To many folks, even avid golfers, that tiny object which so many of us spend so much time and energy swinging at and then cussing all chasing after is simply a golf ball. It’s small, usually white, molded out of plastic, covered with inverted dimples that somehow affect where and how far it goes, and it has a brand name stamped on it. Some 500 million are produced annually in the U.S., most of them selling for $1 to $2 apiece.
Beneath the surface of this love/hate object, however, lies a surprisingly complicated aerodynamic as well as chemical wonder. Its design and engineering involve such considerations as lift and rag, velocity and spin rate and launch angle, energy-filled cores and compression, intricate dimple patterns and their plotting on computer screens, debates over solid core vs. wound core construction and thermoplastic versus balata rubber covers, as well as extensive testing in wind tunnels and on “Iron Byron” mechanical hitting machines. All this research and development might suggest a product being designed to one day land on the moon, let’s say, rather than a mere fairway or green.
What first appeared some 500 years ago as a leather stack stuffed with feathers has been progressively streamlined into a complex, high-tech, aerodynamic creation. The golf ball now performs more like an airplane than a bullet, and without dimples, a 250-yd drive plops to a 125-yd fizzle.
Today’s golf balls — credited by many for making the biggest improvement in the game — travel farther and straighter and “bite,” or stick on greens, better than ever before. And because of their tougher thermoplastic covers, they also are more durable, rarely cutting or gouging like those of a generation ago.
Two factors make this hotly competitive industry, whose U.S. wholesale sales are estimated at over a half-billion dollars a year, different from most. First, no single golf ball is best for all golfers. Individual swing speed, launch angle, and ability dictate what ball a golfer should select. Models played by the touring pros, for example, aren’t best for the duffer. Second, golf ball manufacturers are limited by the rules of the game on a ball’s size, weight, and symmetry as well as the distance it can be hit under specified test conditions.
“The kinds of things that make a difference in golf balls are small things that in most products wouldn’t even be noticed,” says Steve Aoyama, product design engineer at Acushnet Titleist, one of the two dominant golf ball manufacturers.
With nearby rival Spalding (maker of the first American-made golf ball in 1895), the two Massachusetts-based companies account for two-thirds of all U. S. golf ball sales. Led by its best-selling Top-Flite brand, Spalding is first in total volume while Titleist leads in more expensive, high-end golf balls.
“It’s easy to make a golf ball that’s okay, that performs fine, and most people would never notice the difference,” Aoyama continues. “But we’re always working in the last 1 or 2% of the performance envelope to try to boost things. It’s a competitive advantage if you can boost your distance 1% more than the next guy, for example. This is such a small area that most products don’t even try to get into it. But we are always working in that area, that’s why it’s such a complicated product. And we have to maximize the products under the constraints imposed by a rule-making body.”
The U. S. Golf Assn. (USGA) enforces these standards for golf balls in sanctioned competition:
- Weight: not to exceed 1.62 oz.
- Size: at least 1.68 in. in diameter.
- Initial velocity: not to exceed 250 ft/sec (174 mph), plus a 2% test tolerance.
- Driver distance: carry plus roll not to exceed 280 yds plus 6% test tolerance, or up to 296.8 yds when hit by “Iron Byron.” The machine, designed by True Temper Corp. and named for former star Byron Nelson, is set to approximate a tour pro’s swing: 160 ft/sec clubhead speed (109 mph) and about 10 [degrees] launch angle.
- Symmetry: the ball must perform consistently in flight (distance, trajectory, duration) regardless of how it is placed on the tee.
These standards were established to preserve the challenge and tradition of the game, and make sure that equipment is alike for all golfers. (When not competing in a tournament, which is most of the time, golfers may play any type of ball). The USGA currently lists some 850 models conforming to these standards.
Since the leading half-dozen or so producers already can make golf balls that exceed the distance limits, they are now concentrating on developing balls that are more accurate, consistent, and durable — as well as longer-hitting for average golfers.