Chances are if you crack or tear something, it’s not going to perform as well as it once did. Unless, maybe, it’s a golf ball. Golf balls used to be smooth, and the sport’s revolution began when golfers discovered that older, nicked, and scuffed balls worked better.
“The more the balls were used, the farther they flew,” says Burton Lieberman, a professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and technical consultant to the United States Golf Association (USGA). So, golfers whipped out their pocketknives and purposely sabotaged smooth golf balls for centuries. In the late 1800s, physicists and golf players finally documented the phenomenon. With a smooth ball, air flows nicely around the front, but in the back it gets choppy and turbulent. All of a sudden there’s suction, or drag, holding the ball back. A rough surface breaks up that smooth air column; there’s less drag, and the ball stays in the air longer.
“If you gave Tiger Woods a perfectly smooth golf ball, I would say he’d be lucky to hit it 170 to 180 yards,” says Lieberman. “But using the dimpled ball of his choice, he’ll hit the ball over 300 yards.”
In the early 1900s, when researchers first tried to market a non-smooth ball, they put the dimples on backwards. The inverted dimples, called brambles, looked like little pimples. “But the brambles broke off, or worse, got gobs of mud and grass stuck between them,” says Lieberman. In 1908, researchers got it right, and a patent was issued for the first truly dimpled ball.