Evolution of the Golf Ball

While golf balls have retained the same relative size and shape over the years, their design and the materials they are made from have gone through radical changes to improve spin, reduce drag, and help the ball travel farther. "Science of Golf" is produced in partnership with the United States Golf Association and Chevron.

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DAN HICKS reporting: From the tee, to the fairway, to the green, today's golf ball is a marvel of science, technology, and engineering. While golf balls have retained the same relative size and shape over the centuries, their design and the materials they are made from have gone through radical changes.

STEVE QUINTAVALLA, (Equipment Standards, USGA): Originally, golf was played with a wood ball. You can imagine it was pretty hard.

HICKS: Steve Quintavalla is a scientist with the United States Golf Association.

QUINTAVALLA: By the 1600s, golf balls were a specialty item made out of leather stuffed with goose feathers.

HICKS: These so-called "featheries" were hand sewn and had a rough surface, which allowed them to fly better than the wood balls. The downside was they were fragile, and expensive to make.

QUINTAVALLA: In the middle of the nineteenth century, they started making golf balls out of a material called gutta-percha.

HICKS: In 1848, golf balls were molded using tree sap from tropical sapodilla trees. The solid construction of the gutta-percha, or "gutties" allowed them to bounce better, and fly farther than featheries, but stop quickly when landing.

QUINTAVALLA: You've got something that's a lot more resilient than a hatful of goose feathers.

HICKS: Though originally smooth, players discovered that when gutties became scuffed and pockmarked during play, the balls traveled even farther. As scientists would learn, these imperfections create turbulence in the airflow as the ball moves, reducing the air resistance around the ball and minimizing its drag. This chance discovery later led to a design breakthrough--the creation of dimples that helped make the ball easier to control.

QUINTAVALLA: Eventually they started hammering the surface and purposely putting dents in them. And by the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, they started figuring out, hey, we're going to put round impressions, round dimples in.

HICKS: Around 1900, the Haskell ball was a parallel innovation.

QUINTAVALLA: Somebody named Haskell said, hey, what if we take a bunch of rubber bands and we wind them really tightly around a core and then put a cover over that? Might that be a good golf ball? And sure enough, it was.

HICKS: The Haskell's multi-layered ball composition with a soft outside covering the harder material inside carried on to the present. Today, golf balls consist of between two and five layers of synthetic materials - an outside cover, one to three inner layers of varying thickness, and a solid core.

QUINTAVALLA: Here's a cover that's made entirely out of surlyn. It's a stiffer plastic but still it recovers its shape very well. Inside of that you have one, two, or three layers of synthetic rubber called polybutadiene.

HICKS: Polybutadiene is also used in car tire manufacturing. Known for its hardness and impact resistance, it makes an ideal core material for any golf ball.

QUINTAVALLA: It's all about tailoring the spin properties for different kinds of shots.

HICKS: Spin is an important concept for controlling how far the ball goes, and the rubber composition of the ball, especially at its core, influences the amount of spin. Spin begins when the ball is struck by the club head at an angle. The dimples move in the same direction as the air flow at the top of the ball and they drag the air downward as it leaves the ball. As this happens, the air at the bottom of the ball moves against the ball as it spins. Because the air moves downward, the ball is pushed upward.

HICKS: Today's golf balls spin better, fly farther and are better engineered than at any time in history. Because of this, the U-S-G-A has implemented five standards that place limits on ball performance to ensure that the game is still decided by a player's ability, and not by technology.

QUINTAVALLA: One is size; a golf ball can't be any smaller than 1.68 inches in diameter. One is weight. The golf ball can't be any heavier than 1.62 ounces.

HICKS: The ball also needs to adhere to restrictions on speed, distance, and aerodynamics. To test these, Quintavalla’s team uses a high-speed golf ball launcher. A ball is loaded into the launcher and propelled at speeds at up to 200 miles per hour through a 70-foot long corridor with infrared sensors that provide data about the ball during its flight.

QUINTAVALLA: Based on that information, we can determine the aerodynamic properties of the golf ball. How much lift, force, and drag, which is like wind resistance that each kind of ball generates. And ultimately with that information we can figure out how far the golf ball can go under any conditions.

HICKS: From the inside out, the golf ball's composition has evolved over the centuries to account for principles like lift and aerodynamics that can help with ball flight. But it's still the skill of the player that determines the quality of the shot.

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