siamese Prince was steaming through rough seas north of Ireland towards Liverpool. It left New York a few days earlier with the captain, 56 crew members, two gunners and nine passengers on board.

At just after 9 p.m., the Siamese Prince was rocked by a torpedo from the German U-Boat U-69. Twenty minutes later, it was hit by a second torpedo. A third hit the Siamese Prince half an hour later, sending her to the bottom. All 68 aboard perished, including Albert Ernest Penfold.

Like most British manufacturers, Penfold had spent the previous year helping the British war effort. In the months following his death, both the UK and the U.S. restricted manufacturing of any non-essential rubber products. The Brooklyn factory shut down. The Birmingham facility was hit during a bombing raid, destroying much of the machinery.

After the war, both factories were still closed. Penfold’s son, Dick, who took over the business at age 30 when his father was killed, had a decision to make. With no material available to build new golf ball manufacturing machinery in the UK and with no rubber available in the U.S. to resume making golf balls, the younger Penfold chose to close the Brooklyn factory and ship all the machinery back to Birmingham.

Penfold would still be sold through pro shops in the U.S. for several decades. In fact, the brand maintained a healthy presence. Newspaper ads in the U.S. and Canada offered a free sleeve to anyone scoring a hole-in-one with a Penfold. The company even set up golf ball vending machines, like gumball machines, in pro shops.

Penfold Golf

Keeping the British End Up

The ‘50s through the ‘70s was Penfold’s Golden Era. Dick Penfold proved to be every bit the inventor his father was. In his lab behind the pro shop at Ladbrook Park, Penfold developed balls such as the Penfold Ace and he invented one of the very first robots to test golf balls. (It’s still there at Ladbrook, adjacent to the first tee). Penfold also developed a robot-on-a-trailer, the Penfold “Robot-Driver” Mobile Golf Ball Flight Demonstration Machine.

Penfold Golf

In the ‘50s, Penfold started using playing card suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs) on its golf balls instead of numbers, which would become the company’s signature. By the early ‘60s, Penfold, from its factory on Bromford Lane, became the first manufacturer to produce more than one million golf balls in a calendar year.

And we all know James Bond used a Penfold Hearts and the old switcharoo to beat Auric Goldfinger in the big match in 1964’s Goldfinger. The little piece of product placement sent Penfold’s sales through the roof.

Dick Penfold also continued his father’s commitment to the professional game for both men and women. In 1951, he sponsored Shirley Spork, one of the 13 founding members of the LPGA, to give clinics in the UK. And it was through his influence that Spork became the first woman ever admitted to the Royal and Ancient clubhouse in St Andrews after playing an exhibition. From 1946 to 1974, Penfold sponsored the Penfold Tournament on the British PGA circuit.

But by the end of 1974, everything changed again.

The Colgate-Palmolive Years

In 1974, Dick Penfold retired and sold his father’s company to Colgate-Palmolive. That may sound like an odd marriage but, at the time, Colgate-Palmolive was investing heavily in sports and would also purchase Ram Golf that year. Together, the group sponsored the Penfold PGA Championship and put up enough prize money to entice American pros to come over. The first Penfold PGA, in 1975, was won by Arnold Palmer at Royal St. George’s.

Colgate-Palmolive also started spending big on Tour pros. Gary Player already was on staff with a ball and glove deal. Soon, young stars such as Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo would join. Seve, in fact, won the 1979 Open Championship with a Penfold Tradition ball, while Faldo won his very first tournament, the 1978 British PGA at Royal Birkdale, with a Penfold GX100.

“I’ve still got the ball and to be honest, it wasn’t a great ball,” Faldo tells MyGolfSpy. “I went to the Penfold factory and told them to get me any dozen. They pulled a box off the shelf and they wouldn’t go through my ring gauge. It was like 10 out of a dozen that wouldn’t go through.”

“That was kind of standard at the time, though,” Faldo adds. “That’s why Titleist prided themselves on making the most consistent ball. But I think every other brand didn’t have that level of quality control.”

Whether those quality issues had always existed or had developed since Dick Penfold’s retirement is lost to history. But the late ’70s proved to be Penfold’s swan song. Colgate-Palmolive pulled the plug on the Penfold-Ram experiment in 1980, selling Ram back to the Hansberger family and selling off Penfold to Faulkner Sports. Faulkner owned the brand for three years before selling it to a group of Penfold factory managers.

Penfold Golf: What Might Have Been

The Bromford Lane factory stayed active into the ’90s. By then, reality sunk in. The facility that had been making balls since 1927 was shuttered and production was outsourced to Korea.

If you compare the Penfold story with Acushnet, you’ll find plenty of differences along with some eerie similarities. Acushnet was established in 1910 by Phillip Young and primarily focused on rubber products. Like Albert Penfold, Young was an engineer with a knack for rubber. The MIT graduate was also an avid golfer when he realized something wasn’t right with the balls he was using. He took X-rays and found the centers were often misaligned.

By 1932, Acushnet started making golf balls with a machine Young developed that could spin rubber thread around a core and still keep the core perfectly centered.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Penfold Golf

“Here’s the thing,” says Gavin Perrett, co-owner of the Penfold brand. “Acushnet’s owner didn’t get killed on the Atlantic. Acushnet’s factory didn’t get bombed and Acushnet didn’t get sold to a toothpaste company.”

Like Penfold, Acushnet did get sold in the ‘70s but it was to a holding company looking to add a profitable enterprise. Fortune Brands treated Acushnet as it did its other entities: Be profitable and we’ll leave you alone. Which it did until 2010 when it sold the brand to FILA Korea Ltd. Colgate-Palmolive, on the other hand, used Penfold, Ram and Craigton Golf as a means to an end: sports marketing to sell more toothpaste. Predictably, it didn’t end well. The company spent six years and a boatload of cash on players and events but never saw the return. In 1980, it pulled the plug on all its sports ventures and decided to stick to oral hygiene and dishwashing liquid.

What If?

Not much remains of the original Penfold. The Bromford Lane facility is now apartments. The Brooklyn factory, at 33 35th Street, is now an antique furniture outlet called cityFoundry. You can still buy Penfold golf balls online, though. The Penfold Hearts is a decent-enough three-piece ionomer ball made by Nassau in Korea.

But what if the Second World War never happened? What if Albert Penfold lived a full life, the Brooklyn factory thrived and Penfold’s fortunes continued? Both Penfolds were clearly high-level innovators, so is it unreasonable to presume the company’s post-war UK popularity would have been replicated in the U.S.?

Would Penfold, in fact, be the No. 1 ball in golf today instead of Titleist?

It’s impossible to know but it is fun to conjecture. Parrett and Paul Silk, his partner in the UK, are trying to make a go of the new Penfold as a lifestyle-nostalgia brand. They sell unique Penfold-branded gear ranging from throwback Sunday bags to ‘70s-style cabretta gloves, playing-card ball markers and even a leather-bound golf journal. Balls are a nod to the company’s past.

“People don’t know this story and if they don’t know, they don’t care,” says Parrett. “I’m not trying to sell it but it’s all very fascinating. It’s a big part of the history of the sport we all love.”

“We all like retro stuff. We love our old brands,” adds Faldo, who has no involvement with the current Penfold. “You can’t fight the big boys, but you can find a nice niche under that. It has a good, historic story to it.”

History doesn’t help you get the ball in the hole any better. But depending on why you love golf, history can make the journey a little more fun.

If you’re a student of history, what’s your take?

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John Barba

John Barba

John Barba

John is an aging, yet avid golfer, writer, 6-point-something handicapper living back home in New England after a 22-year exile in Minnesota. He loves telling stories, writing about golf and golf travel, and enjoys classic golf equipment. “The only thing a golfer needs is more daylight.” - BenHogan

John Barba

John Barba

John Barba

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      Bob McDonald

      1 year ago

      What would the original Penfold Man Statue be worth today? Inherited from my father a PGA member from 1930. Still in perfect condition.
      Bob

      Reply

      Charles Penfold

      3 years ago

      Loved reading this, Dick was my Grandfather, he passed away when I was too young to have any real appreciation for what he and his father did but will be sharing this with my father at the weekend. Thank you John.

      Reply

      John Barba

      3 years ago

      Thank you for the kind words Charles – it’s an honor!. I hope your Dad enjoys it as well.

      Reply

      Chris

      3 years ago

      Great article. Now can you please cut and Ace in half for the full MGS treatment?

      Reply

      EJ

      3 years ago

      . I’m sure there is a lot of other interesting stories from the past that helped move the game forward. I hope the Penfold story is just the beginning of interesting golf histories.
      Great Job…

      Reply

      Brent Danforth

      3 years ago

      Thanks for this bit of golf history. I really enjoyed your article. It’s fun to find out about these brands from the past. I had RAM golf clubs in the past and my first set of irons were Northwestern’s. It would be interesting to find out what happened to these iconic brands also.

      Reply

      Daryl Peguese

      3 years ago

      John,
      A very good story. I had never heard of Penfold except for the reference in Goldfinger. Thanks for the history lesson. A great example of what if..

      Reply

      Matt M

      3 years ago

      Great article. I really enjoyed it.

      Reply

      WBN

      3 years ago

      When I was a kid, finding a Penfold ball made your day.

      Reply

      Paul Wharton

      3 years ago

      Seve won his first Open Chsmpionship using a Penfold Tradition

      Reply

      Andy WM

      3 years ago

      I knew of the Penfold brand but never the history.

      As a kid, travelling between my grandparents homes, we used to pass the Penfold factory on a Romford Lane.

      Reply

      Morse

      3 years ago

      Thank you for this interesting and thoughtful article. Penfold has a unique history, one worth knowing something about. With golf, it’s easy to get focused on what’s new and what’s innovative, so the occasional article about the game’s past is truly refreshing. Here’s hoping the Penfold name can endure.

      Reply

      Rich Massie

      3 years ago

      What a great Article thanks John ????????

      Reply

      Fleeter

      3 years ago

      When I was a kid we used to go looking fir balls at the course we played at. I remember finding Penfold Aces and trading them to friends for Topflites or Golden Ram’s. I remember them in the white packaging too. Great article!!

      Reply

      aerospace_ray

      3 years ago

      Great read. Thank you MGS!

      Reply

      Mike Flynn

      3 years ago

      Great article!

      Reply

      Christian Farley

      3 years ago

      Great read! Golf has such a long history, it’s one of the things that make it so wonderful. Thank you for sharing that story with us. Really good stuff!

      Reply

      Bob

      3 years ago

      Thank you John for the great article. I can remember penfold as a caddie in the 60’s. It was one of the balls that many of the members played.

      Reply

      Don

      3 years ago

      Does anyone hear remember the Bald Eagle golf balls from about 17 years ago. The balls had SIX bald spots equally spaced around the outside of the ball so when putting you could line up the ball so that you hit the ball on a smooth surface and NOT on the edge of a dimple. Made it much better for putting the ball where you were aiming..

      Reply

      David B

      3 years ago

      What an interesting, well-written, fun to read article, John! It’s been a while since I’ve seen your byline on MGS. I always love your stuff!

      Reply

      Gary Gladwin

      3 years ago

      What a great article. Being British – and of a certain age – I played Penfold balls when I was a teenager. They were pretty good, but I always preferred Dunlop 65s. It was also a nice reminder of Arnie winning the Penfold PGA in 1975. I went to the tournament and watched him win in atrocious weather conditions. It was marvelous to watch him manipulate the ball under the wind for 18 holes. Fine memories of a wonderful man.

      Reply

      RC

      3 years ago

      “Here’s my Penfold Hearts. You must have played the wrong ball on the last fairway. We are playing strict rules, so I’m afraid you lose the hole and the match.”

      Reply

      Peter

      3 years ago

      Carrying that bar of gold around… I hope his caddy got a decent tip!

      Reply

      Tony

      3 years ago

      Great story, thank you, John. There must be many like stories of golf brands that we no longer see.

      Reply

      Chris Pachuilo

      3 years ago

      I love the Golf ball vending machine. It’d be a cool way to purchase by the sleeve, especially for a brand like Vice Golf.

      Reply

      Ned Abernathy

      3 years ago

      Great story. I was in the golf business for 35 years.
      At one 9year stint I worked for Maxfli, but never heard about Penfold developing the Maxfli name. I remember playing a Penfold growing up. At that point, I may have bought a used ball out of a jar in a Pro Shop in St. Louis. Their logo
      Made them a real buy.
      There is so much history in golf that so many don’t know..
      Thank you for taking the time to tell the story.. I would enjoy reading more about the forgotten history of our game.
      .

      Reply

      Jimmy Pickett

      3 years ago

      What a great article. What might have been for so many during WW11.

      Reply

      Foz

      3 years ago

      Excellent piece of rhetoric, John. My first Golfballs in the late 1950’s were the R&A approved Dunlops and were a wee bit smaller than the American balls. I thoroughly enjoyed this walk through time.

      Reply

      David

      3 years ago

      Maxfli’s Red Dot was a great ball

      Reply

      Terry

      3 years ago

      When I started playing this wonderful game over 60 years ago, in my country there were only a limited range of golf balls available. Being a British Commonwealth country, these were obviously the smaller UK balls.

      The most popular was the Dunlop 65 (so named for the 65 shot by Henry Cotton in a 1930’s Open Championship. The other ball was the Penfold Patented. Other balls in the Penfold range were the Ace, the Bromford and I can’t remember the name of the fourth and cheapest one..

      They were all wound balls with balata cover so you had to make sure you hit good shots as even a slight mishit could result in a cut cover which meant another ball was required.

      The Penfold were great balls and thanks John as this article brings back good memories.

      Reply

      Joe

      3 years ago

      Kudos John! This is a great story. I also remember finding Penfolds while playing as a kid in the ’60s along with the Club Special.

      Reply

      Mike

      3 years ago

      I was going to blow this off as a “who cares” story since everything occurred way before my time, but that’s why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Really interesting article; still amazes me how WW2 shaped so many things in the succeeding years after it.

      Reply

      Steve Sheppard

      3 years ago

      This is great golf history. Thanks for sharing it!

      Reply

      TBT

      3 years ago

      Great read John! I remember playing with Penfold balls in the early 70’s.

      Reply

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