What’s in a golf ball?

Living Well | Peter Hanlon | Posted on 15 September 2017

The dimples might look cute, but even the best player knows that the golf ball can have a mind of its own.

As a tool of the trade in the weird and wonderful world of sport, there’s nothing quite like the golf ball. Small, dimpled and seemingly innocent, its capacity to infuriate continues to underscore Mark Twain’s ancient observation about golf being a good walk spoiled.

We’ve come a long way since golf’s earliest swingers swatted away at wooden orbs, graduated to ‘featheries’ (goose feathers sewn into leather pouches), and rejoiced in Robert Adams Paterson’s 1848 breakthrough that fashioned the resin of the sapodilla tree into a hard, smooth sphere called the ‘guttie’. Yet from the rarefied air occupied by the game’s most decorated professionals, through to weekend hackers who count balls lost as well as strokes in assessing a round’s success, the golf ball remains a source of fascination and frustration.

“Get in the hole!” “Get out of the trees!” “Sit down!” “Get up!” “Fade!” “Draw!” “Kick right!” “Break left!” “No – not in the lake!” 

As soon as you get to a certain level, you take more notice of what golf ball you’re using.

For all that the humble golf ball has been advanced by science, mercifully the boffins haven’t worked out how to give it feelings. Such is the stream of advice and abuse that comes its way, there would be a stream of gutted gutties flying straight from 18th hole to the therapist’s couch.

Sportspeople have always used equipment of varying specifications (and price) depending on their standard of play, a reality that’s never more pronounced than on a golf course. “As soon as you get to a certain level, you take more notice of what golf ball you’re using,” says RACV golf co-ordinator Tom King. “There are different echelons of balls for different players.

 “You start with a basic one, but once I got to a lower handicap I’ve pretty much used the same ball ever since. Anyone who plays regularly would notice the difference between a $2 ball and an $8 ball.”

In essence, that difference manifests in two areas: distance (off the tee and fairway), and feel (around the greens). Historically a harder shell has equated to greater distance, a softer casing to more spin and control at the expense of length. Two-piece balls consisted of a solid core encased in surlyn (a hard, durable resin) with their simplicity of design rendering them cheaper to make. As far back as the early 1900s more serious golfers used balls with shells made from the sap of the balata tree, which were softer and offered greater control. Balata balls went the same way as video recorders, replaced by urethane shells as the quest for the perfect ball gathered pace.

The ball that’s turning the golf world upside down.

Tour players wanted the best of both worlds, and in 2000 Titleist heralded a revolution with the release of the Pro V1, hailed as “the ball that’s turning golf upside down”.

Mike Whitlock, Titleist’s golf ball product manager for Australia and New Zealand, says golfers had hitherto been forced to make a performance choice: play a solid core ball that was designed purely for distance, or a soft, high-spin ball for more control into the green.

“The Pro V1 came along and provided all golfers with both. The best-performing golf ball for tour players was now also the best-performing ball for all golfers.”

Tom King became a Titleist man when his handicap rocketed down from 32 to single figures by age 16. Now in his early 20s, he plays off two, is a member at the Rosanna Golf Club and enjoys up to three rounds a week. A dozen of his ball of choice – the Pro V1x – costs around $80. 

Vandals of a certain age will remember cutting into a balata golf ball and finding seemingly miles of elastic band wrapped around a core filled with a gooey liquid. Today’s innards are less messy and more scientific. Tom’s ball of choice is a four-piece construction, and he says more layers generally equate to greater softness and spring off the club face.

Golfers of all standards will relate to Day’s sales pitch: Who wouldn’t want more distance?

Golf-ball manufacturing is a seriously competitive business. Mike Whitlock points to Titleist’s 80-strong research and development team who use reams of “launch condition data” (i.e. golfers hitting balls) to inform robotic testing at Titleist HQ, where thousands of automated shots are manipulated using a wind tunnel to make tomorrow’s Titleists even better.

Claims to market leadership are constantly under threat. Titleist’s Pro V balls are used by stars such as Australia’s Adam Scott and American Jordan Spieth, but brands such as TaylorMade, Srixon, Callaway and Bridgestone ensure the race is no gentle downhill roll. TaylorMade recently released the TP5 to great fanfare, upping the number of pieces to five including a very soft inner core to promote higher trajectory, and a dual outer layer of soft urethane over a rigid inner cover.

Australia’s former world No.1 player Jason Day trumpets the TP5 as a missile that could have non-elite golfers hitting, for example, their seven iron as far as they currently hit their six. Golfers of all standards will relate to Day’s sales pitch: “Who wouldn’t want more distance?”

Golf illustration: Carolyn Ridsdale

Illustration: Carolyn Ridsdale.

RACV golf co-ordinator Tom King on a golf cart

RACV golf co-ordinator Tom King.

A one-size-fits-all approach would favour some players.

Tom King is keen to emphasise that there’s a ball out there to suit everyone. Clubs regularly host ball-fitting days for members, while Tom was impressed when working at Drummond Golf with how staff would quiz ball-buying customers on their handicap and where and how often they play, before steering them to a particular product. “From those key factors, any salesperson could pinpoint a ball for every golfer.”

There is a counter argument to golf balls travelling higher, farther and being ever more under the control of the striker – that, coupled with advances in golf club technology, it further erodes the defences of golf courses and makes scoring easier. Augusta National, home to the US Masters, is running out of room and means to fight back. A trial has even been floated in which all golfers would use the same ball at the Masters.

Titleist’s Mike Whitlock demurs, saying a one-size-fits-all approach would favour some players, while regulating the professional and amateur arms of the game differently goes against golf’s tradition of unification. “It is notable that the growth of the game since its creation has been the byproduct of the continuing balance between tradition and technology,” he says. “These two are not adversarial – rather they have and will continue to work together in the evolution of the game.”

RACV Courses

RACV has a suite of courses at its resorts in Victoria where you can put this golf ball theory into practice. Here's what to expect.

RACV Healesville

In 2004 lead designer Mike Cocking accepted the task of updating the Healesville course to create a better challenge for the modern golfer. "By obeying the simple rules of strategic design, where golfers are rewarded for playing close to trouble with a better line to the green, and utilising a set of thought-provoking greens and bunkers, the course remains interesting for everyone," Mike says.

RACV Torquay

Cobb & Co coaches once stopped near the 18th to break up their long trip to Melbourne. Now, No.1 Great Ocean Road Torquay offers a golfing experience befitting such a prestigious address.

RACV Goldfields

Leading designer Tony Cashmore turned a nine-hole course at Creswick into an 18-hole championship-quality layout that boasts all the hallmarks of the Australian bush.