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Golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio and is back for the Tokyo edition. Golf balls — with their turbulence-promoting dimples — are a perennial favorite for aerodynamics explanations because, counterintuitively, a dimpled golf ball flies farther than a smooth one. But today we’re going to focus on a different aspect of golf aerodynamics, namely, what happens when a golf ball is spinning. Here’s an animation showing the difference between flow around a non-spinning golf ball and flow around a golf ball spinning at 3180 rpm. Both balls are moving to the left at 30 m/s.

The colors in this image indicate the direction of vorticity (which is unimportant for us at the moment). What matters are the blue and red arrows, which mark where flow is leaving the surface of the golf ball, in other words, where the wake begins. For the non-spinning golf ball, flow leaves the ball at the same streamwise position on both sides of the ball. This gives a symmetric wake that is neither tilted upward nor downward.

On the spinning ball, though, the blue arrow on top of the ball moves backward, indicating that separation occurs later. On the lower surface, the red arrow moves forward, so separation happens earlier. These shifts cause the golf ball’s wake to tilt downward, which — by Newton’s Third Law — tells us that the ball is experiencing an upward force. This is known as the Magnus effect, and it plays a big role in soccer, volleyball, tennis, and any other sports with spinning balls.

It’s also possible, under the right circumstances, to get a reverse Magnus effect. For more on that, check out this video and Smith’s analysis. (Image credit: top – M. Spiske, others – N. Sakib and B. Smith; research credit: N. Sakib and B. Smith, pdf)

We’re celebrating the Olympics with sports-themed fluid dynamics. Learn how surface roughness affects a volleyball serve, see the wingtip vortices of sail boats, and find out how to optimize rowing oars. And don’t forget to come back next week for more!

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