WHAT would you pay to be able to hit a 320-yard drive ev­ery time you stood up on the tee with a driver in your hand?

Would you pay a thou­sand bucks? A mil­lion? Maybe 10 mil­lion? If you paid 10 large you might just get your money back if you join the PGA Tour, af­ter all if you can hit it 320-yard drives you will be right along­side the long­est on Tour – Rory McIl­roy.

Sounds fan­ci­ful, doesn’t it? And when some­thing sounds this fan­ci­ful you can bet your house on the fact that a sci­en­tist is in the dark cor­ner of a lab­o­ra­tory some­where try­ing to turn fan­tasy into fact.

That’s how sci­en­tists got a man to walk on the moon. That’s how they have saved mil­lions of lives us­ing peni­cillin. That’s how they mapped DNA.

And, be­lieve it or not, some­time in the fu­ture you might be able to buy the chance to smash a golf ball as long as Rory, thanks to science.

A ball hit by a pro­fes­sional golfer usu­ally reaches 250km/h and spins back­wards be­tween 2,000-3,000 times a minute. This back­spin gen­er­ates the lift that keeps the ball in flight, and is cru­cial to a long drive. How­ever, too much spin pro­duces ex­ces­sive tur­bu­lence. But dim­ples re­duce this risk.

For more than a cen­tury it has been known that the se­cret of how far a golf ball flies lies in its dim­ples.

Amer­i­can sci­en­tists be­lieve they un­der­stand the forces at work, as air flows over the ball’s sur­face. Their work could be the key to a new gen­er­a­tion of more ac­cu­rate, in­cred­i­bly long-dis­tance golf balls.

A few years ago, a team of sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers from the Univer­sity of Mary­land and Ari­zona State Univer­sity started to use a set of su­per­com­put­ers – usu­ally re­served for pre­dict­ing global weather pat­terns or the be­hav­iour of sub-atomic par­ti­cles – to solve the equa­tions that gov­ern aero­dy­namic flow on more than a bil­lion points of a golf ball’s sur­face.

Each com­puter – with about a thou­sand times more grunt than your lap­top or PC – ran for more than 300 hours be­fore the sci­en­tific team was able to see the ex­act flow of air around a ball, and its dim­ples, in flight.

It is well known that a golf ball’s dim­ples re­duce drag on a ball by about half be­cause the air­flow is sep­a­rated from the ball’s sur­face longer.

Af­ter years of re­search the sci­en­tific team cracked the so­lu­tion for a vir­tual golf ball, and what dim­ple de­signs work bet­ter than oth­ers.

While all this is very in­ter­est­ing, and will have the golf equip­ment tech heads in a fer­vour, the first ques­tion that crossed my mind about this re­search re­mains, why is this be­ing con­ducted? Surely, th­ese sci­en­tists could use their ad­vanced in­tel­lect and skills for solv­ing more press­ing mat­ters than get­ting a golf ball to fly fur­ther.

Then it struck me. Money, and lots of it, is out there in the golf mar­ket for the next big dis­cov­ery that helps make the game eas­ier for mil­lions of hack­ers around the world and the golf ball is the ob­vi­ous cash cow. The in­cen­tive for long hours spent in a lab try­ing to come up with a long fly­ing ball ev­ery golfer will want is the price tag for the tech­nol­ogy. The golf ball mar­ket is worth in ex­cess of US$1.5 bil­lion world­wide an­nu­ally, which goes to prove there is more money to be made from bad golf than there is in solv­ing the prob­lems of cli­mate change.

Keep this in mind as you read our look at the dis­tance de­bate start­ing on page 57.

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