There are hundreds if not thousands of inventions that we take for granted everyday, as if they’ve existed since the beginning to time.
Why Do Golf Balls Have Dimples?
We absent-mindedly flick light switches on to light up a room, turn on taps that deliver clean water on-demand, open our fridges and pull out a cold drink - and we hit golf balls with hundreds of dimples higher, further and with more spin, than ever before.
Like most inventions, the modern dimpled golf ball is the result of an evolution of brilliant discoveries, as well as a series of trials and errors that over time, yielded the superior golf ball we all know today. To understand why golf balls now have dimples, it is best to start where any proper understanding of a topic must start - at the beginning.
A Brief History of the Golf Ball
While the actual origin story of the golf ball is difficult to pin down, it is largely agreed upon that the first historical instances of golf balls emerged between the 14th and 17th century, in the form of rounded wooden balls made of beech or box hardwood.
Around the same time, small leather pouches filled with goose or chicken feathers - cleverly called featheries - were also being made and were used for a variety of ‘stick and ball’ games, one of which was likely an early form of golf. Featheries were considered the standard golf ball until the 19th century, until the next iteration of the golf ball took its place.
In 1848 a ball made out of dried sap from a Malaysian sapodilla or ‘gutta-percha’ tree was invented and (yet again...) cleverly nicknamed - a ‘guttie’. Once hardened, the gutties rubber-like sap substance provided additional aerodynamic properties (that we’ll get into later) for more distance.
This sap ball is actually credited with being the first ball to demonstrate the benefits of having small imperfections - or dimples - in it, after players found their beat up gutties travelled further, higher and straighter than the newer, smoother ones.
From here, golf ball design continued to evolve at a rapid pace thanks to the growing popularity of the sport and therefore, the increased investment from corporations and application of modern science and chemistry.
Today, most golf balls are considered ‘two-piece’, made with a solid rubber core and thermoplastic ionomer resin cover - and of course, the intentional imperfections we now know as ‘dimples’.
How Golf Ball Dimples Work
If you’re not an aerodynamicist, nor familiar with the foundational principles of aeronautics (what have you been doing with your life?!), how dimples make a ball travel higher, further and increase spin is likely not immediately obvious.
So, we’ve taken the liberty of studying the equations, crunching the numbers and cracking the complex code, to bring you a simplified version of how those dimples are actually helping your game.
Dimples Go the Distance
When any object travels any distance, it encounters a resistive force known as drag that slows its speed. Drag is the result of air and other fluids (rain, humidity) in the air that impede the object that's moving. The faster an object travels, the more drag it experiences.
When you hit your golf ball, it starts off travelling at very fast speeds, which are immediately impacted by drag. If you were to hit a completely smooth golf ball, when the air hit the front of the ball, it would separate and leave a wide wake behind the ball (think of a motor boat travelling through water).
The wider the wake behind the ball, the more turbulence that is created (yes, the same you experience on an airplane), which in turn causes lower air pressure. This low air pressure actually creates a suction-like effect that pulls backwards on your ball and destabilizes it, which can make it wobble - a double-distance killer.
On a ball with dimples, the air that impacts the front of your ball is actually redirected by each of the tiny dimples it encounters, causing it to take fractions of a second longer to travel over the surface of your ball. This additional time the air spends on the ball greatly decreases the size of the wake left behind itl, which in turn reduces the low pressure pocket behind the ball that is sucking it backwards.
The result - less drag on your ball and further distance on your shots.
Dimples Give You Height & Spin
The other benefits to having dimples on your ball is how high you can hit it, as well as how much spin you’re able to generate. The force that propels your ball skyward is called lift and can best be attained when you put backspin on your ball.
The reason backspin with a dimpled ball helps with lift is due to the speed of the spin and the depth of the dimples, causing the air to move backwards faster on the top of your ball. Instead of creating a low pressure area behind your ball, it creates an area with high pressure below the ball and low pressure above, keeping your ball travelling upwards and in the air longer.
The dimples also catch the air as it travels around your ball, which helps to amplify any initial spin that has been put on the ball. Imagine the air as little hands that are grabbing the edges of the dimples and giving them a spin over and over again (like a contestant on Wheel of Fortune) - that’s how dimples impact the spin of your shots.
So, next time you pull a ball out of your bag, take a second to appreciate the hundreds (250 or more!) dimples that cover your ball. Without them, your game might not be as stellar as it currently is… and you may not have had the chance to learn a thing or two about aerodynamics :)
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