Under the rules of golf, a golf ball has a mass no more than 1.620 oz (45.93 grams), has a diameter not less than 1.680 in (42.67 mm), and performs within specified velocity, distance, and symmetry limits. Like golf clubs, golf balls are subject to testing and approval by the R&A (formerly part of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) and the United States Golf Association, and those that do not conform with regulations may not be used in competitions (Rule 5–1).
It is commonly believed that hard wooden, round balls were the first balls used for golf between the 14th through the 17th centuries. Though they were undoubtedly used for other similar contemporary stick and ball games, made from hardwoods such as beech and box trees, there is no definite evidence that they were used in golf in Scotland. It is equally, if not more likely, that leather balls filled with cows' hair were used, imported from The Netherlands from at least 1486 onwards.  Then or later, the featherie ball was developed and introduced. A featherie, or feathery, is a hand-sewn round leather pouch stuffed with chicken or goose feathers and coated with paint, usually white in color. The volume measurement for the feathers was a gentleman's top hat full of feathers. The feathers were boiled and softened before they were stuffed into the leather pouch. Making a featherie was a tedious and time-consuming process. An experienced ball maker could only make a few balls in one day, and so they were expensive. A single ball would cost between 2 shillings and 5 shillings, which is the equivalent of 10 to 20 US dollars today.
There were a few drawbacks to the featherie. First, it was hard to make a perfectly round, spherical ball, and because of this, the featherie often flew irregularly. Also, when the featherie became too wet, its distance would be reduced, and there was a possibility of its splitting open upon impact when hit or when hitting the ground or other hard surface. Despite these, the featherie was still a dramatic improvement over the wooden ball, and remained the standard golf ball well into the 19th century.
In 1848, the Rev. Dr. Robert Adams Paterson (sometimes spelled Patterson) invented the gutta-percha ball (or guttie, gutty). The guttie was made from dried sap of the Malaysian sapodilla tree. The sap had a rubber-like feel and could be made round by heating and shaping it in a round mold. Because gutties were cheaper to produce, could be re-formed if they became out-of-round or damaged, and had improved aerodynamic qualities, they soon became the preferred ball for use. Accidentally, it was discovered that nicks in the guttie from normal use actually provided a ball with a more consistent ball flight than a guttie with a perfectly smooth surface. Thus, makers began intentionally making indentations into the surface of new balls using either a knife or hammer and chisel, giving the guttie a textured surface. Many patterns were tried and used. These new gutties, with protruding nubs left by carving patterned paths across the ball's surface, became known as "brambles" due to their resemblance to bramble fruit.
The next breakthrough in golf ball development came in 1898. Coburn Haskell of Cleveland, Ohio had driven to nearby Akron, Ohio for a golf date with Bertram Work, the superintendent of the B.F. Goodrich Company. While he waited in the plant for Work, Haskell picked up some rubber thread and wound it into a ball. When he bounced the ball, it flew almost to the ceiling. Work suggested Haskell put a cover on the creation, and that was the birth of the 20th century wound golf ball that would soon replace the guttie bramble ball. The new design became known as the rubber Haskell golf ball. For decades, the wound rubber ball consisted of a liquid-filled or solid round core that was wound with a layer of rubber thread into a larger round inner core and then covered with a thin outer shell made of balata sap. The balata is a tree native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. The tree is tapped and the soft, viscous fluid released is a rubber-like material similar to gutta-percha, which was found to make an ideal cover for a golf ball. Balata, however, is relatively soft. If the leading edge of a highly lofted short iron contacts a balata-covered ball in a location other than the bottom of the ball a cut or "smile" will often be the result, rendering the ball unfit for play in most instances.
In the early 1900s, it was also found that inverting the dimples to be concave in look and feel provided even more control of the ball's trajectory, flight, and spin than did the raised or protruding-dimpled guttie bramble balls. Players were able to put additional backspin on the new wound, inverted-dimpled, balls when using more lofted clubs, thus inducing the ball to stop more quickly on the green. Manufacturers soon began designing, making, and selling various types of golf balls with various dimple patterns to improve the length, trajectory, spin, and overall "feel" characteristics of the new wound golf balls. Wound, balata-covered golf balls would be used for decades well into the late 20th century.
In the mid-1960s, a new synthetic resin, an ionomer of ethylene acid named "Surlyn," was introduced (by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company), as were new urethane blends for golf ball covers, and these new materials soon displaced balata as they proved more durable and more resistant to cutting. Along with various other materials that came into use to replace the rubber-wound internal sphere, golf balls came to be classified as either two-piece, three-piece, or four-piece balls according to the number of layered components. These basic materials continue to be used in modern balls, with further advances in technology creating balls that can be customized to a player's strengths and weaknesses, and even allowing for the combination of characteristics that were formerly mutually-exclusive.
In 1967, Spalding purchased a patent for a solid golf ball from Jim Bartsch. The original patent proposed a ball void of the former layered approach seen in earlier designs, but Bartsch's patent lacked the chemical properties needed in its manufacturing. Under Spalding, and its chemical engineering team, the development of a chemical resin eliminated the need for the former layered components entirely. Known as the "Executive" model, Spalding was the first company to successfully develop and market the world's first solid golf ball.
The specifications for the golf ball continue to be governed by the ruling bodies of the game; namely, The Royal & Ancient (The R&A), formerly part of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, and the United States Golf Association (USGA).
The Rules of Golf, jointly governed by the R&A and the USGA, state in Appendix III that the diameter of a "conforming" golf ball cannot be any smaller than 1.680 inches (42.67 mm), and the weight of the ball may not exceed 1.620 ounces (45.93 g). The ball must also have the basic properties of a spherically symmetrical ball, generally meaning that the ball itself must be spherical and must have a symmetrical arrangement of dimples on its surface. Additional rules direct players and manufacturers to other technical documents published by the R&A and USGA with additional restrictions, such as radius and depth of dimples, maximum launch speed from test apparatus (generally defining the coefficient of restitution) and maximum total distance when launched from the test equipment.
In general, the governing bodies and their regulations seek to provide a relatively level playing field and maintain the traditional form of the game and its equipment, while not completely halting the use of new technology in equipment design.
Until 1990, it was permissible to use balls of less than 1.68 inches in diameter in tournaments under the jurisdiction of the R&A, which differed in its ball specifications rules from those of the USGA. This ball was commonly called a "British" ball, while the golf ball approved by the USGA was simply the "American ball". The smaller diameter gave the player a distance advantage, especially in high winds, as the smaller ball created a similarly smaller "wake" behind it.
When a golf ball is hit, the impact, which lasts less than a millisecond, determines the ball’s velocity, launch angle and spin rate, all of which influence its trajectory (and its behavior when it hits the ground).
First, the dimples on the surface of a golf ball cause the boundary layer on the upstream side of the ball to transition from laminar to turbulent. The turbulent boundary layer is able to remain attached to the surface of the ball much longer than a laminar boundary and so creates a narrower low-pressure wake and hence less pressure drag. The reduction in pressure drag causes the ball to travel farther.
Backspin is imparted in almost every shot due to the golf club's loft (i.e., angle between the clubface and a vertical plane). A backspinning ball experiences an upward lift force which makes it fly higher and longer than a ball without spin.
Sidespin occurs when the clubface is not aligned perpendicularly to the intended direction of swing or ball-to-target line, leading to a lift force that makes the ball curve to one side or the other based on the direction of where the clubface is pointing at impact. The dimples allow both the sidespin to occur as well as to promote an angular upward lift. Some dimple designs are claimed to reduce the sidespin effects to provide a straighter ball flight.
To keep the aerodynamics optimal, the golf ball needs to be clean, including all dimples. Thus, it is advisable that golfers wash their golf ball whenever permittable by the rules of golf. Golfers can wash their golf balls manually using a wet towel or using a ball washer of some type.
Dimples first became a feature of golf balls when English engineer and manufacturer William Taylor, co-founder of the Taylor-Hobson company, registered a patent for a dimple design in 1905. William Taylor had realized that golf players were trying to make irregularities on their balls, noticing that used balls were going further than new ones. Hence he decided to make systematic tests to determine what surface formation would give the best flight. He then developed a pattern consisting of regularly spaced indentations over the entire surface, and later tools to help producing such balls in series Other types of patterned covers were in use at about the same time, including one called a "mesh" and another named the "bramble", but the dimple became the dominant design due to "the superiority of the dimpled cover in flight".
Most golf balls on sale today have about 250–450 dimples, though there have been balls with more than 1000 dimples. The record holder was a ball with 1,070 dimples—414 larger ones (in four different sizes) and 656 pinhead-sized ones.
Officially sanctioned balls are designed to be as symmetrical as possible. This symmetry is the result of a dispute that stemmed from the Polara, a ball sold in the late 1970s that had six rows of normal dimples on its equator but very shallow dimples elsewhere. This asymmetrical design helped the ball self-adjust its spin axis during the flight. The USGA refused to sanction it for tournament play and, in 1981, changed the rules to ban aerodynamic asymmetrical balls. Polara's producer sued the USGA and the association paid US$1.375 million in a 1985 out-of-court settlement. Polara Golf now manufactures balls with “Self-Correcting Technology” for non-tournament play.
Golf balls are usually white, but are available in other high visibility colors, which helps with finding the ball when lost or when playing in low-light or frosty conditions.
As well as bearing the maker's name or logo, balls are usually printed with numbers or other symbols to help players identify their ball.
Today, golf balls are manufactured using a variety of different materials, offering a range of playing characteristics to suit the player's abilities and desired flight and landing behaviors.
A key consideration is "compression", typically determined by the hardness of the ball's core layers. A harder "high-compression" ball will fly further because of the more efficient transfer of energy into the ball, but will also transmit more of a shock through the club to the player's hands (a "hard feel"). A softer "low-compression" ball will do just the opposite. Golfers typically prefer a softer feel, especially in the "short game", as the softer ball typically also has greater backspin with lofted irons. But drive distance is also of critical importance to many players wanting to get on the green in fewer strokes for a chance at a birdie or eagle, which a softer ball will reduce by wasting some of the impact energy in its compression.
Another consideration is "spin", affected by compression and by the cover material; a "high-spin" ball allows more of the ball's surface to contact the clubface at impact, allowing the grooves of the clubface to "grip" the ball and induce more backspin at launch. Backspin creates lift that can increase carry distance, and also provides "bite" which allows a ball to arrest its forward motion at the initial point of impact, bouncing straight up or even backwards, allowing for precision placement of the ball on the green with an approach shot. However, high-spin cover materials, typically being softer, are less durable which shortens the useful life of the ball, and backspin is not desirable on most long-distance shots, such as with the driver, as it causes the shot to "balloon" and then to bite on the fairway, when additional rolling distance is usually desired.
Lastly, the pattern of dimples plays a role. By regulation, the arrangement of the dimples on the ball must be as symmetrical as possible; however, the dimples don't all have to be the same size, nor be in a uniform distribution. This allows designers to arrange the dimple patterns in such a way that the resistance to spinning is lower along certain axes of rotation and higher along others; this causes the ball to "settle" into one of these low-resistance axes that (golfers hope) is close to parallel with the ground and perpendicular to the direction of travel, thereby eliminating "sidespin" induced by a slight mishit, which will cause the ball to curve off its intended flight path. A badly mishit ball will still curve, as the ball will settle into a spin axis that is not parallel with the ground which, much like an aircraft's wings, will cause the shot to bank left or right.
There are many types of golf balls on the market, and customers often face a difficult decision. Golf balls are divided into two categories: recreational and advanced balls. Recreational balls are oriented toward the ordinary golfer, who generally have low swing speeds (80 miles per hour (130 km/h) or lower) and lose golf balls on the course easily. These balls are made of two layers, with the cover firmer than the core. Their low compression and side spin reduction characteristics suit the lower swing speeds of average golfers quite well. Furthermore, they generally have lower prices than the advanced balls, lessening the financial impact of losing a ball to a hazard or out of bounds.
Advanced balls are made of multiple layers (three or more), with a soft cover and firm core. They induce a greater amount of spin from lofted shots (wedges especially), as well as a sensation of softness in the hands in short-range shots. However, these balls require a much greater swing speed that only the physically strong players could carry out to compress at impact. If the compression of a golf ball does not match a golfer's swing speed, either the lack of compression or over-compression will occur, resulting in loss of distance. There are also many brands and colors to choose from, with colored balls and better brands generally being more expensive, making an individual's choice more difficult.
A practice ball or range ball is similar to a recreational golf ball, but is designed to be inexpensive, durable and have a shorter flight distance, while still retaining the principal behaviors of a "real" golf ball and so providing useful feedback to players. All of these are desirable qualities for use in an environment like a driving range, which may be limited in maximum distance, and must have many thousands of balls on-hand at any time that are each hit and mis-hit hundreds of times during their useful life.
To accomplish these ends, practice balls are typically harder-cored than even recreational balls, have a firmer, more durable cover to withstand the normal abrasion caused by a club's hitting surface, and are made as cheaply as possible while maintaining a durable, quality product. Practice balls are typically labelled with "PRACTICE" in bold lettering, and often also have one or more bars or lines printed on them, which allow players (and high-speed imaging aids) to see the ball's spin more easily as it leaves the tee or hitting turf.
Practice balls conform to all applicable requirements of the Rules of Golf, and as such are legal for use on the course, but as the hitting characteristics are not ideal, players usually opt for a better-quality ball for actual play.
Players, especially novice and casual players, lose a large number of balls during the play of a round. Balls hit into water hazards, penalty areas, buried deeply in sand, and otherwise lost or abandoned during play are a constant source of litter that groundskeepers must contend with, and can confuse players during a round who may hit an abandoned ball (incurring a penalty by strict rules).
A variety of devices such as nets, harrows, sand rakes etc. have been developed that aid the groundskeeping staff in efficiently collecting these balls from the course as they accumulate. Once collected, they may be discarded, kept by the groundskeeping staff for their own use, repurposed on the club's driving range, or sold in bulk to a recycling firm. These firms clean and resurface the balls to remove abrasions and stains, grade them according to their resulting quality, and sell the various grades of playable balls back to golfers through retailers at a discount.
Used or recycled balls with obvious surface deformation, abrasion or other degradation are known informally as "shags", and while they remain useful for various forms of practice drills such as chipping, putting and driving, and can be used for casual play, players usually opt for used balls of higher quality, or for new balls, when playing in serious competition. Other grades are typically assigned letters or proprietary terms, and are typically differentiated by the cost and quality of the ball when new and the ability of the firm to restore the ball to "like-new" condition. The "top grade" balls are typically balls that are considered the current state of the art and, after cleaning and surfacing, are indistinguishable externally from a new ball sold by the manufacturer.
In addition to recycled balls, casual golfers wishing to procure quality balls at a discount price can often purchase "X-outs". These are "factory seconds"; balls which have failed the manufacturer's quality control testing standards and which the manufacturer therefore does not wish to sell under its brand name. To avoid a loss of money on materials and labor, however, the balls which still generally conform to the Rules are marked to obscure the brand name (usually with a series of "X"s, hence the most common term "X-out"), packaged in generic boxes and sold at a deep discount.
Typically, the flaw that caused the ball to fail QC does not have a significant effect on its flight characteristics (balls with serious flaws are usually discarded outright at the manufacturing plant), and so these "X-outs" will often perform identically to their counterparts that have passed the company's QC. They are thus a good choice for casual play. However, because the balls have been effectively "disowned" for practical and legal purposes by their manufacturer, they are not considered to be the same as the brand-name balls on the USGA's published Conforming Golf Ball List. Therefore, when playing in a tournament or other event that requires the ball used by the player to appear on this list as a "condition of competition", X-outs of any kind are illegal.
Marking and personalisation
Golfers need to distinguish their ball from other players' to ensure that they do not play the wrong ball. This is often done by making a mark on the ball using a permanent marker pen such as a Sharpie. A wide number of markings are used; a majority of players either simply write their initial in a particular color, or color in a particular arrangement of the dimples on the ball. Many players make multiple markings so that at least one can be seen without having to lift the ball. Marking tools such as stamps and stencils are available to speed the marking process.
Alternatively, balls are usually sold pre-marked with the brand and model of golf ball, and also with a letter, number or symbol. This combination can usually (but not always) be used to distinguish a player's ball from other balls in play and from lost or abandoned balls on the course. Companies, country clubs and event organizers commonly have balls printed with their logo as a promotional tool, and some professional players are supplied with balls by their sponsors which have been custom-printed with something unique to that player (their name, signature, or a personal symbol).
Golf balls with embedded radio transmitters to allow lost balls to be located were first introduced in 1973, only to be rapidly banned for use in competition. More recently RFID transponders have been used for this purpose, though these are also illegal in tournaments. This technology can however be found in some computerized driving ranges. In this format, each ball used at the range has an RFID with its own unique transponder code. When dispensed, the range registers each dispensed ball to the player, who then hits them towards targets in the range. When the player hits a ball into a target, they receive distance and accuracy information calculated by the computer. The use of this technology was first commercialized by World Golf Systems Group to create TopGolf, a brand and chain of computerized ranges now owned by International Management Company.
Canadian long drive champion Jason Zuback broke the world ball speed record on an episode of Sport Science with a golf ball speed of 328 km/h (204 mph). The previous record of 302 km/h (188 mph) was held by José Ramón Areitio, a Jai Alai player.
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