Golf technology

If I had to name two sports that are heavily technology-driven, I’d probably name auto racing–and golf.

Auto racing is an obvious choice. But golf? Golf looks so simple. A player, a club, a ball, a hole. Player swings club, hits ball, puts it into hole. Where’s the technology in that?

If you have to ask that question, you haven’t been shopping for golf clubs or golf balls recently. There are more choices than ever before, and all of them are being touted as the latest, greatest technological advance.

When golf started out, and for centuries after, golf clubs were all made of wood. At a fairly leisurely pace, other materials began to be used for both the heads and the shafts. There were fiberglass shafts, aluminum shafts and steel shafts. Club heads eventually began to be made out of both wood (hence, “woods”) and steel (hence, “irons”). But in recent years more and more exotic materials have been used. Today, the most popular material for golf club heads, both woods and irons, is titanium. Titanium is both light and strong–so light that club heads can be made larger than they’ve ever been before, while still meeting golf’s stringent regulations regarding club-head weight. A large club head give the golfer a larger “sweet spot”–the spot on the clubface you want to hit the ball with, because it’s at that spot that the club is perfectly balanced and will send the ball on its way most efficiently.

In fact, titanium is so light that slugs of other, heavier metals–tungsten, for example, or brass–must be added to the irons to give them the right weight. Golf club manufacturers take advantage of this by carefully positioning the additional metal to place the center of gravity where they feel it will do the most good during the swing.

Strength and light weight are what have also brought graphite into the forefront as the material of choice for golf club shafts. A lighter shaft means a faster swing, and more energy transferred to the ball.

A good golfer can achieve a club head speed of 100 miles per hour. When the club head hits the ball, the ball flattens, losing a third of its diameter. The club head, no matter what it’s made out of, is much harder than the ball, and doesn’t change shape; instead, it loses speed, going from 100 miles per hour to just 81. The missing 19 miles per hour worth of energy is transferred to the compressed ball.

Naturally, the ball doesn’t remain compressed long. It very quickly springs back into shape, pushing backward onto the club head at the same time. That push slows down the club even more–to about 70 miles per hour–and speeds up the ball, so that the ball will fly away from that 100-mile-per-hour swing at a whopping 135 miles per hour.

How far and how fast you hit a golf ball depends not only on your swing (the energy that creates a 100-mile-per-hour swing first has to be transferred from your body to the club, which is the trickiest part of golf of all, and something technology can’t help you much with) and on the club, but also on the ball itself.

The first golf balls were feather-stuffed leather bags called “featheries.” They were replaced by gutta-percha balls, made of the dried gum of the Malaysian sapodilla tree. After that came solid, one-piece rubber balls, then two-piece rubber balls, which have solid rubber interiors and plastic or balata (made from the sap of a South American tree) covers, and finally three-piece balls, which consist of a small, solid core wound with rubber thread and covered with plastic or balata.

These different materials dramatically affect how far and how fast the ball flies. A ball gets more speed if it decompresses faster after being hit by a club; that can also affect how straight it travels. Yet, manufacturers can’t just create balls that fly as far and as fast as possible, because the United States Golf Association has specified for more than 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. If they want to sell their balls, they have to make sure they meet regulations. It would be fairly easy to create a ball that could be hit, say, 400 yards–but that would destabilize the game so much that it will never be allowed.

Within the regulations, however, there’s been lots of room for innovations. Three-piece balls, for example, have given manufacturers opportunity to experiment with dozens of different core materials. Golf ball centers have been made of steel, glass, rubber, silicone, water, blood, iodine, mercury, tapioca, dry ice and arenic, to name just a few. Whatever the material, it’s usually frozen so that it maintains a perfectly spherical shape while about 30 yards of rubber is wound tightly around it, exerting a pressure of 2,500 pounds per square inch.

Titanium, which has become all the rate in golf club heads, has even found its way into golf ball centers. In Wilson’s Staff Titanium balls, titanium powder supposedly acts as a kind of glue to hold the core’s other components in place, which in turn is supposed to transfer more energy from the ball to the clubface at impact–the goal of all core materials.

Another recent innovation is a four-piece golf ball, with a solid core, rubber windings, a soft inner cover and a soft outer cover. These balls are supposed to react differently depending on how fast your swing speed is. Hit it easy, and only the outer cover is affected, so the shot feels soft; hit it hard, and both covers come into play, providing distance.

Speaking of outer covers, one of the most notable features of a golf ball is the dimples. Simply put, dimples make golf balls fly farther. As a smooth ball zips through the atmosphere, it leaves a partial vacuum in its wake. This pulls at the ball, reducing its speed so that it drops to the ground much sooner than it would if it were hit in a vacuum–say, on the moon, as Alan Shepherd demonstrated during the Apollo 12 lunar mission. The dimples apparently capture air, so that the ball is wrapped in its own atmosphere. Instead of leaving a partial vacuum behind it, it just leaves a stream of more air, which reduces drag and lets it fly farther.

The ideal diameter for dimples, if the goal is flight-worthiness, is about .15 inch. Sprinkle those evenly over the surface of a golf ball gives you about 336 of them. That was the standard for decades, but recently manufacturers have realized you can vary the size of the dimples by a 1/100th or 2/100th of an inch, which gives you more dimples. As a result, some golf balls have 400 or even 500 dimples, and dimple configurations are constantly being tested using wind-tunnels just like the ones used to test airplane designs, only smaller and not as windy.

These latest innovations in both clubs and balls continue to make golf easier and more accessible for more and more people, which is one reason why the sport is booming. But no matter how high-tech your gear, the sport finally comes down to you and a club, a little white ball and a hole. Watch the pros, with their titanium-headed, graphite-shafted, custom-sized clubs, hitting from the rough, or into the water, and you’ll realize that there’s still plenty of challenge left for the likes of you and me…especially me!

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal