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Why do golf balls have those little dimples?

The dimples found on golf ball enable the ball to travel farther than one without dimples. Today's dimpled golf balls can easily sail two hundred yards from the tee. A smooth one, with no dimples but hit the same way, would only go about fifty yards! Golfers discovered this about a hundred years ago, when they noticed their old balls, covered with scratches and nicks, sailed farther down the fairway than shiny new ones.

Early Golf Balls Early dimpled golf balls.

Rough balls fly through the air more easily than smooth ones. As air flows around a smooth ball, it breaks away from the surface, forming a pocket of swirling currents at the back, like the wake behind a speedboat. This wake creates "drag" on the ball, slowing it down. The faster the ball moves, the larger the wake, and the more drag it feels.

The ball on the left (below) is smooth; the one on the right has a wire hoop around it, simulating a rough surface.

Wind Tunnel Images from the Sporting Life.

   ©1997 The Exploratorium