The dynamics behind the flight of the golf ball offers a fascinating insight into the physical interworkings of air pressure, turbulence, and aerodynamics.
When golf was first played in Scotland, most players played using clumsy golf apparatus, with the first golf clubs and golf balls made of wood.
In 1618 the “Featherie” was introduced. It was a golf ball made of feather. This feather golf ball was handcrafted from goose feathers tightly pressed into a horse or cowhide sphere while still wet. After drying, the leather shrank and the feathers expanded, creating a hardened golf ball.
As this type of golf ball was specially handcrafted, it was usually more expensive than golf clubs, so that only a few privileged people could afford to play golf back then.
After the Featherie golf ball came the Guttie golf ball. This type of golf ball was made from the rubber-like sap of the Gutta tree found in the tropics, and was shaped into a sphere when hot and eventually into a golf ball. As it was made of rubber, the Guttie golf ball could be cheaply produced and easily repaired by reheating and reshaping.
Comparing the two types of golf balls, the Featherie golf ball was said to travel farther than the Guttie golf ball because the Guttie golf ball’s smooth surface prevented it from covering more distance.
With this discovery, the developers of golf balls came up with the “dimpled” golf balls that are so predominant in modern golf nowadays.
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The dimples on the golf balls help reduce the aerodynamic drag. Aerodynamic drag normally affects smooth golf balls and slows them down, because when they sail through the air, they leave a pocket of low-pressure air in its stir thus creating a drag.
By applying dimples to the golf ball surface, the pressure differential goes down and the drag force is reduced. These dimples create turbulence in the air surrounding the golf ball, which, in turn, forces the air to clasp the golf ball more closely. By doing so, the air trails the warp created by the golf ball towards the back instead of flowing past it. This results in a smaller wake and lesser drag.
Dimples were first added onto golf ball surfaces back during the gutta percha phase. Coburn Haskell introduced the one-piece rubber cored golf ball encased in a gutta percha sphere. Then in 1905 William Taylor applied the dimple pattern to a Haskell golf ball, thus giving rise to the modern golf ball as we know it today.
After its beginning, dimpled golf balls were officially used in every golf tournament. In 1921, the golf ball took its current form with standard size and weight. Nowadays there is a wide range of golf balls to fit every style, game and condition, with some golf balls offering control, and other golf balls offering distance.
Though a common sight nowadays, the dimpled golf ball is not just a mere element of the sports arena; it is a showcase of physics at work.