Balata is actually 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 hardens into the rubber-like material of golf ball fame is harvested just as one would harvest sap from another tree.
In the timeline of golf balls, balata balls replaced gutta percha balls in the early 1900s. Spalding began producing balata balls in 1903.
One of the main reasons balata was thought of as a "pro's ball" or "low handicapper's ball" was because the balata cover cut so easily on mis-hits. 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 mis-hits, or, for example, as a result of balata ball bouncing off a paved cart path or into rocks.
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 ball manufacturers began developing alternative cover materials (such as urethane) in the 1990s, materials that offered the softer feel of balata but were far more durable.
Return to Golf Glossary index