The golf ball that made golfers too good


This is the 13th hole at Augusta National Golf Club. And to reach it, you have to hit a series of shots around the corner from the tee. One to get down the fairway, and a few more to get around the corner and onto the green. But not if you’re Bubba Watson. “Bubba Watson with a driver.” At the 2014 Masters Tournament, he did something remarkable. His drive sliced left, and into the woods, looking like a huge mistake. Until the announcers realized what Bubba was up to. That ball flew far enough to go over the trees and land right in front of the green. Bubba cut the corner. And that shot helped him win the tournament. But it also showed that golf might have a problem. Players like Bubba might be hitting the ball too far. Bernhard Langer is a pro golfer who had an average drive of 280 yards in 2018. That’s 20 yards farther than what he was hitting when he was 30. And that jump is part of a much bigger trend. Since 1980, the average driving distance on the PGA Pro Tour has climbed over 30 yards. So the question is, what’s causing this rise? The truth is, there are a lot of reasons why golfers are hitting the ball farther. They’re stronger, their clubs are high-tech, and the courses are in better condition. But while all of these factors have had an effect, one particular thing has become a focus of conversation: The earliest golf balls were, likely, wooden, or “Hairies,” made with stitched fabric filled with…hair. Then came “Featheries,” made from leather filled with…feathers. And later, “Gutties,” made with … Maybe you’ve never heard of the gutta percha, a tropical tree species that provided the sap used to make gutty balls. Playing Gutties, golfers noticed that their older balls, the ones beaten up with nicks and scratches, were flying farther than the new ones. So they started carving designs into Gutties to get more distance. And, experimenting with different patterns, golfers realized that dimples work best. Dimpled balls fly farther because air, coming into contact with an uneven surface, creates a protective layer of turbulence around the golf ball. And that creates a smaller wake, that has less drag on the ball. But remember this chart? Dimples were around way before this line started rising, so they don’t really explain what’s going on here. And I mean right here. See this jump? It’s the steepest part of this trendline. Something caused this, and it wasn’t dimples. It was this: The golf ball that revolutionized the sport. I know what you’re thinking — this looks like any other golf ball. But not when you look on the inside. So, for about 100 years before the Pro V1, the standard golf ball had been a “wound ball.” The inside is a rubber band, wound around a core, and sometimes filled with liquid, which you can see if you cut one open, like golfer Rick Shiels. But cutting open a Pro V1, you can see what makes this ball different. It’s the solid, multi-layered core. Before the Pro V1 and balls like it, players had to choose: between a solid-core ball that’s good for distance, or a wound ball that’s better for accuracy. But a multi-layered ball can do both. Its rigid core helps it fly far for distance, and the flexible outer layers allow a golfer to control spin when hitting closer to the hole. Before 2000, nearly all players hit wound balls. But afterwards, nearly all pro players in the US Open had switched to hitting solid multi-layer balls like the Pro V1. And that year was the year that the average driving distance shot up six yards. “Unusual and concerning” is how a 2017 report described the rise in driving distance for professional players. Hitting the ball too far means golfers can fly the ball over obstacles designed to make the game difficult. And that’s making some courses obsolete. Especially older ones, like Oakmont Country Club, where holes designed in another era are being overpowered by modern players. Now, officials are considering what they can do to limit distance. Making golf balls bigger would increase drag, and a heavier ball would fall out of the air more quickly. But adjusting dimpling, or rolling back innovations that made the Pro V1 successful, like layering and materials, could also reduce the flight of golf balls, and solve the problem. However, not everyone’s happy about this idea. “We own our manufacturing process, we own our technology, and we own our responsibility to the end-user.” As this epic marketing video shows, Titleist invests a lot in making golf balls. And for ball manufacturers, any little change to production would cost them a lot of money. But they probably shouldn’t be too worried. The truth is, golf has been having a version of this debate for nearly a hundred years, and nothing’s been settled yet. Debating the flight of the ball started a long time ago, with people asking “does it go too far?” as far back as 1936. And in the end, maybe it just doesn’t even matter. Remember the 13th hole at Augusta? That got fixed. The club just bought the land behind the tee box, in order to pull it back, and make it farther to hit a drive over the corner. No matter what kind of ball you use.

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