The Science of Golf Balls
The high-tech materials, design and manufacturing behind the most sophisticated – and controversial – ball in sports
Most sports use some type of ball. None incorporate more science and technology than the modern golf ball. This in the Mix blog looks at the history of the golf ball and its evolution into the designs in use today.
Golf Ball History
Historians debate when and where the game of golf was first played. Romans played a game that used bent sticks to hit a ball from the ground. There is also evidence the English, French and Chinese played a golf-like game as much as 700 years ago. However, the game the Scots played about 100 years later is most recognized as the precursor to modern golf because of its equipment, rules and setup.
Balls for the earliest golf and golf-like games were made of wood or leather pouches filled with cows’ hair or feathers (i.e., featheries). Featheries were difficult to make, expensive (10 to 20 US dollars each today), and poor performers. They typically were out-of-round, easily water-logged, and prone to splitting open. However, featheries were much better than wooden balls, and they remained the standard golf ball well into the 19th century.
Featheries were replaced by “gutties” in the mid 1800s. The guttie, which used the rubber-like sap of the Malaysian sapodilla tree, was cheaper to produce than a feather-filled ball and out-performed it in many ways:
- It could be made more spherical by heating the sap and shaping it in a mold
- It could be re-formed if it became out-of-round or damaged
- It flew straighter and longer when a pattern was carved in the surface. The benefits of patterning the surface were discovered accidently. When the surface of smooth gutties became nicked, their performance improved. Many patterns were tried to optimize flight characteristics. Gutties with protruding nubs – known as “brambles” after the bramble fruit they resembled – performed best.
Golf Ball Dimples
A patent for a golf ball with an indented pattern on its outer layer was awarded in England about the same time the Haskell ball was invented. The indented pattern improved the ball’s spin and a player’s shot control. It also helped optimize air flow around the ball to increase shot distance (a golf ball with a smooth outer layer only travels about half as far).
A never-ending search ensued over the next 100+ years to find the best indentation shape and pattern. Small round dimples, equal in size, positioned symmetrically and covering the entire surface of the ball have ultimately prevailed. Still, golf ball manufacturers, scientists, garage inventors and others continue to spend endless time and money in the quest to find the perfect dimple pattern, not satisfied that the current solutions are truly the best.
The Science of Golf Balls
For many decades, golf ball research and development was more trial and error than science. As development efforts progressed through the mid 20th century, this began to reverse. Advancements in material science and computer technology drove much of the change.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Surlyn and other new urethane blends replaced softer and less-durable balata covers. Wound rubber-string cores were also replaced by new solid materials like polybutadiene – a synthetic rubber – and various resins. These materials could be used for the entire core of the golf ball or combined in multiple layers of varying thickness to achieve performance characteristics suited to an individual golfer’s ability or preference (e.g., more spin).
Advances in paint and printing technology also have changed the aesthetic appearance of golf balls over the last several decades. No longer just white, golf balls come in a wide range of colors and patterns. Scientific research was again a primary driver of this change. It found some colors are easier to see in the air than others, and the eye can better focus on some patterns during the swing.
Perhaps nothing changed golf ball research more than computers, software and other technology advancements like lasers, robots and high-speed cameras. These tools enabled a level of testing, analysis, and simulations that pushed golf ball design well beyond the performance thresholds of previous generations.
Golf Ball Controversy
Anyone who watches professional golf knows the modern golf ball goes very far. It goes so far that drives of 350 yards or more are increasingly common on the PGA tour. This has caused concern among many golf industry leaders including Jack Nicklaus. The legendary golfer has been an outspoken critic of golf ball design for decades.
Nicklaus cites the continuing increase in golf course length as the biggest consequence related to the extraordinary distance a golf ball can be hit. Longer courses don’t cause much of a problem for the professionals, but they do for the average golfer who doesn’t hit the ball nearly as far. This makes longer courses more difficult which results in slower play and less player enjoyment.
Longer courses are also more expensive to play because of higher costs to build and operate them. The higher cost to play, combined with less player satisfaction, has resulted in fewer new golfers, less rounds and course closings.
Nicklaus believes the golf ball distance problem can be remedied by creating balls with varying performance ratings that match a course design/length and player’s ability. For example, the ball used by professional golfers would have limits put on how far it could travel. Many on the opposite side of the golf ball controversy, including many golf ball manufacturers, are opposed to this.
For More Information
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Sources: Wikipedia, Bunkers Paradise, Golf Galaxy, Golf Channel