Consider the golf ball

As The Open Championship preparesto tee off, Jonathan Brown explores the technology, history and sociology of the dimpliest piece of gear you'll find on the fairway


It was the Rev Dr Robert Adams Paterson who gave the world the modern golf ball. As a student studying at St Andrews in the mid-19th century, he was too poor to afford the artisan-crafted orbs knocked around the links by the wealthy players at the home of golf. In those days, a top-hat full of chicken feathers was boiled and stitched into a pouch of cow hide. It was virtually useless in the rain. Paterson's solution was to employ gutta-percha (guttie) – a material he found wrapped around an idol sent from India and originating from the dried sap of a Malaysian Sapodilla tree. It was replaced in the 20th century by the multi-layered wound ball consisting of a liquid-filled core wrapped in rubber thread with a manufactured cover. By the millennium, solid balls had replaced the wound variety.

The dimple

Golfers playing with Paterson's "guttie" discovered that the more scratched and dented it became, the further it travelled when hit. They had encountered one of the basic principles of aerodynamic drag on a moving sphere. As a ball is hit through the air, it experiences an opposite force which makes it slow and fall to earth. This is caused partly by friction, but mainly by the separation of the airflow above and below the ball. A smooth ball results in a laminar flow – a wide-trailing high-pressure wake which increases the drag on the ball and reduces velocity and distance. A ball with an average of 336 dimples, however, produces a narrower separation or turbulent flow area between the upper and lower air streams, reduces the backward pressure and the ensuing drag as it flies, and makes it travel further. Dimples also help to produce lift.


English engineer William Taylor patented the first dimple design in 1905. But balls really began to catch up with innovations in club technology in the early 1990s. Reagan-era budget cuts at the United States Department of Defense saw hundreds of aerospace engineers in Southern California move to nearby Carlsbad, which was home to some of the world's biggest golf-equipment manufacturers, with fat research and development budgets brought on by the game's increasing global popularity. Improvements in materials science, new polymers blended with ultra-strong metals such as titanium and tungsten, and breakthroughs in aerodynamics created a new generation of hi-tech spheres.

Impact on the environment

According to the Danish Golf Union (DGU), it can take anywhere between 100 and 1,000 years for a modern golf ball to biodegrade. This is bad news for the environment, considering that 300 million balls are lost or thrown away each year in the United States alone. The DGU found that modern balls dissolved to release potentially hazardous quantities of heavy metals, including zinc, which are used in the synthetic rubber filling. Research showed that the toxins became attached to ground sediment when they were dissolved in water, and have the potential to poison nearby flora and fauna.

Easiest to hit

Devised in 1977, the self-correcting Polara appeared to bring the hope of consistent golf within reach for millions of players worldwide. Its system of asymmetrical dimples straightened out unwanted hooks and slices and complied with the sport's many rules. It was, however, outlawed the following year.

Most expensive

Made in 1790 from feathers and cow hide by one of the game's earliest Scottish craftsmen, a golf ball created in the workshop of William Robertson was sold at auction for £24,000 in 2004. It was bought by Jaime Ortiz-Patigos, the owner of the Valderrama golf course, which hosted the 1997 Ryder Cup.

At the tee

When struck at the tee, a typical golf ball will compress by approximately one quarter of its volume. The club is in contact with the ball for less than a millisecond and the sphere leaves the face at 40 metres per second at an angle of approximately 40 degrees. A typical drive with a modern golf ball will travel between 180 and 250 yards – less than half the world record which has stood for nearly 40 years. It was set by Mike Austin, war hero, former housemate of Errol Flynn and expert in the science of human movement in 1974. He sent his ball flying 515 yards (471m) at the Winterwood golf course in Las Vegas.

Most popular

US golf brand Titleist, creator of the Pro V1 or "the ball that turned golf upside down", lays claim to being the world's No 1 seller. Its revolutionary solid design has been the subject of fierce patent battles US courts with rival Callaway since it appeared triumphantly on the scene. The first Titleist emerged from the Acushnet Process Company in 1935 in Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Fila Korea and a private-equity firm announced their intention to buy the brand for a $1.2bn (£740m) cash payment from its owners, whose other brands include Jim Beam whiskey. Acushnet employs 3,000 people at its headquarters in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, as well as at two manufacturing plants and its R&D technology centre in New Bedford.

Most famous

A distinction shared between two balls hit by US astronaut Alan Shepard from a series of faltering sand pitches across the surface of the Moon in 1971. The Apollo 14 commander deployed a six-iron head smuggled aboard his spaceship and attached to a lunar sample collector handle. "In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that's familiar to millions of Americans," he told Houston. Using one hand because of his bulky space suit, he scuffed the first into the Moon dust before dispatching it with an eventual third swing. The second went the same way after two further efforts, with Shepard claiming it went "miles and miles and miles".

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