Golf historians trace the invention of the great game’s basic concept to the mid-15th century, to the day when some self-flagellatory Scot, strolling the featureless wastes between pastures and the sea, came upon the deceptively simple idea of hitting a ball with a stick until it fell in a hole.
On the second day he found himself a ball that was just a little rounder, a stick with just a bit more oomph to it. Maybe it helped him get the ball in the hole a little easier or maybe it didn’t, but that didn’t matter. On that second day, he had invented the game’s second foundational concept: “buying game” — the idea that better golf is just one equipment purchase away.
The New York Times reports that this eternal hope of trimming strokes through technology is still going strong. The new “Polara” golf ball is purported to minimize by as much as 75 percent that commonest bane of weekend hackers: what P. G. Wodehouse called the “weak and sinful slice.”
The performance of the Polara ball differs from that of a conventional ball largely because it has two distinct regions of dimples. Along the ball’s equator, shallow, truncated dimples lower its lift and create a more horizontal spin axis. Lower lift means less force is directed toward keeping a mis-hit ball moving left or right of the target. More horizontal spin axis, meanwhile, lessens side spin, a root cause of a hook or a slice.
Now, there’s a yawn factor to this story; in many ways a new anti-slice ball is the sporting equivalent of a better mousetrap or the latest fad diet. For as long as golfers have been trying to buy game, golf equipment innovators have been all too happy to sell it to them. The gutta-percha ball, for instance, replaced the feather-filled hackysack used by golf’s pioneers, and was in turn made obsolete by balata over rubber windings around a core of corn syrup, before they all gave way to the modern multi-layer. For a century, golf marketers have specifically gone after the slice like Jenny Craig targets thigh fat: with special balls, clubs, tees, grips, and training aids, all promising to reduce the dreaded left-to-right. Nothing new to see here, folks.
Adding to one’s suspicion that the hard-up Times has stooped to publishing Special Advertising Sections in disguise is the fact that, despite all these many decades of effort to fix the slice and other golfing flaws, despite the best in computer-designed, exotic-material equipment, golf remains a maddeningly difficult game. Its mechanics are complex and often counterintuitive, and they defy easy repetition by even the most advanced player. The average USGA handicap has barely budged since the days when shafts were whippets of hickory and ties were de rigeur on course.
One is tempted, then, to join the golf gods in laughing at man’s pitiful attempts to shift in his favor what is an essentially unshiftable balance — to look down upon the Polara and laugh (and at the Times for hyping it), expecting it soon to join a thousand other forgotten products in the dustbins of pro shops.
But we would do so at our peril. For what if the Polara ball represents, if not the perfection of buying game, at least a real and tangible advance? What if it’s not a placebo, or yet another minutely incremental advantage that in real-world usage rounds off to zero? What if the Unsliceable Ball is the advance guard of the Unshankable Iron, the Nev-R-Chunk Wedge, or the GPS-Aligned Putter?
Sure, such aids would be deemed “non-conforming” by golf associations, just as the Polara ball is. But casual golfers would still use them. They could go out on a Sunday afternoon and beat real golf like a kid can beat Tiger Woods on his Xbox with the right cheat codes. And in beating golf they would kill it, because they will have torn out golf’s heart: its unique ability to instruct the soul in patience, humility, and suffering.