Teeing off with space-age golf balls

It's a whole new ball game.

Time was when golf shops carried just two types of balls: two-piece or wound. That was during the laid-back 1970s when fashionable men wore polyester pants and platform shoes.

Times change. The modern golf ball has teed off onto newer fairways with space-age materials and elements of rocket science: Titanium. Zylin. Liquid cores. Icosahedral dimples. Coefficient of restitution. Bernoulli's principle - the concept that explains the flight of a stealth bomber.

And the brains behind the ball come from an assortment of scientific fields: former NASA engineers, chemists, and physicists.

From conception to competition, a ball goes through at least 20 different stages of development, says Tom Kennedy, director of research and development at Spalding, the second-largest golf ball manufacturer. At the moment, Mr. Kennedy says more than 60 researchers and designers are working on Spalding's next ball.

The changes are usually invisible. They range from mildly tweaking the dimples, to putting a new coat on the cover or the core. One of the critical stages of development is to test the ball in a wind tunnel for lift and drag - an experience similar to what an aircraft goes through.

Finally, the ball is put through rigorous trials with a robot named Iron Byron, which mimics the swing of Byron Nelson, the legendary golf pro of the 1940s whose swing was reputed to be the most perfect ever.

"You have to start planning even before the materials to build [the golf ball] are available," says Kennedy. "It could take anywhere from 5 to 10 years to [develop] a ball."

Certainly, these are the heady days of technological indulgence. For centuries, the golf ball changed slowly and noticeably. When avid golfer Mary Queen of Scots played the game in the 1500s, the ball was simple: craftsmen stuffed goose feathers into a hand-sewn leather pouch and hammered it into roundness.

The next big leap came in 1849 with the "gutty," which was molded from gutta-percha, a hard rubber-like material. Today, there are about 100 kinds.

Such a choice is astonishing in the context of the five stringent specifications the United States Golf Association has laid down for manufacturers: The ball cannot be smaller than 1.68 inches in diameter; must not be heavier than 1.62 ounces; must not have an initial velocity of more than 250 feet per second in an atmosphere of 75 degrees F.; must not travel more than 280 yards when the iron hits the ball at a speed of 160 feet per second; and must pass the symmetry test, which makes sure that no matter on what side you hit the ball, it performs evenly.

If, in the end, all golf balls look the same, weigh the same, and by rule, must leave the club head at the same speed, why are companies spending millions to keep the duffer happy?

"Golf balls differ in spin rate and launch conditions. We can tailor a ball to the swing," says Kennedy. "We can make one golf ball for every player."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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