On the Golf Ball: From Core to Cover
Golf balls have certainly come a long way since their 14th century beginnings as lopsided pieces of wood. The 17th century saw particularly incredible innovation, when the sport’s enthusiasts stuffed pouches with dense wads of wet leather to create a hard core, then added feathers that dried into a denser outer layer. Today’s golf balls are virtually unrecognizable in comparison and, let’s face it, infinitely better.
Modern golf balls are made from a range of materials and methods. Taken together, the elements of a ball’s design and construction have a profound impact on its overall performance on the course. “The ball is the most important piece of equipment in the golfer’s bag,” says Michael Mahoney, vice president of marketing at Titleist. “It’s the only piece of equipment that golfers use on every single shot.”
As such, this 1.6-ounce object must address the golfer’s every need, providing distance on drives, spin and trajectory on the approach, and control on the green. “That’s really what challenges and excites us from a research and development standpoint,” says Michael. “We’re trying to solve for a lot of factors and objectives to optimize the golf ball’s performance on any shot the golfer can imagine.”
The specific anatomy of a golf ball depends on its construction. At its most basic level, a golf ball includes an inner core made from pressurized rubber or synthetic rubber, surrounded by one or several outer layers, and a characteristically dimpled cover. “All of the collective elements of a golf ball contribute to its performance on every shot,” explains Michael, noting that even subtle changes to one or more elements of a ball’s design can make a drastic impact.
ANATOMY OF A GOLF BALL
The core is often considered the ball’s engine, influencing not only its speed and distance, but its spin in the long and short game.
Multi-layered golf balls include a core, middle layer or layers, and a cover coating. Their construction increases the ball’s spin that lends itself to greater control, especially in the short game.
The cover impacts not only the perception of feel (softness), but the ball’s spin off the club head, especially in the short game.
The dimples on the surface of the golf ball make it more aerodynamic, manipulating the airflow around the ball to create a tighter vortex that effectively decreases the ball’s drag and increases its distance, speed, and lift.
It starts at the core. The force used to strike the ball is transferred directly into the injection-molded rubber that is a ball’s core, where it is stored and released to propel the ball forward. For this reason, the core is often considered the ball’s engine, influencing not only its speed and distance, but its spin in the long and short game. In multi-layer construction, where another layer is positioned between the ball’s core and its cover, the inside layer is comprised of rubber thread compressed to varying densities.
A golf ball’s compression is thus a reflection of how hard or soft the ball compresses against the club face when hit. While the influence of compression is a hotly debated topic among golf experts and equipment manufacturers, the general consensus is that a harder ball (with a higher numerical compression) compresses less on the hit, while a softer ball compresses more. Golfers with a faster swing speed are typically more apt to prefer a harder ball, but it’s really a matter of personal preference for feel. Michael notes the impact compression can have on performance in general. “As a broad rule, if you have two golf balls that are identical with the exception of one being lower compression, the higher compression ball will have more speed and more spin across the entire range of shots. The lower compression ball will have lower speed and lower spin,” he adds, noting exceptions. “The relationship is not universally true. You can certainly have examples of higher compression golf balls with lower speed and spin because of other components of their design.”
The exterior surface of the golf ball is referred to as its cover and is constructed either of Surlyn (a thin, plastic resin created and trademarked by DuPont) or urethane (a slightly softer, slightly less durable synthetic compound). All else being equal, Surlyn can contribute to distance, but tends to inhibit spin. Urethane covers, while typically more expensive, have a tendency to deliver higher spin rates off irons and wedges, providing more control in the short game. For golf ball manufacturers like Titleist, the cover is another crucial opportunity for innovation that impacts its overall performance. “Cover is incredibly important when it comes to generating spin in the short game,” explains Michael. “In a multilayer golf ball like Pro V1 or the Pro V1x, we use a proprietary urethane cover that we make ourselves at the point of production. At very low speed, the cover grips to the grooves on the face of the wedge and generates a high spin that provides more control, so that when the golfer hits the green, it takes several bounces, then stops.”
The dimples on the surface of the golf ball play a surprisingly complex role in its flight, speed, lift, and spin. Compared to a smooth ball, the small indentions make golf balls more aerodynamic, manipulating the airflow around the ball to create a tighter vortex that effectively decreases the ball’s drag and increases its distance, speed, and lift. Like the other design and construction components, these dimples can be manipulated by manufacturers that increase and decrease their size, quantity, and pattern to impact the speed, flight, spin, and overall performance of the ball. They’re also an important consideration when it comes to weather and other playing conditions, notes Michael. “Having optimized aerodynamics is critically important to consistency in how a golf ball performs in all types of conditions—into the wind, down-wind, et cetera.”
INNOVATING AN INDUSTRY
Given the leaps and bounds of innovation across golf ball construction, materials, and performance over the last several decades, the industry’s focus on research and development should come as no surprise. Most manufacturers look toward Tour players for feedback on prototyped and developing products, but investments in innovation run far deeper, including divisions and teams of engineers, technicians, chemists, aerodynamicists, and other scientists. The R&D team at Titleist is divided into two divisions—one focused on materials, construction, and other research components, and a closer-to-market team geared more toward product development and production. “Every piece is very much connected to the golfer,” says Michael. “We spend a ton of time working with golfers and understanding their performance needs. Everything starts with the golfer and ends with the golfer—with feedback and testing throughout.”
With every innovation, consistency remains central, given the slightest deviation in quality can have a dramatic impact on a golfer’s game. It’s especially important for amateur golfers, who have a tendency to assume a flaw in their swing when they hit the ball the way they wanted to hit it, but it doesn’t perform as expected.
ON THE BALL
In all, the right ball is unique to each individual golfer’s goals and preferences. Still, the surprisingly complex science behind the sport’s central component plays into every piece of a golfer’s game—from the way it feels off the tee to the moment it hits the cup. “The golf ball,” concludes Michael, “is a really important equipment decision that makes a huge difference for golfers at all skill levels.” Perhaps the most important of all.
This article first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of GolfStatus magazine.