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Golf Balls: From Feathers to 400-Yard Flight
The way your ball looks—and what’s inside it—both hugely influence the way it flies. Learn what makes the best balls soar so well.
Although golf may be characterized by forethought and deliberation, the golf ball’s evolution from feather-stuffed leather pouch to its modern incarnation was not so calculated. The ball’s most salient feature, its dimpled surface, was adopted by accident. In the mid-1800s, players began shaping balls from gutta-percha, a form of latex then used as packing material. At first, golfers would smooth out the balls after each game, but the lazier among them soon found they had the advantage: the more nicks the ball had, the better it flew. Although it’s bad for a plane, air turbulence is good for a golf ball, and creating turbulence on a tiny scale is precisely what dimples do. As the ball flies, the indentations catch tiny amounts of air and push that air to the rear, maintaining the air pressure behind the ball for longer.
Much of golf-ball design is based on another simple fact of physics: a golf ball is slightly deformed by each stroke. Some deformation is desirable, since, as the ball seeks to regain its shape, that energy will help launch it on its path. But the ball can’t be too deformed (imagine trying to putt a water balloon). The most common ball today—the two-piece, which accounts for 70 percent of all golf balls sold—is a basic device, with a solid rubber core underneath the dimpled surface. The exterior layer provides a feeling of control for the golfer, but the sturdy core still transfers energy efficiently. Three-piece balls complicate the picture, boasting a solid or liquid core tightly wound with rubber thread. These balls are harder to compress and can be driven greater distances, but they’re also more difficult—and thus more expensive—to make.