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Super Balls

Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 2)

No, this is what you are thinking: Let me get it airborne, let me find it and let me beat the pants off Mike the Weasel this week. The louse got into my pocket for 70 bucks last Sunday and wouldn't even put my beers on his tab in the clubhouse bar.

With all the hype about new club technology over the past decade, about titanium heads and perimeter weighting and torqueless shafts, it's easy to overlook the ball. It's just that little white thing that you so desperately try to hit, to propel on the right course at the right length at the right target. Oh sure, you've heard about hard-cover and soft-cover balls, have heard the claims about how one ball flies farther than another or spins better or has better feel. But unlike golf club technology, the science of the ball goes largely unnoticed.

"Some of these guys who are working on designing golf balls could be in the space program," says Dick Rugge, the senior technical director of the United States Golf Association, who tests every club and ball that comes to market and decides whether it gets the USGA stamp of approval.

The USGA oversees the rules of golf, some of which specify what is a legal club and what is a legal golf ball. It is the USGA that mandates that a ball carry and roll no more than 296.8 yards, that its initial velocity not exceed 255 feet per second, that it weigh no more than 1.62 ounces or be no less than 1.68 inches in diameter.

You might think that because golf balls must conform to such precise specifications (or be restricted) that manufacturers wouldn't put a lot of research and development into them, certainly not as much as goes into a golf club. But to golf companies, a golf ball is a consumable while a golf club is a hard good. It's like the difference between gasoline and an automobile. You fill the gas tank once a week, but you replace a car every five years or so. Most golfers go for years before getting new clubs, but chances are they will buy balls monthly, sometimes weekly. A player with a bad swing on a difficult golf course can consume a lot of golf balls in a single round. (Or is it the course that consumes them?)

"Manufacturers know that they can sell golf balls faster than clubs," says Rugge. "Even though our rules are very specific, there is still room for improvement in consistency, distance and feel. A lot more goes into ball design than you might imagine and it seems to pay off for the companies."

The Titleist Pro V1 golf ball from Acushnet Co. got the attention of the golf world last season. PGA Tour players like Phil Mickelson extolled the virtues of increased distance with superior feel for the short game, all within the rules of golf. Titleist has been the premier maker of high-performance golf balls for decades. When PGA Tour players say that Titleist is making a better ball, the general public hears, and a certain percentage of them buy. These are usually better players who are looking for that killer combination of distance and feel in a ball and don't mind paying more than $50 a dozen for them.

 

This year, Callaway Golf Co. may get the attention, and a man whom Callaway brought out of the aerospace industry is responsible for it. His name is Steve Ogg, a former Boeing engineer with a deep knowledge of viscous fluid dynamics, computer-aided design and aerodynamic testing techniques. In 2000, Ogg helped Callaway launch the Rule 35 ball with a surface covered 86 percent by dimples, more dimpling than any other ball. Dimples help the ball fly longer, but more about that later.

Now Ogg has come up with another idea: dump the dimples. Instead, he developed a pattern of tubular ridges that interlock as hexagons and pentagons around the entire surface of the ball. In testing, Callaway says that its HX ball flies farther than any ball it has tested while providing high-performance feel characteristics. Ogg claims that the HX has better distance control that the Pro V1 or any other ball, and is more consistent in any orientation whether it is teed up or lying in the fairway.

Callaway's move from dimples to tubular lattices -- hexagons and pentagons -- may be the next major step in golf ball design. Dimples were a part of golf ball construction for the better part of the twentieth century, and an intentionally roughened surface of the golf ball has been around since the introduction of the gutta percha ball in the mid-1800s.

The first golf balls may very well have been the roundest stones that shepherds could find to bat about the fields to relieve the boredom of tending the flock. The Dutch played the earliest known form of golf (called colf) from the late 1200s to the early 1700s using wooden balls made of beech or elm. In the middle 1700s came the age of the featheries, leather balls stuffed with cow's hair or boiled bird feathers. Featheries may have been easier to get airborne than wooden balls, but they were full of faults. They weren't perfectly round, got soggy in the rain, and were easily cut along their sewn seams.

In the 1840s the gutta percha ball debuted. Gutta percha is a sap from Asian trees that could be molded and hardened. It could be made more perfectly round and produced much more quickly than the featheries. As golf grew in popularity, it became necessary to produce more balls than the feathery makers could turn out, and the solution was gutta percha. The surface of the original guttie was basically smooth. If these balls, like the featheries, were not hit flush and on plane, they duck-hooked and snap-sliced with abandon.

But some players noted along the way that if the smooth surface of the balls was roughed up, they would fly somewhat straighter and would definitely fly longer. Thus, the art of making a golf ball like the feathery would be displaced by the science of constructing one. This is where the Bernoulli Principle came into play, even if ball makers didn't know what it was. This is also where fluid dynamics became important, even if ball makers may have thought that it referred to golf balls floating on water.

The Bernoulli Principle describes the lifting properties of an object flying through the air. In its general form, it applies to a golf ball and a 747 jumbo jet. It says that an object propelled through the air attains lift from the air if the air speed at the bottom of the object is slower than it is at the top. This creates a lower-pressure area above the ball, or airplane wing, and causes it to rise.

Airplane flight and golf ball flight differ widely in the desired amount of stability. With a golf ball, turbulence is good. With a wing, turbulence is bad, as many a flier will attest when their newly poured cup of coffee comes in contact with their newly-pressed wool pants. Golf balls need turbulent flight to fly farther, and that's why manufacturers put dimples on them. The first gutties designed to produce turbulence had raised bramble and reversed hatch mark designs on the surface. The depressed dimple ball, known as the Haskell ball, was introduced in the early 1900s as an improvement in a new line of rubber-cored balls wound with rubber bands. Ball research was now in full flight.

The reason that balls need turbulent flight is to narrow the region of dead air immediately behind the ball, by closing down the airflows. "In aerodynamic terms, in turbulent flight the air stays attached, the molecules flow closer to the surface, " says Ogg.

"You end up with a smaller wake. Think of the difference between a rowboat and a kayak. With a rowboat you have those big swirling eddies behind the hull. In a kayak the flow stays attached along the surface of the boat instead of creating those swirling eddies with a dead space in between. What you want to do with a ball is try to eliminate as much of that dead air region behind it as possible, which means you are eliminating drag. A ball without dimples flies maybe 40 percent as far as a ball with dimples."

With manufacturers then competing with rubber-cored and dimple-covered balls for greater and greater distances, the USGA took steps, starting in 1930, to regulate them. The process culminated in a set of weight, diameter and initial velocity specifications adopted in 1942 that are still used today. In 1976 the overall distance standard of 296.8 yards was introduced. That year, the USGA also debuted for testing purposes the swing machine know as Iron Byron, which was modeled after the swing of legendary player Byron Nelson. There have been subsequent versions of Iron Byron, but the USGA is still swinging the same model club -- a steel-shafted, wooden-head driver -- at a speed of about 109 miles per hour and belting balls into a large expanse of mown fairway behind its headquarters in Far Hills, New Jersey.

By the 1990s, golf balls had become highly engineered products that were increasingly marketed. Golf ball makers began making balls for specific players at specific price points. While in the 1960s, say, there were cheap balls and expensive balls, there now is a whole range of ball prices and ball performance characteristics.

The cheaper the ball, the less complex it will be and the more it will be geared for distance and durability. Cheaper balls are two-piece balls; the more expensive, high-performance balls are three-piece balls. In two-piece construction, a core is surrounded by a thin cover, which is usually harder than the cover on three-piece balls. The harder the cover, the less backspin is imparted on the ball. That lowers ball flight and allows for greater run-out when it hits the ground. The average player wants as much distance as he can get, both in yards and the number of holes he can play with a single ball.

Soft-covered three-piece balls spin faster, rise more quickly and don't run out as far at the end. But the soft cover allows talented players with superb short games to impart spin on the ball on approach shots coming into greens, which makes the ball check up more quickly and precisely. Soft-covered balls also have a better feel during putting.

Ball makers are trying to account for both talent and the conditions of ball launch. "There are three things that affect ball flight that can be influenced in that half millisecond of initial impact," says Tom Kennedy, the vice president of research and development for Spalding Sports Worldwide Inc. "They are launch angle [the degree of upward slope], the ball speed and the spin rate. Hard-cover balls have better distance because they launch high, but because of lower spin rate they don't climb as high. Soft-cover balls launch lower but climb higher because of higher spin rate."

Poor players want all the distance they can get. Average players generally want more distance, but also some sort of feel around the green. Very good players aren't usually concerned that much with distance because they have high and consistent swing speeds. They can hit a soft-cover ball farther than other players hit a hard cover, so they are willing to trade distance for the feel that comes with soft covers on and around the greens.

The three-piece ball is a finely honed piece of technology. In introducing the Pro V1 ball, Titleist began to move away from the wound-ball technology of high-performance balls that had been hanging around for decades. The Pro V1, like virtually all high-performance balls, is of three-piece construction with a poly-butadiene core (synthetic rubber) surrounded by an inner layer that is in turn surrounded by the cover. The core of the Pro V1 is 1.55 inches in diameter. Around that goes a .035-inch boundary layer (or mantel) of ionomer resin (known by the trade name Surlyn). The cover is .030 of an inch of thermal-set eurethane.

"The Pro V1 was a major change for us," says Herb Boehm, the executive vice president and general manager of golf ball operations for Acushnet. "We were known for making balls with liquid-center cores that were wound with rubber bands. But the trend in golf ball development is against that type of construction. Our new ball [for 2002] will be a companion product to the Pro V1 rather than a new line. It's the Pro V1 Star. It has a very soft rubber center that reduces spin off the driver while producing longer and straighter flight. It has a very soft, very thin cover for performance around the green."

Golf balls today are right up against the USGA specifications. Since the initial velocity can't exceed 255 feet per second, the only way that manufacturers can achieve longer distance is through better aerodynamics, reducing drag and achieving optimum flight trajectories. There are still a few yards of wiggle room in the USGA's overall distance standard of 296.8 yards. And there are still a lot of golf balls to be consumed, which is why Callaway and Nike Co. got involved in the marketplace in the late 1990s.

For Nike, it was a chance to introduce its brand name into a new market. "Our brand name is associated with new and exciting products," says Gary Tavares, Nike's product development manager for golf balls. It didn't hurt that the company had recently signed Tiger Woods to a huge endorsement contract, although Woods would not trade in his Titleists for the new Nike Tour Accuracy balls until the 2000 season. "He didn't have to play them unless he was satisfied with the way they performed," says Tavares. "He plays them now. We have a three-piece high-performance ball that we think stands up to anybody."

Whatever new balls companies introduce will have to pass USGA testing to be declared legal. But in line with new research and development in the golf industry, the USGA recently announced that it was designing a new indoor, computer-aided testing facility that would replace its outdoor testing.

"We'll keep testing balls outside, then enter those specifics into our indoor computer to come [up] with a ball's flight specifications," says the USGA's Rugge.

With the new facility may come a new club for Iron Byron. The old steel-shafted and wooden-headed driver may be replaced by a modern metal-headed club. Though the USGA intends to maintain the initial velocity rule of 255 feet per second, the overall distance standard may be pushed slightly higher to reflect the modern aerodynamic designs of golf balls and the properties of modern clubs.

While manufacturers keep improving the ball, marketers keep shoveling the hype about them. "What we sell is hope," says John Calabria, the vice president of research and development for the Dunlop Sports Group, which markets the high-performance Maxfli and Slazenger balls. "We will always come out with something that says, 'This can improve your game,' and we certainly hope it does."

Now, if this new three-piece wonder of aerodynamics can just get your 70 bucks back from Mike the Weasel, it will be well worth the 50 bucks you paid for a dozen.

 

Robert Lowell is a freelance writer based in New York


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