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Golf Balls

Golf today is not just one of the most popular sports in the world, it is one of the biggest businesses. August has been singled out as National Golf Month in the United States, a time as the summer is drawing to a close to celebrate everything connected to this sport capable of generation revenue for itself through vast vistas of elegantly designed playing fields, small self-contained tracks of artificial greenery just for putting, inside the home on a big screen TV while swinging a handful of nothing that becomes a virtual club on the video game and in dozens of other ways. The world has turned in ways most of the population will never know due to business deals and political decisions made between the bigwigs who control the mechanism of the future inside their bags situated right between a sand wedge and a wooden driver. The world may be fairly said to turn to some degree on the existence of the game of golf.

But the game of golf turns on one of the tiniest balls in the wide world of athletics. A tiny ball covered with strange little dimples. The lowly golf ball is equally capable of producing the rare magic of falling into an equally tiny hole on the basis of flight resulting from the action of just one small strike of the club against it as it of producing instant forgetfulness of its very existence as plops into the water and sinks to the bottom of a man-made pond.

Not only are golf balls endowed with the contemporary power to an essential component in moving the world forward, they are also the key to the game of golf actually getting to its present stature of worldwide sensation. The game of golf actually dates back to 15th century Scotland where the ball was a pebble and the club was a mere stick. The evolution of the game was slow and methodical, but meticulous in the realization of existing limitations. Very quickly the creative spark of the mother of invention made it a necessity to create a much more controllable ball. That prototype of today’s golf ball consisted of feathers stuffed a leather casing. Such was the status quo for golf balls for the first few centuries of the game of golf. Which probably goes a long, long way toward answering the question of why it took several centuries to get from its origin on the sandy seasides of Scotland to the 17 established clubs for playing the game with a codified set of rules by the middle of the 1800s. The difficulty involved in manufacturing those low-tech golf balls of the late 1400s to the mid-1800s also pretty much explains why 14 of those golf clubs were still limited within the borders of Scotland.

One needs only to look at a reproduction of that leather pouch stuffed with feathers to realize the intensive effort that would have had to go into them to make even enough to fulfill the requirements for just one country club. The reason behind the stagnation of the growth of what was clearly a popular game in Scotland had far less to do with athletics and far more to do with economics. Plainly put, the economics of production was behind the struggle of golf’s organizers to enjoy world domination. Rugby, soccer, darts and even tennis represented a far less expensive undertaking for the average person to take up as a leisure activity. Without the ability to make the game appealing to much massive numbers of sportsmen, golf looked doomed to join the ranks of other archaic games that had fallen out of favor. Two separate events conspired to reverse that direction and send golf on its way to world domination.

The Industrial Revolution and the discovery of gutta-percha that could make a golf ball fly farther when hit and roll farther once it came back down to earth. Gutta-percha was a type of very cheaper rubber that was easily molded into golf ball shape and which decreased the time it took for low-wage workers to manufacture brand new balls. Rubber, it turned out, was significantly more efficient in every way than what was left over following the death of a bird for the purpose of making golf balls. The age of mass production of the golf ball had begun and with came a speeding up of the evolution of the game from something payed only by the wealthy into a game played by the affluent.

As much as the rubberizing of golf balls was a significant improvement over the outdated hand-sewn cowhide prototype, gutta-percha balls still lacked one very important aspect. The ball could travel a greater distance through the air and bounce much closer to the cup, but only if the golfer had very great control over his swing. The rubber balls gave golfers distance, but did almost nothing to control accuracy. The ability to hit drive a ball off the tee in a perfect straight line was nearly as rare as hitting a hole-in-one. Players who greedily grabbed up the new cheaper rubber balls by the bucket would still have to wait until a new number was added to the roll of centuries before the physics of getting a golf ball to actually travel in the direction a player desired was understood and implemented.

From the time the rubber balls first replaced the old leather and feathers combination, attempts were made to experiment with the technicalities of the features on the surface in order to gain greater control over accuracy. The real turning point came in 1905 when William Taylor applied the first dimpled pattern over the surface to bear a resemblance to the modern ball. More experimentation continued as more scientific study was investigated. It was during the early 20th century that the study of physics became integral to the playing of sports and once again it was the golf ball situated at the forefront of the vanguard of changing athletics from mere games into big business.

The scientific principle at work behind the addition of dimples to a golf ball is that part of the atmosphere itself sticks to the front surface of the ball as the ball is soaring through it. At the same time, air is trying to escape from the surface by traveling over the top of the ball. The effect of on a smooth surface is that the ball moves at an accelerated velocity which gives it the great distance that rubber brought to the game, but at the loss of control. Paradoxically, what is needed to improve the results of driving the golf ball is deceleration. The addition of the dimples around the surface of the ball impacts the physics of flight by slowing it down. The effect is not scientifically far removed from the name given to the same effect of air upon an airplane. Turbulence. While turbulence can be pretty bad news for a jet, it is great for a golf ball. Creating turbulence by adding dimples to a golf ball means slowing it down as it travels through the air by allowing it to create less drag through the air. Reducing the amount of drag on the ball allows it to gain more control over direction.

If only providing the golfer with greater control over the accuracy of where his ball lands was the result of adding the dimples, that would surely have been more than enough innovation to guarantee the new, strange-looking and stranger-feeling golf displaced the smooth rubber precursor. But the addition of dimples also has an effect that many people might be shocked to learn. The effect of increased drag on a ball without dimples means that it does not spin with the speed that a dimpled counterpart does. The more a golf ball spins in the air, the less air resistance it suffers because the air above the ball is traveling at a faster rate than the air below the ball. Such a condition of resistance means that the air pressure above the ball is lower than the air pressure below it. All of which combines to create one singular—possibly unexpected—advantage to a dimpled ball over a smooth one.

The dimpled ball actually travels farther.

So the addition of between 300 and 450 tiny little indentations on a golf ball not only gives the golfer greater control over the accuracy of where he aims the ball, but also control over the distance it travels getting there.

Which still hardly means that all golf balls are the same, even if they were to have exactly the same number of dimples. Although the four-piece golf ball is the latest innovation that introduces a new layer under the outer casing, most players today still deal with traditional one, two and three-piece balls. The cheapest kind of golf ball is the one-piece which is made from a single rubberized piece of hard plastic. The lack of expense is not the only draw; the sturdy construction means the one-piece ball can be called into action again and again. Capable of taking a lot of damage, they don’t offer quite the accuracy or distance as the two or three piece balls.

Two-piece golf balls lack the endurance of the single-layer construction, but the expandable resinous material inside the tough surlyn outer layer gives greater distance and better control as a more than acceptable trade-off for having to spend more to buy more. For the typical player who possesses not an iota of a realistic chance of becoming a competitive golfer, the two-piece ball is all that should ever be required.

Thus leaving the three-piece (and, of course, the very high-tech four-piece) golf ball to the pros or semi-professionals. What is surprising is that the three-piece construction of a liquid center wrapped in tightly wound fibers and covered with a hard shell does not allow the ball to get the distance than the cheaper two-piece ball provides. While this may seem a little backward, at first, it actually makes perfect sense when scrutinized more closely. Top level golfers hardly need to rely on a ball’s manufacturing to get the distance they need. Far more important to elite golfers is the higher level of control offered by the three and four-piece golf balls.

The ball has been instrumental in the evolution of the game of golf, even to the point of the transformation of its manufacture being essential to saving the game from disappearing. The increased popularity of the game ever since then has impacted the world in every way from economics to politics to social progress.

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