Things That Are Wrong With Golf: The Balls

By The Way - Weekly Columns


In one of my previous lives I was quite interested in physics and, like maths, it was quite common for the great and the good to get together and talk about the "great unsolved problems" . The best known ones are probably those of David Hilbert, which he presented at a conference in 1900. Amazingly, some of these are still unsolved. Here are some details if you are interested - So, in that spirit, here are the "Current Problems in the World of Golf" according to me. 1 Distance 2 Equipment 3 The Ball 4 Interpretation of the Rules 5 Slow play All of these are linked, as you have probably figured out for yourself. The main problem, as I see it, is that the distance the ball travels is now rendering some courses obsolete. There are only so many tee boxes that can be moved, or bunkers re-sited, or trees planted to try and re-create the original course designers vision. Of course, things change – landscapes change, people change - and that is part and parcel of golf, if not life itself. But a well-designed course should have a sensible combination of scoring holes, tricky holes, risk/reward holes and holes that just require the players to engage that bundle of nerve cells and ganglia that otherwise atrophies through lack of use. Changes in climate, human physique or other external factors should do nothing to alter that and there, in essence, is the problem. How do we develop a system to guarantee some kind of standard that means that year on year comparisons have some kind of meaning? I read/heard some stats the other day saying that in his pomp, Arnold Palmer regularly hit mid irons (4,5,6 predominantly 5) into par 4 holes. Nowadays they are more likely to be a drive and a wedge of some description. Recently, we saw Rory McIlory destroying par 5 holes (long ones at that) by breaking them with a drive and 7 iron. The way he hits a 7 iron, he can make it fly like a wedge, so no amount of protection is going to stop him knocking the ball right at the pin. So, what are the factors that cause this problem and what can be done about them? In no particular order, I’ve identified the following as being key factors that can/need to be addressed – 1 The ball 2 The players themselves 3 The equipment 4 The physical components of the course. In this article, I’m going to focus on one of the easier items - the ball. According to the R&A it should be no greater than 1.620 ounces (avoirdupois) or 45.93g in new money. For those of you under 50, avoirdupois means pounds and ounces, the kind of thing you’ll be seeing a lot more of if David Davies and his BREXITEER pals get their way. Interestingly, this means that there is nothing to stop you using one of these, though I don’t recommend it.

The size of the ball should not be greater than 1.680 inches (42.67mm). Again, you can use a pea-sized ball if you want but it probably won’t help your distance control and will be much trickier to find in the deep rough. It should also have spherical symmetry – for non-mathematicians that just means it should be round, i.e. like a proper ball. Unlike some sports I can mention (NFL and Rugby I’m looking at you – that thing you play with? It’s not a ball, it’s an ellipsoid). Finally, the most important thing is that the ball should adhere to the R&A Overall Distance Standard. No, that’s not how far you can throw a boiler suit. It’s way more complicated than that. In essence, we are talking about aerodynamic experiments, under what appear to be proper scientific conditions, to determine the coefficient of lift and the coefficient of drag. To you and me that’s trying to measure how much lift the ball gets (related to the area of the ball, and it’s velocity) and amount of resistance the ball meets, again in controlled conitions of wind speed, velocity, cross-sectional area etc. Ultimately, the total distance (carry added to roll) is determined for a specific combination of launch conditions (ball speed, spin rate and launch angle) as determined by a mechanical golfer. With me so far? Good. Here’s a picture to help visualise what we’re talking about.

So, the number resulting from the equipment tests works out to be such that the overall distance of the ball shall not be greater than 317.0 +/- 3.0 yards. And that, in essence, is pretty much all the R&A and USGA have to say on the golf ball. Using their preferred combination of mechanical golfer calibrations for launch conditions the ball should travel this distance within a fairly tight tolerance. It should also meet the weight, size and roundness tests or it’s back to the drawing board for the manufacturers. I suspect that when these test conditions were put in place back in 2004 and enshrined in the rules, 317 yards was at the outer limit of most top professionals driving. Now it is routine and that is the problem. The ball manufacturers have an easy job – keep to this simple spec. and you pass the tests, other than that it’s open season on how the ball is put together. Doesn’t give a lot of wriggle room to limit the distance that modern professionals hit the bloody thing, however if the R&A and USGA change the spec. so that their machine more closely resembles a top pro and *then* stipulate that the ball should go no more than 300 years (say) then that really puts the cat among the proverbials. Tiger is one of the high profile names that has gone on record saying “something must be done”. Like everyone else, he is a bit reticent when saying what that would actually be. Changing the R&A rules to mandate a shorter distance ball only solves part of the problem. The manufactures point the finger at course designers, suggesting that players like Tiger are only making a fuss now because they’re not the ones outdriving everyone else by 50yards. The counter argument, made by the likes of Geoff Ogilvy, is that you don’t re-design a baseball stadium if players start knocking it out of the ground – you look at the equipment first, and that means all aspects of it. I can see this one rolling and rolling (forgive the pun) as it’s a multi-varied problem with several interacting factors at play. The latest suggestion – having a lower flight ball for professionals – just won’t work. We don’t want a two tier system. However, changing the ball to make it fly shorter hits everyone – maybe that’s not a bad thing? Amateurs are not supposed to fire the ball the same distance as professionals. The days of the 200 yard drive might be back again and that’s fine by me. Next time we’ll look at some of those other factors and see if there’s anything that can be done about them. If you're interested the USGA test procedure is here -

Do you think there is a problem with distance in professional golf? What would your solution be? Is changing the ball going to be the panacea some claim? Is there an actual problem or is everyone overreacting? So many questions ... feel free to try and answer them by commenting here! "be first" (desktop) or "Reply" (mobile) Thanks for reading, I've been and remain that @dralanwilson on twitter.