Accidental discovery is why golf balls travel farther than any other ball.
Last fall, we asked you, our readers, to submit sport-related questions you wanted answered. Out of the many responses, we chose one from Alex Wheatley of Flushing, Michigan. Alex wanted to know why golf balls have dimples. The simple answer is that they keep a golf ball in the air longer. Because every golfer wants their golf ball to fly farther, dimples are critical design aspects. Let’s take a deeper look at dimples.
As the United States Golf Association (USGA) points out, the first golf balls were hard, wooden balls. As one can imagine, they did not go very far. In the 17th century, the “featherie” was created by stuffing a leather pouch with goose feathers and sewing it up. They flew better than wooden balls but were expensive to make and very fragile. The next golf ball revolution took place in 1848, when Robert Adams made golf balls out of gutta-percha, a rubbery sap from tropical trees. They were more solid and more resilient than featheries. They could fly longer, bounce higher and last longer. Toward the end of that century, Coburn Haskell created the first multilayer ball; it had a solid rubber core that was wrapped in rubber bands and covered with a layer of gutta-percha. Today’s golf balls have as few as one and as many as six layers; generally, the more layers, the more expensive and better performing the ball.
Getting back to why golf balls have dimples, in the 19th century, golfers discovered that old, dented balls flew farther than new ones. Soon, they were deliberately hammering dents into their golf balls. What they likely didn’t understand, and what an aerodynamic engineer will appreciate, is that the dimples were creating turbulence in the airflow around the moving ball, which makes its wake (the air behind the ball) thinner and reduces drag, enabling the ball to travel farther. The dimples also increase spin.
When struck by a club, all golf balls have backspin. It’s what gets a well-struck iron shot to land and stop on the green, and too much of it off the driver reduces distance. Without dimples, golf balls would travel half as far.
Today’s golfers have a wide selection of golf balls at their disposal. All are designed for optimal aerodynamic efficiency, durability and consistency. Generally, the less-expensive options tend to be distance balls, but they have little stopping power on the green. Premium balls, because of their multilayer design, can deliver distance and stopping power. Even newer golfers can benefit from playing a better ball. And remember, for optimal performance, clean the ball at each tee box, and replace it as soon as you notice a nick or cut. For additional assistance, please see one of our Dunham’s Sports golf enthusiasts.
We wish to thank the USGA for the golf ball historical primer. Visit USGA.com for other interesting golf-related information.
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