Problems with Reduced-Distance Golf Balls

If the USGA and R&A someday decide that golf ball distances should be rolled back (and Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, among many, believe it should happen), what will the golf ball manufacturers be up against? The Wall Street Journal's John Paul Newport tackled that issue in a recent article:

"It would be relatively simple to turn down the distance on a driver by 25 yards," said John Rae, vice president for research and development at Srixon. "The two obvious approaches would be to change the dimple pattern and to change the restitution [the elasticity, or speed] of the core. But once we did that, we wouldn't know, out of the gate, what to expect from the rest of the set."

Deepening the dimples, for example, promotes added backspin, lift and drag, all of which reduce distance. "Let's say you make a drive go 25 yards shorter by aerodynamics," said Dean Snell, TaylorMade's vice president for golf-ball research and development. "That same ball hit with a five iron might lose even more distance, since five irons create more spin to start with. It might lose 40 or 50 yards." Starting with the six or seven iron, however, the effect of aerodynamics begins to fade rapidly, since balls hit with shorter clubs move more slowly through the air. The same ball hit with a wedge might lose only a few yards of distance, or none at all.

"Nothing is cut and dried," said Snell. "When you make a change here, it has an impact there, and it may not be proportional." Srixon's Rae, after patiently walking me through several scenarios and pointing out how interdependent the many variables are—some balls have five layers, each with different properties and thicknesses—finally sighed and said, "The problem with even having this conversation is that it quickly spiderwebs out into a million factors."

One of the interesting tidbits in the article is that golf ball manufacturers have been busily filing patents for shorter-flying golf balls, just in case they have to make them some day and need to protect their methods from competitors.

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