One of the great tragedies in my life is that, since having moved to Frederick, I have yet to play a single round of golf. It’s such a fun, relaxing sport…but not without its share of “Mundane Mysteries”. Such as: why do the round white golf balls have hundreds of dimples on their surface? Are those tiny depressions just for looks, or do those pockmarks serve a purpose?
Actually, those dimples are what make golf, as we know it, possible. Golf balls weren’t always dimpled; early players of the game used smooth balls, but they noticed that the more a ball got nicked & scuffed, the further it would travel. So, in the case of the modern golf ball, form definitely followed function.
Golf ball dimples create what’s called “aerodynamic optimization”, which basically means it enables the ball to travel longer distances by affecting its lift & drag while in the air. A dimpled ball travels twice as far as a smooth one, because the dimples produce an air boundary around the ball that reduces the ball’s wake as well as its drag. Roughly half of the ball’s lift comes from its spin, with the other half coming from the optimization of the lift force created by the dimples (which also produce turbulence in the layer around the ball).
The overall result of all the physics involved is that air flows more smoothly around a dimpled ball, while air in front of it moves faster. The ball’s essentially in the middle of a perfect aerodynamic sandwich, with higher pressure behind it pushing the ball forward, while the reduced pressure in front allows it to move faster.
How deep the dimples are also makes a big difference. A standard golf ball has 300-500 dimples, at an average depth of 0.010 inches. Most are spherical, but some companies use a hexagon shape as a way to decrease drag even more.
So, now that we know golf balls have dimples for good reason, the biggest drag is that I haven’t yet met someone with access to a local course where I can put my golf skills (or lack thereof) to use. Hopefully, that changes soon.
Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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