Why do golf balls have dimples?
Dimples are responsible for the lift and drag properties of the golf ball. Dimples create turbulence, giving the airflow something to cling to as the golf ball travels through its flight.
Simply put, dimples help the golf ball get in the air and stay there.
What would happen if a golf ball didn’t have dimples?
Having seen this in person a couple of times, I can tell you that the flight looks a bit like a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. Without dimples, air separates quickly from the ball. From what I’ve seen, it causes it to fly unevenly before suddenly diving out of the sky.
What if the dimples are uneven for some reason?
Regardless of the cause, a golf ball will generally move opposite of aerodynamic disruption. If you’re a right-handed golfer and you’ve got mud on the side of the ball away from you (the right side), that ball is going to move left (draw/hook). The same thing is true for a big scrape or a gauge.
Mike Madson, Senior Director of Golf Ball Research and Engineering at Titleist, tells us that creating a dimple pattern isn’t that hard but creating a better one is extremely difficult.
There’s no magic formula and R&D guys don’t always know what will and won’t work.
You can’t be certain either way until you create the molds and put the pattern on an actual golf ball. Bottom line: Creating a new pattern is a costly and time-intensive endeavor.
To put all of this in context, over the last 20 years, Titleist has developed nearly 3,000 different aerodynamic patterns with only one to two percent of them making it onto a final product.
Is there anything to be learned by the dimple count? Are more dimples better?
The short answer is no.
“There’s no magic to the count,” says Madson, “but the best dimple patterns seem to be in the range of 300 to 400 dimples.”
That said, Titleist has found patterns with 250 dimples or more that have worked well. There are also some viable patterns in the 450 range. It’s also worth noting that, for all of the good patterns, there are plenty of not-so-great patterns in that 300-400 dimple range.
A lot depends on the geometry of the pattern, but the number of dimples itself is nothing you should concern yourself with.
Are there any generalities that can be drawn by looking at the depth of the dimples?
Depth is a function of the design objectives and it’s notable that depth is among the last things that gets dialed in once a pattern is deemed to be viable.
As far as what you can actually see is concerned, the trajectory will vary based on the pattern itself but, all things being equal, a ball with shallower dimples will fly higher than a ball with deeper dimples.
As we noted above, creating a dimple pattern is difficult, which is why some manufacturers use the same pattern on multiple balls and why many overseas factories have just a few go-to patterns.
That’s not ideal.
In club fitting, we talk about optimal performance coming from the right balance of ball speed, launch angle and spin. Replace “launch angle” with “flight” and it’s effectively the same equation with a golf ball.
Speed comes primarily from the core (firmness and size), spin is the result of the hard/soft relationship between layers and the dimples provide the flight/trajectory.
If the flight characteristics of the dimples are not optimized to work with the speed and spin properties of the golf ball, the design is not maximizing its potential.
In that respect, it’s a bit like not being able to alter launch angle in a club fitting and it’s the reason why when golf companies put the same dimples on balls with different performance specs, the pattern invariably performs better on one than the others.
As noted above, speed comes from the core (and the club), spin comes from the relationship between the layers. The dimples are purely aerodynamic. They don’t do anything until the ball has left the clubface.
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