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Super Balls

Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 2)

By the 1990s, golf balls had become highly engineered products that were increasingly marketed. Golf ball makers began making balls for specific players at specific price points. While in the 1960s, say, there were cheap balls and expensive balls, there now is a whole range of ball prices and ball performance characteristics.

The cheaper the ball, the less complex it will be and the more it will be geared for distance and durability. Cheaper balls are two-piece balls; the more expensive, high-performance balls are three-piece balls. In two-piece construction, a core is surrounded by a thin cover, which is usually harder than the cover on three-piece balls. The harder the cover, the less backspin is imparted on the ball. That lowers ball flight and allows for greater run-out when it hits the ground. The average player wants as much distance as he can get, both in yards and the number of holes he can play with a single ball.

Soft-covered three-piece balls spin faster, rise more quickly and don't run out as far at the end. But the soft cover allows talented players with superb short games to impart spin on the ball on approach shots coming into greens, which makes the ball check up more quickly and precisely. Soft-covered balls also have a better feel during putting.

Ball makers are trying to account for both talent and the conditions of ball launch. "There are three things that affect ball flight that can be influenced in that half millisecond of initial impact," says Tom Kennedy, the vice president of research and development for Spalding Sports Worldwide Inc. "They are launch angle [the degree of upward slope], the ball speed and the spin rate. Hard-cover balls have better distance because they launch high, but because of lower spin rate they don't climb as high. Soft-cover balls launch lower but climb higher because of higher spin rate."

Poor players want all the distance they can get. Average players generally want more distance, but also some sort of feel around the green. Very good players aren't usually concerned that much with distance because they have high and consistent swing speeds. They can hit a soft-cover ball farther than other players hit a hard cover, so they are willing to trade distance for the feel that comes with soft covers on and around the greens.

The three-piece ball is a finely honed piece of technology. In introducing the Pro V1 ball, Titleist began to move away from the wound-ball technology of high-performance balls that had been hanging around for decades. The Pro V1, like virtually all high-performance balls, is of three-piece construction with a poly-butadiene core (synthetic rubber) surrounded by an inner layer that is in turn surrounded by the cover. The core of the Pro V1 is 1.55 inches in diameter. Around that goes a .035-inch boundary layer (or mantel) of ionomer resin (known by the trade name Surlyn). The cover is .030 of an inch of thermal-set eurethane.

"The Pro V1 was a major change for us," says Herb Boehm, the executive vice president and general manager of golf ball operations for Acushnet. "We were known for making balls with liquid-center cores that were wound with rubber bands. But the trend in golf ball development is against that type of construction. Our new ball [for 2002] will be a companion product to the Pro V1 rather than a new line. It's the Pro V1 Star. It has a very soft rubber center that reduces spin off the driver while producing longer and straighter flight. It has a very soft, very thin cover for performance around the green."

Golf balls today are right up against the USGA specifications. Since the initial velocity can't exceed 255 feet per second, the only way that manufacturers can achieve longer distance is through better aerodynamics, reducing drag and achieving optimum flight trajectories. There are still a few yards of wiggle room in the USGA's overall distance standard of 296.8 yards. And there are still a lot of golf balls to be consumed, which is why Callaway and Nike Co. got involved in the marketplace in the late 1990s.

For Nike, it was a chance to introduce its brand name into a new market. "Our brand name is associated with new and exciting products," says Gary Tavares, Nike's product development manager for golf balls. It didn't hurt that the company had recently signed Tiger Woods to a huge endorsement contract, although Woods would not trade in his Titleists for the new Nike Tour Accuracy balls until the 2000 season. "He didn't have to play them unless he was satisfied with the way they performed," says Tavares. "He plays them now. We have a three-piece high-performance ball that we think stands up to anybody."

Whatever new balls companies introduce will have to pass USGA testing to be declared legal. But in line with new research and development in the golf industry, the USGA recently announced that it was designing a new indoor, computer-aided testing facility that would replace its outdoor testing.

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