Raising The Dimple Count

When Wilson Sporting Goods decided to build a better golf ball, it turned to engineers from the aerospace industry -- to guys who'd lofted the Apache helicopter and stealth bomber. But for Wilson's Bob Thurman, inspiration came not from his work on the space shuttle, but from a detour to Disney's Epcot Center. At the Professional Golfers' Association's 1994 trade show in Orlando, Fla., Thurman caught a glimpse of Epcot's towering geodesic dome. In a flash, he saw not a dome, but a giant golf-ball dimple pattern. "It was one of those blue-sky things," he says of his epiphany. "You don't quite know where it came from."

Seven months, 37 prototypes and $1.7 million later, Thurman has translated that vision into a new line of 500-dimple golf balls. According to Wilson executives, they're a radical departure from balls now on the market -- most of which sport a mere 380 to 432 dimples in less creative patterns -- and will go the distance in a big way. Wilson is so sure it has a winner that it plans to launch the new Ultra 500 line in October with an ad campaign twice as costly as any it has ever devoted to a new product. "People have been patenting dimple patterns for eons, but they've never come up with anything like this," says Ralph Peterson, Wilson's golf-ball research chief.

If Wilson can put this one on the green, it could win a bigger slice of the $600 million U.S. golf-ball market. The company now ranks third, with $80 million in sales a year, according to Golf Pro Magazine -- well behind Titleist and Spalding. But because the overall number of golfers in this country is steady -- despite the 2 million beginners who tee off each year -- the only way to boost business is to steal customers from the competition. Fortunately for Wilson, golfers are a zealous lot, susceptible to any technological advance that might improve their game. "The average golfer is totally confused about the aerodynamics of golf balls," says marketing guru (and golfer) Al Ries. "But when he hears that this ball has 30 percent more dimples than the 380 ball, his reaction will be "Wilson must have put them there for a reason'."

They'd never guess how complicated the reasons are. Thurman took the standard icosahedral dimple pattern -- 20 identical triangles -- and geodesically expanded the 20 to 60 by subdividing each large triangle into three smaller ones. The more repeating patterns, he explains, the more uniform the ball's flight characteristics. To create more axes of symmetry for straighter flight, he included five false parting lines that mimic the true parting line where the two halves of the ball are fused. And for "fine tuning," he experimented with various combinations of three dimple sizes. The result: "measurably better" accuracy and distance, say Wilson executives. "We can fire these balls out of high-tech launchers and consistently land them in bushel baskets 250 yards away -- the length of 2.5 football fields," says R&D chief Peterson.

But skeptical industry experts won't buy Wilson's spin until they've seen the balls for themselves. "All companies claim to have longer, more accurate balls," says Ken Cohen, editor of Golf Pro Magazine. In fact, the United States Golf Association is so exacting about golf-ball designs -- setting limits on weight, diameter and even the distance a ball can travel -- that it is hard to improve on them. But for Wilson, the most important measure may not be the statistics but the excitement the new balls generate. "I call it the placebo effect," says Frank Thomas, technical director of the USGA. "If you believe that something will work for you, it will, because it gives you greater confidence." It may not be rocket science. But if it works, who cares? Certainly not Wilson.

Raising The Dimple Count | News