Have you ever wondered why golf balls are made the way they are? From the size, to the shape, to the dimples, the development of the modern golf ball was not random. The standards that dictate what makes a regulation United States Golf Association (USGA) golf ball have a long history and precise science behind them.
The modern golf ball. Photo by MarkyBon
Brian Short, an Assistant Golf Professional at the Penn State Golf Courses and PGA member teaches a kinesiology course at Penn State University called Golf I. In the class he covers the rules, etiquette and history of the game, as well as the evolution of the golf ball. He explained how the ball evolved from leather and feathers to space-age plastics.
Believed to have roots in many different early sports across Europe as early as 43 AD, golf as we know it originated in Scotland as early as the 1400s. Original golf balls, called featheries, had leather casings and were stuffed tightly with boiled and softened goose or chicken feathers. It took a great deal of time and work to make them, and as a result they were expensive to buy. These were the standard golf balls used for centuries.
It wasn't until the mid-1800s that the golf ball began to evolve. The gutta-percha, or just gutta, was made out of a packing material derived from the evaporated juice of a Malaysian tree. The result was a hard substance that was pliable at high temperatures. When the material was softened, it was hand rolled into a ball. The guttas were much easier and cheaper to make, and as such were less expensive than their predecessor. They were also more resistant to water and were easier to hit longer distances. As time went on, however, the concept of the gutta ball began to change.
"[Golfers] found that as they repeatedly hit the smooth, dimple-free gutta and it developed dings, nicks and scratches that it flew better; it went more in the directions they wanted it to go. So they started hand-hammering dimples into them so they would fly in a more true pattern," Short said.
Texture remained a constant in the further developments of the golf ball, from the hand-hammered dimples, to raised brambles. The material used moved away from gutta-percha to rubber coated in Balata in the early 1900s. In 1908 the switch was made back from brambles to dimples, which were more aerodynamic. The dimples allowed the ball to have a better spin, which gave the golfer more control over where it would go.
Today, golf balls follow the same standards that the USGA first developed in 1932. The standard maximum weight of a ball is 1.62 ounces, the diameter can't be less than 1.68 inches, and after extensive testing, the maximum velocity was set to 250 feet per second.
Tom Katancik, a PGA member at the Director of Golf for the Toftrees Golf Resort and Golf Club, explained just how technological golf balls have become.
"It's crazy the technology that goes into these things. They're incredibly high tech. They have actual rocket scientists that design them," he said.
The materials used, the size and shape of the dimples, every aspect of the ball is studied and measured to make the most effective piece of equipment. It can have effects not only on the distance of the ball will travel, but also how much control a golfer has over the ball. The spin on the ball needs to be exact for optimum control over the shot. Too much spin and the ball will go right up and come back down again. Not enough spin and it's harder to control the shot. Control, according to Katancik, is the most important element facing those at the US Open this week.
He explained that the goal of the US Open is to be as challenging as possible. The roughs are incredibly difficult; if you don't stay on the fairway, you're not making par on that hole. Last week Katancik played at the historic Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania, which will host the 2013 US Open. He described the difficult of the course, calling its roughs "brutal."
Rory McIlroy won the US Open last year. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Each type of club also has grooves that react with the golf ball to affect the spin in a certain way. In tall grass and other bad rough, the reaction between the ball and the club will be affected. It won't spin right, and as such the control over it will be lost.
"This week [US Open week] more than ever, control is the most important thing. If they don't stay on the fairway, they're in trouble," Katancik said. "They need a perfect round to stay on par."
Katancik predicts that at least 75 percent of the golfers participating in the US Open will be teeing off with the same type of ball, the Titleist Pro V1, the number one ball on the PGA tour.
The dimples on a Titleist Pro V1 ball. It contains 352 spherical dimples in a tetrahedral pattern.
The Titleist site gives an explanation for the science behind their golf balls. The core uses "Innovative ZG Process Core Technology," the molding method they've found to be superior for their polybutadiene cores. Over that they have a ionomeric casing, then covered in urethane elastomer. The dimple pattern is no accident- 352 dimples are complexly arranged in tetrahedral pattern and a staggered wave. Titeilist claims that it's these elements, along with three axes of symmetry, that makes the Pro V1 durable, provides excellent distance, more spin control and a more consistent flight that holds its line in the wind.
We've come a long way from leather and goose feathers.
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