Better Golfing Through Chemistry
Except perhaps for sumo wrestling, every sport uses some sort of equipment. In some, such as auto racing, advances in equipment are a major part of the sport, while in others, such as basketball, their main role is to separate teen-agers from their money. Somewhere in between these two extremes lies the game of golf. In golf, as in every modern sport, engineering and technology have become an inescapable part of the game, altering the play in subtle and persistent ways that athletes sometimes embrace and sometimes resist. The evolution of golfing equipment vividly illustrates how engineering can affect even the most seemingly traditional and pure aspects of contemporary life.
A golfer’s basic task is simple: to hit a ball into a hole. Yet accomplishing this task can be fiendishly difficult. In general a straight shot is preferred, with no slice or hook; and depending upon the circumstances, a golfer may want to hit the ball a long or short distance, with a high or low arc, with or without backspin. Unlike pool players, who use the same cue for all shots and vary the way they strike the ball, golfers must rely on different clubs to achieve these effects.
The golfer’s arsenal contains wooden clubs with faces inclined ten to twenty degrees from the vertical, which are used for distance, and metal clubs with more severely angled faces, which are used for shorter shots. The standard set includes woods numbered 1 to 4 or 5, with the choice depending on what the ball is sitting in and how far from the hole it is; irons numbered 1 to 9 or 10; and a putter. The 10-iron’s face may be angled as much as sixty degrees, making for a short shot with a great deal of lift; this club is sometimes known as a wedge.
An ideal club is a well-balanced instrument that minimizes the penalty for off-line strokes and transfers the golfer’s energy efficiently to the ball. The shaft should be light and fairly stiff, and the stiffness should be consistent from one club to the next throughout a set. While a heavy club head makes for a powerful shot, it must not be too heavy to be swung with precision. The wide variety of obstacles imposed by nature and course designers accounts for the profusion of implements in a golfer’s bag—and for the many attempts through the years to build a better club.
As for balls, they too have several, sometimes contradictory, requirements. They should be durable, should fly long and straight, and (for the skillful golfer) should have a “bite” that makes it easy to impart spin. The composition of shell and core and the pattern of dimples provide ample scope for experimentation in materials science and aerodynamics.
With all these forces at work, the history of golf has been one of constant give-and-take. Equipment makers strive to make the game easier; rule makers and course designers strive to keep it in the hands of players rather than engineers; and golfers quickly grab anything that promises to shave a couple of strokes off their score. Recognizing this, the game’s authorities are constantly on the lookout for anything that will give duffers an unfair advantage.
This struggle began centuries ago in Scotland; the exact date is shrouded in that country’s famous mists. The sport apparently had a predecessor dating back to the Roman Empire called paganica , in which a ball stuffed with feathers was struck with clubs shaped from tree branches. Roman legions spread it throughout Europe, but it did not take hold anywhere to the extent it did in Scotland. The first known written reference to golf appeared in 1457, when the Fourteenth Parliament of King James II of Scotland decreed that “golfe be utterly cryed downe,” since it interfered with the practice of archery, a skill needed to defend the realm. The edict apparently was not a success, since in 1491 James IV felt it necessary to issue another royal injunction against the game. This prohibition evidently did not extend to the king himself, as golf was one of his favorite pastimes.
From then until the mid-1800s, golfing equipment changed little. After the wooden balls used in golf’s earliest days were abandoned, for centuries the game was played with a feather ball, or “feathery.” It was made from pieces of bull’s hide that had been soaked in water and alum, sewn together, and stuffed with boiled goose or chicken feathers—traditionally a hatful. After taking the time to bang it into something approaching roundness and applying several coats of white or red paint, a ball maker could produce only four featheries a day.
Featheries seldom lasted more than a round or two. In wet weather, which is not uncommon in Scotland, they got soggy. A poor shot could split the seams. The feathery’s fragility influenced the design of clubs, which had long, whippy shafts of ash or greenheart and long, thin heads of apple, thorn, pear, or beech, sometimes faced with bone or horn and weighted with lead. Anything more substantial would have torn a ball to shreds. In a further attempt to preserve the feathery, golfers adopted a graceful, sweeping swing.
Golf changed in the late 1840s with the introduction of the gutta-percha ball, made from the latex of the Palaquium genus of trees. According to one story, it was introduced by Rob Paterson, a Scottish divinity student, who may have felt a too-frequent urge to take the Lord’s name in vain when using a feathery. The ball was molded from a solid lump of gutta-percha, making it impervious to water and easily remolded if it should crack.
There was a problem, though. Players found that new, smooth “gutties” did not fly well; in fact, shots ducked quickly to the turf. Then some makers started putting marks on their balls. By some accounts they were added for decoration, meant to mimic the seams on a feathery; by other accounts golfers noticed that old, pitted balls flew better and decided to “age” their balls before using them. Whatever the cause, soon everybody was using balls with marked surfaces. These marks were the forerunners of the dimples on a modern golf ball.
Unlike featheries, gutties tended to shatter in cold weather, but since they were more nearly round, they rolled much truer on putts. More important, since they cost a fifth as much and lasted much longer, they opened the game to many more players. However, the harder ball put a strain on the slender, long-nosed clubs. Designers strengthened the wooden club heads by making them shorter and fatter, similar to the wooden drivers in use today. Hickory, which is stiffer, replaced the ash shafts, and the durable ball allowed greater use of irons, which gave players more control over shots.
In the early days iron clubs were hand-forged by blacksmiths. Machine forging began in the 1890s, and since the 1960s casting technology originally devised for the aerospace industry has increasingly taken over. The technique known as investment casting gives club manufacturers much greater latitude in their designs, allowing them to create a larger “sweet spot,” for example. Investment casting, combined with developments in metallurgy, has even made possible the recent development of the oxymoronic “metal woods”—foam-filled metal clubs that play like wooden ones.
Golf spread through the United States just before the turn of the century, spurring the application of American technology to the game. The first significant contribution came in 1898 with the development of the rubber-core golf ball by a wealthy Cleveland golfer named Coburn Haskell and his friend Bertram G. Work of the B. F. Goodrich Rubber Company in Akron.
The men hand-wound a layer of rubber thread around a solid rubber core, then covered it with a layer of gutta-percha. They were granted a patent the following year. Haskell and Work had produced a ball that did not shatter and could be driven a good twenty-five yards farther than a gutty. Golfers nicknamed the Haskell balls “bounding billies.” Haskell and Work’s basic design would remain standard for seven decades, fending off such challengers as Goodyear’s ball with a compressed-air center, which won several championships but unfortunately tended to explode in hot weather.
The covers of the first Haskell balls had a mesh pattern, which soon evolved into the “bramble,” or raised round bumps arranged in concentric circles, a pattern that had recently been introduced on gutties. Other manufacturers tried various novel ways of marking their balls’ exteriors, including grids, square indentations, and even an incised map of the world. One of the most important advances came in 1905, when Britain’s William Taylor reversed the mold for a bramble pattern and produced indentations rather than bumps—the now-familiar dimples. Spalding purchased the U.S. rights to the dimple and in 1909 began making a ball with such superior flight characteristics that it drove most small ball makers out of business. Though they were not well understood until decades later, dimples had become a fundamental part of golf-ball aerodynamics.
By the 1920s companies such as Spalding, Wilson, and MacGregor had begun to dominate the industry with mass-produced balls and clubs. Because of this, notes John M. Olman, co-author of Golf Antiques and Other Treasures of the Game , “there were a lot of inventors and golfers who came up with devices that they couldn’t get manufactured. And yet golfers were eager customers for what were called ‘patent clubs,’ unconventional designs that promised all kinds of benefits.”
Entrepreneurs sold an “adjustable iron” on which one could change the face angle and play an entire round with a single club. There were irons into which one could insert different striking faces, wood or leather, to produce a harder or softer shot. A comblike “rake iron,” with teeth instead of a solid face, was said to help golfers whack a ball trapped in deep grass.
Authorities at the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland (the governing body of British golf), began to worry that technology and gimmicks were threatening the integrity of the game. “I’ve got a copy of a 1907 article about golf balls that says, ‘If the USGA doesn’t do something soon, the average drive is going to travel 300 yards,’ rather than the average at the time of 220 to 225,” says Frank Thomas, the long-time head of the USGAs technical standards committee. In a 1909 appendix to the rules, the USGA decreed that clubs should not depart from traditional designs or contain any mechanical device, such as a spring. “What that says is that inventors were trying to bring contrivances to the game,” observes Thomas.
Over the decades the USGA has ruled out hundreds of club designs as nonconforming. In 1931 it banned a patented concave wedge, put on the market in 1929 and used by the legendary Bobby Jones, after finding that it might hit the ball more than once during a single shot, which is illegal. The USGA also dealt with deep grooves in irons, which first appeared around 1914 and are still the subject of arguments on the nineteenth hole and in courthouses. Such grooves can put tremendous backspin on a shot and can help a player trying to hit a ball buried in deep grass. Four years after Jock Hutchison won the 1921 British Open with such irons, they were declared illegal.
Grooves are now limited to a maximum width of 0.035 inches and a depth of 0.020 inches and must meet spacing requirements. In 1990 the men’s Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour further specified that grooves must be V-shaped. It banned square-grooved clubs from its tournaments on the ground that they favored one particular type of pro, the long but wild hitter who often strays from the fairway, by making it easier to apply backspin when hitting out of the rough. The PGA Tour ban covered Karsten Manufacturing’s Ping Eye2 irons. Since the ban meant that touring pros couldn’t use and endorse them, the company lost a major selling point. Karsten sued; a recent settlement allowed the square-grooved clubs to be used on the Tour.
Rules also brought uniformity to golf balls. Until 1921 there were no limitations on their size, design, or performance. The original Haskell balls, for example, were larger and lighter than solid gutties. Manufacturers sought the best combination of weight and size. Not surprisingly, today’s standard 1.62-ounce, 1.68inch diameter ball is not much different from the average feathery of two hundred years ago.
The Haskell balls left plenty of room for improvement. In 1932 Phil Young, an amateur golfer and the owner of a molded-rubber company, grew frustrated after missing a well-stroked putt in a match with his dentist. According to company legend, he asked his opponent to X-ray the ball and found that its core was off-center and far from round. Young then talked Fred Bommer, a fellow MIT graduate, into forming the Titleist company.
It took three years to develop a ball with a noncompressible liquid center encased in a thin shell of rubber. The company used new and different winding patterns and X-rayed every ball to ensure a round core. Titleists had a better coefficient of restitution and initial velocity than previous balls, which meant that they traveled farther. As a result, fears grew once again that golf balls were too lively.
In 1942 the USGA began checking that the initial velocity of the ball was not greater than 250 feet per second when tested under certain precise conditions. In 1976 it set distance standards, allowing a carry and roll of 296.8 yards. “The best result of these standards,” says Thomas, “is that manufacturers spend less time working on more distance and devote more time to durability and other factors, which is to the golfer’s advantage.”
The average golfer has been well served by the two-piece ball developed by Spalding’s Robert P. Molitor in the 1960s. As a substitute for natural rubber in the core he experimented with resilient polybutadiene mixed with zinc acrylate. He also developed a process for injection-molding a thermoplastic into a continuous shell and later invented a blended ionomer cover—the most common of which uses Surlyn, a resin developed by Du Pont—that prevented cracking. These advances went into Spalding’s Top-Flite, introduced in 1968.
The two-piece ball is more durable than the old-style three-piece model; Surlyn covers can take a licking. It also gives the average golfer more distance off the tee. But, as always, there are tradeoffs in what golfers of varying ability want and need. Most pros prefer the threepiece ball covered with synthetic balata, which is similar to gutta-percha. The soft balata compresses against the face of the club at impact, which gives the skillful golfer a better feel and more control. For the average duffer, however, the greater spin that comes with a three-piece ball tends to exaggerate hooks and slices. On the women’s and senior men’s tours, where the need for distance is more acute, two-piece balls are more popular.
Aside from durability and distance, the most important advances in golf balls have come in dimple patterns, which are now designed by means of computer-aided aerodynamic studies. During flight a golf ball encounters both lift and drag. Lift, of course, causes it to rise, while drag is the resistance to its movement. Dimple patterns are designed to optimize the benefits of lift and minimize the problems associated with drag. The dimples create a thin layer of turbulence around the ball. A good pattern will allow the airflow to follow the surface of the ball closely, decreasing its wake, which dramatically reduces drag. The ball’s spin and the blanket of turbulence combine to stabilize the airflow, which enhances lift.
Through the 1960s the most popular configuration was the 336-dimple octahedron pattern in straight lines around the ball. In 1973, after eight years of tests and computer analysis of more than two hundred dimple shapes and configurations, Titleist introduced its icosahedron pattern, which divides the cover into twenty triangular regions. Today there are dozens of patterns, some of which use different-sized dimples on the same ball. Golfers can choose a pattern that promises a high trajectory and a short roll or a low trajectory and a long roll. A recent USGA rule requires that a ball have a spherically symmetrical pattern of dimples.
Regardless of the ball used, players must still bring the club face to the ball hard and accurately. That starts with the shaft, another area in which technology has changed golf. When the hickory shaft gave way to steel in the 1930s, it had an impact on the golf swing quite similar to that of the gutta-percha ball.
Hickory shafts weren’t that bad, in that they imparted a good feel with a stroke. “But clubs never came in a perfectly matched set,” says Olman. “Good players would go through a lot of hickories to build a set with the right progression; often you’d find a 6-iron that would hit the ball just as far as a 4—or 5-iron.” And while heat and moisture changed the performance of hickory, steel offered consistency and, if the club was made right, durability. To meet the rapidly growing demand for clubs after World War II, steel also permitted more efficient manufacturing, as opposed to the handtooling required by wood.
As far back as 1910 A. F. Knight, an amateur golfer from Schenectady, New York, obtained a patent on golf clubs with steel shafts. Even earlier, in 1901, he had invented a putter with the shaft intersecting the club face near the center, instead of at one end; it was banned in Britain until 1951, though not in America. His steel shafts fared even worse, being outlawed in both countries. They remained illegal until 1926 in America and 1929 in Britain.
Despite this ban, a sustained push for metal shafts began in the 1920s. The Union Hardware Company of Torrington, Connecticut, produced the first seamless steel shaft in 1924, and the Horton Manufacturing Company of nearby Bristol also sold steel-shafted clubs in the early 1920s. Most successful was the American Fork & Hoe Company, which produced wooden handles for work tools, hickory shafts for golf clubs, and a line of tubular, solid, and tapered fishing rods. The company decided to use its fishing-rod expertise to produce a tapered steel golf shaft. At first American Fork & Hoe (now called True Temper Sports) tried to imitate the feel of hickory. Gurdon Leslie, who started with the firm in 1928, recalls, “We even painted the shafts to look like wood.”
In 1928 the company developed the “step-tapered” shaft, which looks a little like an extended telescope, and secured a patent on the process. The shaft stood up to hard use, didn’t deform under heat or moisture, and allowed better control of manufacturing, which led to more consistent shots from all the clubs in a bag. In 1931 Billy Burke won the U.S. Open using steel shafts, and golfers began to take notice.
“Making the transition from hickory to steel was quite difficult,” recalls Byron Nelson, who dominated professional golf in the mid-1940s and is credited with developing the modern swing. Hickory shafts were heavy and flexible, and the proper swing with such a club was very flat. It required the golfer to use a lot of wrist action to bring the club face square at the point of impact, a motion that made it difficult to put the legs and lower body into the shot. Nelson experimented with the lighter and stiffer metal shafts. Instead of taking the club back in a flat, sweeping motion, he learned to bring it straight back and hold his hands high, so that he could roll his wrist less on the downswing. This allowed him to take a shorter, simpler swing and to put his legs and lower body into the shot. In this way steel shafts led to better golf.
With all these advances, as well as such recent ones as “frequency-matched” carbon and boron composite shafts, “perimeter-weighted” cavity-backed drivers, and the use of such materials as beryllium-copper alloys, titanium, and graphite, clubs are clearly improved, and golf balls fly farther than in the past. In addition, says Thomas, “Courses are much better maintained, and the quality and availability of instruction is far superior to anything of even a decade ago. People are healthier and work out on weights. But if you look at the handicap of the average golfer for the past thirty to forty years, it’s stayed around seventeen. That tells me that no matter how good the equipment gets, the game protects itself.”
What’s more, high-tech equipment may well cause more psychological than physical improvement. “That’s the strange thing about new clubs,” adds Thomas. “People buy one, and for a while their game actually does improve. It is magic. But eventually it wears off; they start shanking shots just like before and look to buy something new.” So despite the latest advances and breakthroughs, the game remains much as it always has been. Hitting the ball into the hole still requires a great deal of effort and frustration; and for all the upheavals that golf has undergone, that aspect of the game remains unchanged.