2006: Return of the rebel ball

The most famous nonconforming product in U.S. golf history? Arguably that honor goes to the Polara.

The case of Polara golf ball versus the U.S. Golf Association was a nasty, mud-slinging,

foul-smelling confrontation that ultimately helped define golf’s rulesmaking procedures. Once loosely woven, the rules became a tighter knit entity in the years following the showdown.

Learning this lesson cost the USGA $1.4 million in 1985 to settle the case out of court. Polara, in the meantime, had declared bankruptcy and ceased to produce the odd-dimpled golf ball that reduced slices and hooks. As part of the settlement, Polara agreed to accept its exclusion from the USGA’s approved

ball list.

Don’t look now, but Polara is back.

It is still nonconforming, it is still off the USGA list, and it still claims to reduce sideways shots “by more than 50 percent.”

To find out what this ball is all about, Golfweek decided to conduct an on-course test that was completely unscientific, but nevertheless would serve as a practical evaluation of the ball’s performance.

The original Polara was first sold in 1977 without being approved as conforming by the USGA. It was 15 to 20 yards shorter off the tee than most popular balls. Some observers wondered why the USGA didn’t simply leave it alone, because many golfers would never use a ball that didn’t go far.

But the USGA would not back down. After consultation with the Golf Ball Manufacturers Association, it implemented a rule in 1981 that required golf balls to be “aerodynamically spherically symmetrical,” exactly opposite of the Polara, which according to the company sold out its initial 100,000-dozen production run.

The Polara was born out of a collaboration between IBM chemist Daniel Nepela and San Jose State University physicist Fred Holmstrom. They began altering the dimples on a standard golf ball to change the flight pattern. They found that shallower dimples on the poles of the ball (thus the Polara name) helped reduce sidespin.

Andy Gesek is general manager of Pounce Sports, parent company of the new Polara Golf, headquartered in Collegeville, Pa. Polara does not make the ball, and Gesek would not identify the manufacturer.

Gesek added that the balls, which retail for $19.99 per dozen, are aimed at recreational golfers.

“All along, we thought of it as a ball that would encourage ordinary people to play more,” Gesek said. “We thought it would make golf more fun. We thought it would speed up play.”

Gesek’s most powerful line: “The ball actually delivers.”

To find out if this is true, Golfweek enlisted the help of four golfers at Riverside Golf & Country Club in Portland, Ore. One was the head professional, Pat Sutton, and the other three were amateurs – Craig Abraham (7 handicap), Cleo Smith (8) and Gregory Crawford (16).

Sutton and Abraham fade most of their full shots, while Smith and Crawford have a tendency to hook the ball. Would the Polara straighten them out?

The updated Polara contains a mixture of standard and shallow dimples. As with the original, the shallower dimples are located on the poles. This ball, though, is heavier than the 1977 ball. It weighs slightly more than than the 1.62-ounce limit imposed by the USGA.

Heavier balls theoretically should go farther. In the test, it proved to be true that this Polara did not suffer the distance disadvantage of the original. With irons in particular, the ball was something of a rocket ship. Several times it flew farther than the golfers expected.

“Wow, I’ve never hit it that far with this club,” said Sutton of his 200-yard 5-iron on the par-3 fourth hole.

However, the major flaw of the ball soon became apparent. It seemed to produce a knuckling effect off the driver. This happened repeatedly. Just when a golfer expected the ball to keep rising, it would take a slight nosedive and hit the ground running.

On firm turf, this would be acceptable. On moist ground, though, it cost yardage – not too much, but enough to be noticed.

Around the greens, the Surlyn-covered ball was very manageable.

“I love the way it reacts on the greens,” said Crawford, who had more experience than the other three because he missed every green on the front nine.

Sutton was 1 over par playing the Polara, and Smith was 2 over for nine holes. Abraham and Crawford ended up battling bogeys.

Did the ball correct hooks and slices?

All four players thought so and were impressed with what was clearly a self-correcting feature.

“It starts going (off line) in one direction or the other, and then it stops,” Sutton said. “You expect it to continue, but it doesn’t. It just stops doing its thing.”

For better or worse, the Polara is a nonconforming novelty.

— For more on Polara, visit www.polaragolf.com

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