Sergio Garcia

Sports technology: Golf Balls

With the reintroduction of golf to the Rio Olympics after 112 years of absence, we look at the high-tech evolution of the ball. For golfers, it’s all about the dimples.

For a golfer, it doesn’t get much better than winning your home Open in front of family and friends. So it’s no surprise that four-time major champion Rory McIlroy was almost reduced to tears when he fought off stormy weather conditions and a fiercely competitive field to win the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in May this year. Cheered on by passionate fans at the famed K Club in County Kildare, McIlroy said he looked up on the 18th green and “saw all my friends and family... I don’t get a chance to play in front of my home fans very often – so to play like that and to finish like that... I’ll never forget it.”

McIlroy said he owed part of his victory to the ball he was using, a Nike RZN Tour Platinum. Four key technologies – RZN 4.0, Speedlock X Core, Speedlock Mantle and Flight Suit Cover – are brought together in Nike’s latest golf ball to offer players extra yardage and a softer feel, all of which is a far cry from the earliest golf balls.

These crudely manufactured spheres were made from wood and were used in Scotland in the 16th century. They were followed by the ‘featherie’, introduced in 1618 and so named because it was made from a leather case packed with a ‘top hat full’ of boiled goose or chicken feathers.

The ‘featherie’ was superseded in 1848 by the ‘guttie’, which was made from gutta-percha. It almost accidentally introduced the concept of the dimpled surface to golf balls since it was found that ‘gutties’ with a rough surface would travel further, and with a truer flight.

Modern golf balls like the RZN Tour Platinum are made from synthetic materials with a two, three, four or five-piece classification based on the number of layers the ball has.

Two-piece golf balls are most commonly used by recreational golfers and feature a solid core – usually made from hard plastic – which is enclosed in a very hard-wearing outer cover. This combination of durability and a firm feel provides good distance when hit (although often at the expense of feel and control); thus two-piece balls tend to be more popular with the ‘average’ player.

Things become more interesting and more technical with multiple layer balls. Three-piece balls have various designs, one of the most popular being Bridgestone’s recently introduced B330-RX. It has been engineered with input from professional golfers and is aimed at players with a swing speed of less than 105mph.

The core has a steep gradient in softness from the inner to the outer, negating the need for additional layers. Bridgestone says it gives a faster ball speed along with reduced spin.

Other features of the B330-RX include a ‘SlipRes’ cover with a high coefficient of friction, allegedly giving maximum spin on the green, but reduced spin when driven longer distances. The cover is also ‘self-repairing’ for longer durability.

The ball also has ‘seamless cover technology’ (SCT), which creates a non-uniform join around the ball for better accuracy, distance and trajectory, all of which help make it one of the most popular three-piece golf balls on the market.

With four-piece golf balls, the aim of the design is to offer the long distance of a two-piece ball with the soft feel of a three-piece. With the Nike RZN Tour, Rock Ishii, senior director of ball innovation at Nike Golf, said the designers were looking to respond to “two consistent features of feedback from both athletes and consumers, who wanted distance as well as more feel and control around the green.”

The RZN 4.0 material is softer than previous iterations, which is said to give more feel without losing speed, while the core uses what Nike calls its ‘Speedlock X’ technology. This features a grooved, X-shaped surface pattern, creating 27 per cent more surface area than the core used in previous RZN balls to apparently allow better energy transfer through the ball and ultimately provide more distance and faster ball speeds.

Surrounding the core, the yellow ‘Speedlock Mantle’ and its Speedlock grooves help engage the cover of the golf ball for greater spin on shorter shots with high-lofted clubs. Outside this is the ‘Flight Suit’ cover, which has 344 dimples and 13,558 micro-dimples. To help achieve longer ball flight, engineers used advanced aerodynamics by adding the micro-dimples, strategically spread across the cover of the ball, which are said to facilitate improved lift and drag properties. According to Ishii, the new RZN ball can provide up to 150rpm spin increase, helping to boost speed and distance, especially towards the end of its trajectory.

Rory McIlroy claims that “the ball feels much softer, yet I’ve maintained my ball speed and even picked up a few yards overall.”

His rival pros Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els go instead for the ‘Callaway Tour ix’ golf ball, another four-piece design. This features inner and outer cores made from synthetic rubber, which is then encased within an ionomer polymer mantle and surrounded by a 0.5mm-thick injection-moulded cover.

According to Steve Ogg, Callaway’s vice president of golf ball research and development: “We have taken the high-density materials out of the inner core and placed them in the outer core. That moves weight toward the outside of the golf ball, which increases the moment of inertia of the golf ball.” This means the ball apparently spins less with a driver and more with wedges and short irons.

Finally, we come to the five-piece golf ball. These balls were first designed by TaylorMade, which has introduced a new five-piece ball for 2016: the ‘Tour Preferred X’. This is used by, among others, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and 2015 PGA Champion Jason Day.

Five-piece balls consist of a core, inner mantle, middle mantle, outer mantle and cover. In brief, an extremely soft, low-compression core promotes launch and low spin off the driver. A soft, fast inner mantle allows for soft feel, high launch and low spin off long-irons. A semi-firm and fast middle mantle promotes control and prevents too much lift in the ball. A firm and fast outer mantle promotes optimum spin off the short-irons. Finally, the dimpled cover is important for both flight and greenside control.

TaylorMade’s ‘Tour Preferred X’ features a re-engineered Soft Tech cast urethane cover for more greenside control and a 322-dimple pattern with ‘low-drag performance’ (LDP) technology, which keeps the ball in the air longer by delivering added lift.

The Tour Preferred X also delivers low spin off the tee, low iron ball flight, but with more greenside spin. It has been designed for players looking for a more penetrating flight with their irons and more feedback on shots into and around the green.

TaylorMade’s director of golf ball development, Eric Loper, explains: “We developed 43 Tour Preferred X prototypes [in order] to engineer a better golf ball.” He adds that TaylorMade’s tour players were unanimously drawn to the final incarnation of the ball because it produced more control around the greens.

Whether you opt for two, three, four or five-piece golf balls, whatever your handicap, one thing is for certain – it’ll certainly be lower with any of these than it ever would with a ‘featherie’ or a ‘guttie.’

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