The flight of the golf ball has occupied the attention of some very eminent men. Golf was not so popular in Newton's time as it is now. If it had been we should no doubt have had the benefit of his knowledge in connection with various matters appertaining thereto.
Newton is more celebrated for what he is supposed to have discovered through the flight of the apple. He was not, however, above turning his mind to matters of less moment than the law of gravitation; and over two hundred years ago, in most learned and weighty language, he laid down the principles governing the swerve of a tennis ball.
Incidentally I may remark that when I applied the same principles to cricket and explained the swerve of the ball in England to English cricketers in my book Swerve, or the Flight of the Ball, a famous English cricketer, famous, I may say, more for his physical than his intellectual "wallop," declared that what I said was not to be taken seriously. Poor Newton! I did not give him away, and now in The Times Library, London, that book of mine may be found catalogued as a work on applied mathematics, and I do not believe that I could do a simple equation without assistance.
I forget how I got my "greatness." I wasn't born with it, and it certainly was not thrust upon me. I am certain Newton helped me; but I have never confessed it until this time, and I wouldn't do it now in England. If this book gets into the hands of the English press I am undone, and Newton will come into his own!
We have, however, in the records of golf writing some remarkable contributions by learned men.
One of the first was by Professor Tait, father of the famous Freddie Tait, who was afterwards killed in the Boer War, a fine golfer, and by all accounts a fine fellow, as are so many, who belong to the grand guild of the club that it makes the writing of golf books more a matter of pleasant club conversation than severe literary parturition.
Professor Tait published an article in The Badminton Magazine of March, 1896, entitled "Long Driving." Professor Tait really was a very learned man and he became most interested in golf, and indeed was himself by no means a poor player.
He worked it out by mathematics that it was beyond human capacity to drive a golf ball more than a certain number of feet and inches, which he duly set down, and next day his famous son, somewhat undutifully, so the story runs, knocked his father's calculations sky high by driving a golf ball much farther than the mathematical limit.
Here was a pretty to do. The situation had to be faced somehow. Professor Tait again bent his mind to the question and came to the conclusion that there must be some force in the golf drive which he had overlooked. It did not take him long to decide that it was backspin.
He went into the matter fully and wrote his article for The Badminton Magazine and it has been quoted reverently ever since by any one who ever wrote anything about golf except me, and the only thing they didn't say to me because I did not reverence it was De mortuis nisi nil bonum; and I fully expected that.
As a matter of fact Professor Tait's article is founded on a fundamental error to which I have before referred, namely that the beneficial back-spin of golf is obtained from the loft of the club. It is an error that is by no means uncommon and he has been followed in it of recent years by a physicist of even greater renown, Professor Sir J. J. Thomson, M.A., L.L.D., D.S.C., F.R.S.,
M.E.I., O.M.; Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics, Cambridge; Professor of Physics, Royal Institution, London; Professor of Natural Philosophy, Royal Institution, and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, 1906.
The title of his paper was The Dynamics of a Golf Ball, and it was read before The Royal Institution of Great Britain. We may see that neither the institution under whose auspices the lecture was delivered nor the lecturer was inconsiderable. In fact so much importance was attached to it that I am wondering if by any chance I can get recommended for the next Nobel Prize for physics for showing clearly, as indeed I have already done, that Professor Tait and more recently Professor Thomson, who indeed followed Professor Tait's lead very closely, were quite wrong in their deductions.
Professor Tait said: "The most cursory observation shows that a ball is hardly ever sent on its course without some spin, so that we may take the fact for granted, even if we cannot fully explain the mode of its production. And the main object of this article is to show that long carry essentially involves underpin."
There are two important mistakes here. It wants much more than "The most cursory observation" to show that "a ball is hardly ever sent on its course without some spin." Nobody has ever yet established that fact, and it is undoubted that the vast majority of golf balls that are driven by good players have no spin-particularly back-spin-that appreciably affects their flight, that they are to all intents and purposes cleanly hit balls, with generally an uppish tendency in the stroke which kills all backspin.
Professor Tait continues: "To find that his magnificent carry was due to what is virtually a toeing operation-performed no doubt in a vertical and not in a horizontal plane, is too much for the self-exalting golfer!"
And so indeed it should be, for nothing is further from the truth.
Professor Tait, however, continues: "The fact however, is indisputable. When we fasten one end of a long untwisted tape to the ball and the other to the ground and induce a good player to drive the ball (perpendicularly to the tape) into a stiff clay face a yard or two off, we find that the tape is always twisted in such a way as to show underspin; no doubt to different amounts by different players, but proving that the ball makes usually from about one to three turns in six feet, say from forty to a hundred and twenty turns per second, this is clearly a circumstance not to be overlooked."