A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does the center of a golf ball contain a deadly poison?

October 3, 1997

Dear Cecil:

I recently cut open a golf ball to show my nephew Jason the rubber band wrapper and liquid-filled rubber ball in the center that I remembered from my childhood. Imagine my disappointment to discover a solid white interior made of who knows what, with no rubber bands and no secret center. There was nothing to do but reminisce. I remember as a kid it was common knowledge that the liquid in the center of the golf ball was a deadly poison and should never touch the lips. As an adult, however, I'm wondering … could we have been wrong? Did we miss anything, was it the kids who tasted the stuff that went on to Yale? I must know!

Cecil replies:

When I was a kid I heard two stories. One was that the center of a golf ball was filled with compressed air and if you tried to cut it open it would explode. The other was that the center contained a deadly poison. Either way I figured: wow, golf is exciting! Obviously I had a lot to learn.

I have now established that (1) the compressed air thing was total BS; (2) you can still get liquid-filled golf balls, although the solid-core ones dominate the market; but (3) the liquid isn't and wasn't poison. Titleist, the leading maker of liquid-filled balls, says it has always used a nontoxic solution of salt water and corn syrup. I suppose it's possible some fly-by-night outfit in the dim past might have used something less innocuous. But I'm betting they didn't. Apart from being safe, salt water and corn syrup have the big advantage of being cheap.

Years ago most golf balls were of "wound" or three-piece construction. They either had (1) a small, hollow rubber core filled with liquid, a middle layer of tightly wound rubber thread, and a rubber cover, or (2) a solid rubber core, the wound middle layer, and a plastic cover. Things changed in 1968 when Spalding, now the largest golf ball manufacturer, introduced "solid-core" or two-piece construction, the two pieces being the large, solid rubber core and the plastic cover. Solid-core balls tend to travel farther, which is mainly what duffers are interested in, and now account for 70 percent of the market. But three-piece balls have better control and feel, and for that reason they're preferred by pros. If you want to relive your youth and convince Jason you weren't hallucinating that "secret center" thing, get a Titleist Tour Balata, Titleist Professional, or Hogan 428 Balata. All have liquid cores.

Why a liquid core? Mainly because it helps regulate the ball's spin. Three-piece balls in general have high rates of backspin. High backspin = more lift = ball stays in the air longer. It also makes the ball stop faster when it hits the ground. (Control-oriented pros like that; duffers don't.) Too much backspin, though, and the ball tends to go straight up and straight down. Golf ball engineers use liquid cores (which act as a brake) in balls that would otherwise have too much spin, solid cores in balls that would otherwise have too little. Liquid centers also provide a softer feel when one hits the ball. I could go on, but it gets too complicated, what with your launch angles, your ionomer resins, and your icosahedral dimple patterns. People think rocket science is, well, rocket science? Bah. Rockets are for guys who can't cut it in golf.

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