Take a look at any golf ball today and the one constant you’ll notice immediately is that every ball has dimples. It doesn’t matter who the manufacturer is, every golf ball used today still has that same symmetrical dimple design. But this wasn’t always the case. Up until the turn of the last century, the modern golf ball was essentially a smooth one-piece rubber cored ball–very similar in the construction of today’s golf ball–but without the dimples.
Everything changed in 1905, when golf ball manufacturer and engineer William Taylor abandoned the smooth golf ball design and created a new type of golf ball with dimples. While revolutionary in design, Taylor’s dimpled golf ball was as much the result of his simple power of observation as it was from his complex engineering background. It was Taylor who observed that many players were purposely taking new balls and marking them up with pits and divots. The reason for this was that these players observed that their old, worn golf balls (with their nicks and pits acquired from usage) seemed to outperform new, smooth balls. And while other manufacturers were also trying to create an ‘un-smooth’ golf ball, it was Taylor who hit upon the dimple design first and immediately registered it for a patent.
So why do golf balls with nicks and pits outperform smooth golf balls? Well it seems that when smooth golf balls fly through he air, aerodynamic drag slows them down because of a pocket of low pressure air that accumulates during flight. The smoother the ball, the greater this pocket of low pressure air becomes; the greater the pocket of low pressure air that builds up during flight, the greater the drag; the greater the drag, the less distance the ball flies.
By applying dimples to the golf ball surface (or nicks and pits as these early golfers discovered), this pressure differential goes down, and the drag force is reduced. The dimples create turbulence in the air surrounding the golf ball, which, in turn, forces the air to clasp the golf ball more closely. By doing so, the air trails the warp created by the golf ball towards the back instead of flowing past it. This results in a smaller wake and lesser drag.
More than any other improvement, Taylor’s dimpled golf ball permanently changed the ecosystem for the game of golf. From its first introduction over one hundred years ago, it remains the standard design for all golf balls. And while other manufacturers may tout their ‘innovative dimple design’, the fact of the matter is that it is the dimples themselves that constitute golf’s greatest innovation.
Here’s the takeaway: William Taylor’s revolutionary design has stood the test of time from its introduction over one hundred years ago. The fact that every golf ball used today still incorporates his original ‘dimple design’ is the clearest evidence that it is golf’s greatest innovation.
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group – a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.