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Super Balls

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

On the first tee, the day bright with hope and the ego still not deflated, you concentrate on your first shot. Below you on a wooden peg sits a new golf ball glistening in the sunlight, its dimpled white visage as yet unsullied. This is what you are not thinking about: The maximum roll and carry of this ball should not exceed 296.8 yards. The maximum speed of the ball coming off the club head must not exceed 255 feet per second. The ball must weigh no more than 1.62 ounces, be no less than 1.68 inches in diameter and be symmetrical. And clearly you aren't thinking about fluid dynamics, the Bernoulli Principle or the components of polybutadiene.

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.


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