Water, Water, Everywhere

Here, my friends, is the $64,000 question. Exactly how much life is left in those golf balls that have been fished out of the water? The cover of a golf ball seems fairly impervious, so how bad could it be for a ball to sit idly in the water for a few months? Does a ball that's been lying lying in the mud at the bottom of a pond for 30 days lose distance? Does it gain distance? Does being submerged for a length of time have any effect whatsoever?

Here's how we went about investigating the playability of balls pulled from the water, and keep in mind that the test was not all-inclusive. We used only three-piece, balata-covered balls and two-piece balls with a lithium-Surlyn cover.

Step 1: We took 11 new three-piece balls and 11 new two-piece balls and submerged them in a pond for eight days. We took another 22 new two- and three-piece balls and submerged them for three months. Then we took a third batch of 22 new balls and let them sit in the water for six months. The average water temperatures ranged from 36 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during this period.

Step 2: We recovered the balls last November and tested them using a robotic hitting machine. The golf club used was a standard-length metal driver (9.5-degree loft) with an extra-stiff shaft. Clubhead speed was 93.7 m.p.h., launch angle was 9 degrees and the average spin rate was 2,800 r.p.m. On the day of the testing, the wind was calm and the fairway was a bit damp.

Step 3: We started testing by hitting 11 new two- and three-piece balls as a benchmark (same brands and models as the water balls). The average carry and roll for the new three-piece balls was 250.7 yards. These numbers are not the maximum carry and roll for two- and three-piece balls, simply the average carry and roll under our test conditions.

The next stage was to hit the balls that had been retrieved from the water. The average carry and roll for three-piece balls that had been in the water for eight days was 235.7 yards. That distance shrunk to 229.4 yards after three months and to 226.2 yards after six months. The differences? A six yard loss of distance after eight days, a 12-yard loss after three months and a 15-yard loss after six months.

For the two-piece ball, the carry and roll after eight days in the water was 244.9 yards compared with 250.7 yards for the new two-piece balls. The average carry and roll for two-piece balls after three months in the drink was 241.6 yards. The two-piece balls that spent six months under water averaged 242.5 yards. The bottom line is that the two-piece ball came up almost six yards shorter after being submerged for eight days. It lost another 3.3 yards (9.1 total) after three months, yet interestingly enough, after six months in the water, the two-piece ball averaged one yard farther than the ball that had been in the water for three months.

"Golf balls basically have a non-porous cover," says Mike Sullivan, senior director of research and development worldwide for Spalding, maker of Top-Flite golf balls, "but like with any plastic or polymer, they are subject to chemicals passing through them. We have looked at this in great detail, because we certainly don't want the balls to be affected one way or the other by humidity or wet fairways.

"For a two-piece ball, being in the water typically makes the ball harder in terms of compression, and it also slows down the coefficient of restitution (the ability of the ball to regain its roundness after impact), and that makes it fly shorter. Three-piece balls are the opposite in that they get softer in terms of compression, but they will also fly shorter. We have no data that says water hurts three-piece balls more than two-piece balls, but soft-cover balls are obviously a bit more permeable than hard-cover balls."

Another opinion comes from Ron Vanasdale, a senior executive vice president for the golf ball division of Sport Supply Group, a publicly held company that claims to operate the largest golf ball recycling business in the nation. "I can honestly say that we have done tests in the tens of thousands utilizing our environments, and I'll tell you this much, your numbers are off. It's all relative to the types of balls, the makes of balls, when the balls were made and the types of composition of the cover stock," says Vanasdale.

We also asked Howard Stone, a professor of chemical engineering and applied mechanics at Harvard University, for his opinion on what effect water could have on golf balls. Given how long they were in the water, there are two things that might have happened," says Stone. "You might have absorbed a little bit of water into the ball so the ball might not only be a bit heavier, but it might have a slightly larger radius, and both of those factors, in general, will tend to affect the aerodynamic performance, making the ball fall faster. Water may also affect the structure of the molecules in the ball and might cause it to swell a little, a common effect in polymers (the scientific name for various materials used to make golf balls, such as Surlyn, balata, elastomer, etc.)."

The missing link in this equation is that when you scoop a ball from the water, you never know how long that ball has been sitting there. So, the next time you see a little white orb shimmering in the shallows of a nearby pond, remember the adage, all that glitters is not gold.