YOU FEEL A disturbing tinge of Dr. Strangelove about the whole business, but there is nothing funny in the eyes of the man on the right as he tells you, “The one-piece solid golf ball is a problem to the whole industry. We don’t know how it will ultimately be accepted. It could take over.”
The concerned man is J. G. Havey, vicepresident of the Wilson Sporting Goods Company, director of Wilson’s research and development. And when he goes on to tell you in a controlled, precise voice that in one year North American golfers hack through 7.765 million dozen golf balls at an average price of $6.68 per dozen ($52 million, blimey!), you begin to feel a bit threatened yourself.
In fact, they shell out a total $150 million per year for the paraphernalia of the game. Brand loyalties are fragile and golfers notoriously switch to the latest miracle.
As a result, the major golf suppliers have built up an almost paranoiac atmosphere of secrecy around the scientific arm of their organizations. When we asked to meet with the head of the 45-man Research and Development program at Spalding, we were channeled up to the president himself. In his best I’m-sure-you’ll-understand voice, he apologized, “I don’t want to sound like a stuffed shirt, but I’m afraid . . .”
Part of the secrecy around research comes from the necessity for each manufacturer to develop his own testing devices. Since there are only five or six major researchers involved, no one has found it profitable to make standard machines available to test clubs and balls in terms of durability, size, balance, weight and performance. A rare exception is a new ball-velocity testing device completely computerized to study such things as the Coefficient of Restitution — the speed of the ball compared to the speed of the object that hits it. The cost: $35,000.
Still, in the best spirit of the Search for Truth that permeates the golfing science, Researcher Havey contends, “It’s a lot of money, but if the machine tests out the way we hope, I have budgeted that sum for its purchase. You have to remember, the golf ball is a very complicated little rascal to understand.”
We invite you to try it, on the next page.
HOW FAR YOU HIT the ball depends on the velocity of the clubhead at impact. Proof is in the formula £ = 1/2mVi, where £ is the energy imparted on the ball, m the weight of the clubhead and V its velocity. The velocity of the clubhead is important, since the V-squared means that i f you double the speed with which you hit the ball, you quadruple the energy smacking the poor thing. Backspin increases distance as well. In the picture, only a fraction of a second has passed, but already the grooves on the clubface have put the ball through 180 degrees. A nine-iron backspins the ball at 8,000 revolutions per minute, roughly the speed of the Formula 1 engine.
THE LITTLE WHITE BALL looks delightfully easy to make. We only insist, say the USGA, the governing body of golf in the U.S., that it doesn't weigh more than 1.620 ounces, measure less than 1.680 inches in diameter, or fly faster than 250 feet per second. In the past, men have tried stuffing it with lead, zinc oxide and even steel to make it fly farther. Now, most good balls have a liquid centre, and scientists already share a righteous indignation about the velocity limit — their arsenal includes a superball that can fly farther and truer than any ball in existence. But until it is ruled legal, you’ll have to get your distance from the liquid-centre ball with its 250 yards of rubber winding and hard balata cover. That is, unless the solid ball, with its man-made polybutadiene, bounces the naturalrubber ball right off the course.
WHILE ARNIE PALMER swings through the ball, tests have revealed that the weekend player actually turns off the power about a foot behind it. To bridge the difference, clubs are made in four shaft grades: flexible, medium, stiff and extra-stiff. As the wrists start to break, each grade has a different crack-the-whip action on the clubhead, with the flexible shaft actually snapping the clubhead around in front of the hands. Shafts were made almost exclusively from steel until aluminum came along last year, promising less twisting, better feel and greater accuracy. Still, some insist that in time aluminum will crack, bend and generally turn out to be the gutless wonder. If so, a replacement is waiting — stainless steel.
PHOTO BY THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology stops the club as its “centre of percussion” flattens the ball for four 10-thousandths of a second (.0004 sec.). Once club and ball have traveled together for .8 inch, the ball springs off, now at its greatest
velocity, 250 feet per second. A top-grade ball is mechanically tested for a life expectancy of 300 smashes, each with the force of a 250-yard drive. Hence, if you don’t lose it, you can expect a ball to last for about 70 to 80 holes and still keep its proper feel or “click.”
THE COVER OF THE BALL has 336 “dimples” or indentations. As the backspinning ball meets wind resistance, these dimples engage the air — grasp it almost — causing the ball to carry along with it a thin film of high-velocity air. This spinning air sets up a positive pressure at the bottom of the ball and negative on top, sending the ball up, up and away (left). The flight of the ball is different from an airplane in that the plane is lifted by a vacuum created above the shape of the wing, not by pressure below. If the ball is hit from inside out, it spins counter-clockwise, setting up a positive pressure on the right side. The result is a hook (middle). The opposite happens as the ball is hit outside in and a slice goes off into the woods (right). A good thing has its price, so though the dimples help a wellhit ball fly farther, they also make a bad slice or hook even worse.
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