Aerodynamics of Golf Balls

Aerodynamics of Golf Balls

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Introduction to Aerodynamics

Aerodynamics is the study of the motion of fluids in the gas state and bodies in motion relative to the fluid/air. In other words the study of aerodynamics is the study of fluid dynamics specifically relating to air or the gas state of matter.

When an object travels through fluid/air there are two types of flow characteristics that happen, laminar and turbulent. Laminar flow is a smooth steady flow over a smooth surface and it has little disturbance. Intuition would lead to the belief that this type of air flow would be desirable. It would make sense to assume that this smooth undisturbed air would create the least amount of resistive force due to friction. The golf ball seemingly defies this theory by traveling farther with its disruptive surface texture that creates the second flow characteristic, turbulent flow. Turbulent flow is flow that is disturbed and creates whirlpool like features. The turbulent air actually lessens the difference in velocity of the air layer that is extremely close to the ball compared to the rest of the air and so lessens the friction acting on the ball.

Drag is a major contributor to how an object travels through fluid/air. Drag is caused by the disrupted air immediately behind an object moving through fluid/air. It acts perpendicular to and in the opposite direction of travel of the object and impedes the motion of the object. It would make sense that if the drag is minimized the object will travel farther.

Lift or curve in the motion of an object through air is a phenomena that is noticeable in a ball traveling through fluid/air. This change in direction is due to the effect that spin has on the object in motion. This can be explained by Bernoulli's Principle. Bernoulli, a 1700's physicist and mathematician, showed that the speed of an object through liquid/air changes the pressure of the air. The velocity of a spinning ball relative to the air is different from one side to the other creating a low pressure on one side and a high pressure on the other. This causes the ball to move in the direction of the lower pressure. The golf ball is typically hit with an undercut causing a reverse rotation and therefore a lifting action on the ball.

The History of Golf Balls

The golf ball has changed dramatically through the years. Smooth hardwood balls were used between the 1400 and 1700's.

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There are very few if any balls remaining from this period. The average distance that a hardwood ball could be driven was around 100 yrds.

The next ball to be introduced to the sport was the feather ball. This ball was simply made of feathers encased in leather. The stitching for the ball was facing inward to maintain the smoothness of the ball. It was believed that this would create less friction while the ball was in flight. The feathery could be driven between 150 and 175 yrds.

The next ball to join the game was the gutta-percha ball. This ball was made from the sap of the Malaysian Sapodilla tree. It also was smooth surfaced. To view information about the flight of the smooth ball click here. After some use the gutta-percha ball would become nicked and scared.

It then became apparent to enthusiasts of the sport that the rough surfaced ball began to stay in flight longer and therefore go farther. In some circles the credit for this discovery is given to a professor at Saint Andrews University in Scotland. Several scared golf ball designs were tried since the discovery till the 1930's when the current golf ball design with a rubber core, hard outer shell and between 330 and 500 dimples. The current ball flies an average of 180 to 250 yrds. That is almost double that of its predicesors. To view information about the flight of the dimpled ball click here.

The Aerodynamics of a Ball in Flight

A smooth ball in flight is subjected to the force of drag equally on all sides of the sphere which leads to a path relatively undisturbed (assuming no wind) except by the downward force of gravity and by the slowing action of drag. The distance that it travels depends mostly on its initial velocity. When the drag is equally distributed no lift is create to change the path of the ball.

Lift can be created by putting a spin on the ball, this is called the magnus effect. The spin can be used with any axis direction and can therefore cause the ball to curve, raise, or dive. The magnus effect creates a lower airpressure on one side of the ball compared to the other. This is due to the different velocities of each side of the ball relative to the air.

The magnus effect can be directly explained with Bernoulli's Principle. Bernoulli's Princle explains the effect of the pressure of fluids at increased velocities. When the velocity of a fluid (and air is a fluid) relative to the ball increases the pressure decreases.

The Aerodynamics of Dimples

The golf ball seemingly defies gravity by flying farther than a smooth ball of the same mass and size. This is due to the texture of the ball itself. As explained in the introduction a golf ball creates a layer of turbulence that lessens the friction between it and the air. The dimples in the balls surface also reduce the drag on the ball again due to the amount of air traveling at the same speed as the surrounding air. Reducing the forces acting against the balls flight allow the ball to fly an increased distance before gravity takes over. Experiments have been done on the shape, size, depth, and number of the dimples on a golf ball. The golf ball could be further improved upon.

The fact that a dimpled ball has lift is not true. This effect is due to the spin of the ball and explained by the magnus effect included in Aerodynamics of Flight. A spinning golf ball has more lift than a smooth ball because pressure of the air is different from one side of the golf ball to the other. The following graphs show the drag force on a dimpled ball vs. a smooth ball and the force of lift due to spin on a dimpled ball vs. a smooth ball.

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