‘Tis the season to chase little white balls over big green spaces, and to contemplate, while combing through waist-high grass, the history and science behind your endeavours.
The Romans played a game called “paganica,” chasing a feather-stuffed ball around the countryside with a bent stick, but the Scots usually get the credit (or blame) for inventing golf in the 14th or 15th centuries.
Like the Romans, they chased a feather-stuffed leather bag around the countryside with bent sticks, but they added a new twist: trying to get the ball into a hole in the fewest number of strokes.
The first organized golf club, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, founded in 1744, established many of the rules of golf still in use today, but the feather-stuffed ball remained standard and traditional — and who would dare tamper with tradition?
Rev. Dr. Robert Adams Paterson, that’s who. In 1845 he made a ball from gutta-percha, hardened tree-sap that can be shaped in boiling water. The gutta-percha ball cost less, lasted longer, and flew up to 25 yards further than the “feathery.” So much for tradition.
Fifty years later, Cleveland golfer Coburn Haskell and B.F. Goodrich employee Bertram G. Work wound rubber thread on a solid rubber core and added another 25 yards to everyone’s drives.
Today, there are one-piece balls moulded from solid rubber; two-piece balls with solid rubber cores and plastic covers; and three-piece balls, with smaller solid cores wound with rubber thread and covered with plastic or balata (made from the sap of a South American tree).
The United States Golf Association has specified for 50 years that a golf ball propelled under certain specified conditions should travel about 250 yards at a speed of no more than 250 feet per second. The accuracy of that flight is determined not only by the skill of the golfer, but by how quickly the ball returns to a spherical shape after being deformed by the blow of the club’s head. One reason some golf balls have liquid centers is that liquid, being non-compressible, may cause the ball to snap back into shape faster.
Usually, though, what’s at the center of a golf ball has less to do with physics than with the need for a good advertising hook. Golf ball centers have been made of steel, glass, rubber, silicone, water, blood, iodine, mercury, tapioca, dry ice and arsenic, to name just a few.
Whatever the center is made of, it usually starts out frozen to ensure it remains perfectly spherical while about 30 yards of rubber is wound tightly around it, exerting a pressure of 2,500 pounds per square inch (which is why it can be hazardous to cut open a golf ball!).
The ball’s cover is just as important as its center. When the ball is hit off the tee, it backspins at between 4,000 and 5,000 rpm. This causes the air to move faster over the top of the ball, where the dimples (usually 336 of them) are spinning with the air flow, than under the ball, where the dimples spin counter to the air flow. Slower-moving air has a higher pressure than faster-moving air; the higher pressure under the ball lifts it into the air.
Altering the dimples a thousandth of an inch is enough to change the ball’s flight. Generally, the deeper the dimples, the higher the ball travels and the more sensitive it is to hooking and slicing.
The other non-human part of the golfing equation is the club. Club heads (putters excluded) haven’t altered all that much for a hundred years, but shaft materials have changed from wood to fiberglass to aluminum to today’s steel, graphite and titanium. The shaft material is important because how much the club flexes during the swing has a lot to do with whether the club head hits the ball squarely.
Of course, the golfer has a lot to do with it, too. I should know, because my golfing ability can best be summed up by the observation that players on the fairway get very upset when your ball almost hits them.
Especially when you’re not even playing their hole.