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: 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.
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.
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?
“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.
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?