The little white golf ball just sits there, defenseless, motionless, ready to be struck with force and skill, launched toward the heavens with the greatest of expectations. At a minimum of 1.62 inches across and weighing no more than 1.68 ounces, it’s a mere pebble on the vastness of a golf course.
Yet that little sphere is the central focus of millions of players and thousands of scientists and engineers around the world, the competitive epicenter of the golf industry. By various estimates, the golf ball business is at least a $1 billion enterprise. Maybe $2 billion. And think about this: In the United States alone, there may be as many as 250,000,000 balls lost every year.
“The biggest misconception is that all golf balls are just round, white and have dimples,” says Corey Consuegra, Bridgestone’s director of golf ball marketing. “Across the business, apart from Bridgestone, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of engineers across the industry working day in, day out to eke out little bits of yardage and help the golfer play better by hitting it straighter, spin it less off the tee, spin it more around the green.”
The golf ball—the consumable, loseable, abusable object of the game—is also by a factor of 1,000 the most researched, developed, engineered, personalized and marketed ball in any game. Golf businesses spanning the globe (though the behemoths are located in the U.S.) are in a constant, frenzied search to develop balls that meet the needs of all sorts of players in all sorts of conditions.
Peyton Manning doesn’t get to throw a football tailored to his hand and motion. LeBron James doesn’t get to shoot a basketball tailored to his feel. Max Scherzer doesn’t get to pitch a ball where the seams are tailored to his fingertips. In every other sport, the ball is just the ball (or puck, in the case of hockey).
But not the golf ball. Within the rules of golf set forth by the United States Golf Association and the R&A, the world’s two governing organizations, there is plenty of wiggle room to tailor golf balls for every player from Tiger Woods to Joe Six Pack. And every day, researchers at companies like Titleist, TaylorMade, Bridgestone, Nike, Callaway, Wilson, Srixon and more are working with chemical compounds and aerodynamic models to give every golfer at every skill level a ball that can perform for them off the tee, in the fairway, around the green and on the putting surface—in wind, rain, heat and cold. And in the hands of the most able players, and the most challenged.
As hotly as Woods competes with Phil Mickelson and the rest of the tour, as passionately as top amateurs seek out their trophies, as grinding as a 20-handicapper works to win his $5 Nassau, golf ball manufacturers put thousands of hours and millions of dollars a year into researching their next line of balls. It is a highly lucrative, and highly competitive business. There are more than 2,000 golf ball patents—covering the materials used, how they are used, how the ball is manufactured and several other aspects of the whole process.
A rather far cry from the nascent age of the game in the 1500s when an acceptably round rock was replaced by wooden balls for a couple of centuries, followed by the “featherie”—boiled bird feathers sewn inside a leather pouch. That was followed by the gutta percha ball, made from the sap of a tree. Then came the Haskell Ball, a revolution in balls using rubber with a covering that was the seminal discovery that eventually led, through uncountable hours of research and development (not to mention uncountable millions of investment) to the modern multilayered ball.
There is no question that the modern golf ball has had a significant impact on the game, and the industry that supports it. While you can’t separate the modern ball from the modern equipment designed specially to take advantage of its overall properties, that dimpled little orb is just a far superior implement to what it was even 20 years ago. It does go farther, and it doesn’t cut like the old balls, so the familiar “smile” on a golf ball from a mishit is history.
The No. 1 ball in golf is Titleist, produced by the Acushnet Company of Massachusetts. Long associated with the best players, Titleist has several battalions of troops dedicated solely to producing the millions of balls with the distinct script writing on the cover.
“Our golf ball R & D team is well in excess of 70 people,” says Mary Lou Bohn, vice president of golf ball marketing and communications. “We have market research people, marketing teams working with operations teams, we have over 1,100 associates in our three manufacturing ball facilities. All sorts of engineers. Probably 1,200-plus people dedicated to making Titleist the No. 1 ball in golf. It’s the core competency. It’s who we are. It’s the basis on which our company was founded.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting the golf ball in the hole. You don’t have to be a low handicap to be a serious golfer, but they want to be better. They know and understand that the golf ball does make a significant difference. At the end of the day, distance doesn’t get the ball in the hole. If you have a hundred shots, 14 of those might be a driver. It’s all those other shots that make a difference between a golfer improving, enjoying the game more, winning their match against their friend or the member guest or whatever it is. When we look at golf balls and where it’s going, we want to make the best golf ball on all fronts.”
Tiger Woods started out playing Titleist balls in the 1990s, but it was his switch to a Nike product in 2000 that caused a sea change in the golf ball industry. All the best players used wound golf balls at the time, balls with rubberized cores around which there were windings that in turn were covered. But in 2000 Woods won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a stunning 15 shots using the Nike Tour Accuracy, a solid constructed ball with a core surrounded by layers, often referred to in the business as mantle layers.
Woods’ victory using the solid ball was, in the opinion of the USGA’s Steve Quintavalla, a point of departure from the wound ball to the solid ball, setting off a whole new round of research and development.
“Predominantly before 2000 golfers on tour were playing with wound construction golf balls,” says Quintavalla, the USGA’s operations manager for equipment standards. “From 2000 to 2001, those balls had all but disappeared. The seminal moment was the 2000 U.S. Open, but I’m not going to talk about particular products. But you had a top-level player playing with a solid ball and winning by a convincing margin. My opinion, my guess is that other players who were steadfastly holding on to the wound ball as the only ball that could be used to win on tour looked at that win and said, ‘we ought to give solid balls a second look.’ Solid balls had been around for quite a number of years, late ’60s, early ’70s. The question was whether you could play an approach shot and keep the ball on the green.”
Under the firmest and strictest conditions, Woods kept his solid ball on the tiny greens of Pebble Beach, holed a bunch of putts, and the race was on to flood the market with such an advanced product. Titleist, which has been researching and developing such a solid ball since the 90s, came along with the Pro V1 in the fall of 2000, but Callaway had already entered the market with a premium solid ball in the spring.
“Callaway was known as a premium product, premium brand with our Big Bertha driver,” says Dave Bartels, Callaway’s head of research and development for balls. “We focused solely on the premium, best golf ball technology product in the market. Spalding had success in the mid ’90s with their multilayer Strata [which Callaway now owns]. Titleist had the Titleist Tour Balata and the Titleist Tour Professional, windings over liquid center with cast urethane cover. Strata had a solid core with Surlyn cover.
“We decided to go with something that was new, with solid core, solid mantle with cast urethane cover. We spent a lot of money developing the technology and a lot of time trying to keep it secret.
“Titleist was working on something similar and because they pretty much owned the premium ball market they probably thought they could continue to make liquid center, wound balls and own the market. When we came out with the Rule 35 solid ball, I think it forced their hand. Forced them to come out with the Pro V1 later that year. My guess is that things like that don’t get developed overnight, so they were developing it parallel to us to some degree. When we were testing it with our tour players, it was a step-change improvement over the liquid center wound ball.”
Dean Snell, who is now TaylorMade’s vice president for golf ball research and development, was at Titleist in the ’90s and was at the center of development of the Pro V1. “I am one of the inventors of it, hold most of the patents for it. I was in that transition from wound golf balls to solid core, cast urethane golf balls which was Pro V1. Pro V1 was a project started in the early ’90s. But it was held and introduced in 2000.”
And when Titleist finally did introduce it, it took the golf ball world by storm.
“As soon as Titleist launched the Pro V1, obviously a much bigger golf ball company, because the performance benefit was so similar to the Rule 35, they quickly sort of took over from the volume standpoint,” says Barels. “When people look back, they say the Pro V1 launched the whole technology. We at Callaway say no. It was the Rule 35.” (Callaway sued Titleist for patent infringement over the Pro V1, a settlement reached without public details.)
So what is it that makes the solid, multilayered ball so good for the best, and possibly even the worst of players?
The solid ball, as it has been developed, focuses on providing as much distance off the tee as possible, within the USGA’s overall distance standard of 317 yards of carry and roll (at a maximum initial velocity of 255 feet per second which is created with a robotic golf club and swing), while also allowing greater feel with the shorter clubs. Spin is the enemy of distance and the friend of the pitch shot. Spin creates drag and lift, which arcs the ball off tee shots and shortens the distance. Dimples help reduce drag, but now new core and mantle-layer technologies help reduce spin even further on the longer shots, but the softer outer layers and cover help increase spin (hence control) on the shorter shots where accuracy is at the premium.
“[The golf ball is] controlled by the layers,” says TaylorMade’s Snell. “We model different properties of all different swing speeds and different clubs. So we know how far the main part of the energy of the shot goes. When you hit a driver you are well into the core. You compress the ball about one third its diameter. When you hit a wedge, it’s just the cover and the inside mantle that interact. So the layers interact with each other depending on how hard you hit it. We use that model to figure out where to put the layers, then we use this prototyping to use different materials, and different thicknesses, different hardnesses, different flex modules help control the launch and the spin. If you are looking for your ball to spin with the irons, we’ll use a certain material. If you want it to spin low we’ll use a different kind of material.
“Every time you can add a layer to a three-piece ball, you can add some element of performance with manipulating materials. Realistically, 14 clubs, 14 layers you could make some case for that, but it wouldn’t be very economical. If you start with a three-piece golf ball and a driver that you want to lower the spin a lot, you have to work with the core. If you want the wedge spin to increase a lot, you have to work with the cover, make it softer with a hard mantle behind it. Wherever you are trying to gain in performance is where you attack the ball.”
In 2007 Bridgestone introduced a new dimension to the golf ball world with its ball-fitting technology. Just like you can get fitted for clubs—for shafts and weight and head sizes and such—Bridgestone developed technology that assesses your game and then figures out what ball is best for you.
“Our technology is what separates us from our competitors,” says Consuegra. “The patents we own, the way we manufacture the golf ball. We wanted to prove that to the consumer. The way we could do it was conducting live golf ball fittings. When we introduced golf ball fittings in 2007, it truly became our differentiator. We were willing to take your competitive golf ball regardless of the make, manufacturer and model and test it and recommend a Bridgestone golf ball better suited for you.”
And the golf ball fitting turned into a vast research base to figure out which golfers need which golf balls.
“Our engineers are regularly monitoring the database of our live-ball-fitted consumers,” Consuegra says. “When it comes to knowing about the average consumer and their golf ball needs, we are definitely the far and away leader. We conduct live fittings, take that data to tell our story and we also use them to make better designed golf balls.”
Generally, the more expensive the golf ball, the more research and technology have gone into it, and the audience for it is the better player. But Titleist’s Bohn would like you to know that the Pro V1 is playable by all sorts of golfers, down into the hacker range. The hacker might not want to shell out 50 bucks for a dozen Pro V1s, but Bohn says if he does, he’ll get a benefit.
“We test all our golf balls and our competitors’ under so many different launch conditions, so many different swings,” says Bohn. “Amateur golfers at any swing speed are not giving up distance on their full game shots with Pro V1 and Pro V1X. If you are an 18–20 handicap golfer with an 80-yard shot to a tucked pin, are you better off using a low-spin Surlyn covered two-piece distance ball that is going to land, release and maybe run off the back of the green, or are you better off using a ball that’s going to stop closer to the pin? I would say amateur golfers would benefit every bit as much as the tour players because one, they miss more greens in regulation, two they have a harder time getting up and down and three, if they can save two, three, four shots in the course of a round that’s the difference between shooting their best score and an okay score. Whether you are trying to break 80 or 90, it will still benefit you.”
With a price north of $4 per ball, the cost of performance isn’t exactly cheap, especially on a ball you might lose, but the modern ball is much more durable and lasts longer if you don’t manage to drown it in a hazard. Bohn’s statement likely applies to most high-performance balls played by the average golfer.
“When you look at the price of golf balls, we’ve held pretty well in the world of inflation,” says Bohn. “Can’t say the same at the gas pump. If we want more people to play the game, to enjoy the game more, we are doing all we can to improve the product but at the same time keep the price down so that more people can afford to play.”
A question raised during the rise of golf ball performance is the impact it’s had on the game. The USGA adopted its overall distance standard of 317 yards in 2003 and that is unlikely to change. Jack Nicklaus for years has lamented the distance the ball travels, saying its adding cost to the game and slowing it down.
“If we went back and left equipment alone but changed the golf ball and brought it back, you played a shorter golf course,” says Nicklaus, who in conjuction with Bridgestone came out with his own line of golf balls which will have a charity component—money from each ball sold will be donated to Nicklaus’s Children Health Care Foundation “Not only from the tour standpoint would it be good, but a shorter golf course all through the game would mean less maintenance cost, less cost to play the game, quicker play, less land, less fertilizer, less everything, which would make the game more economical.”
There also has been occasional talk about what is known as bifurcation of the rules of the golf as they pertain to the ball, reining in the distance the ball travels for the elite players while allowing the average player to use a ball that maximizes his distance. This is unlikely ever to happen, according to the USGA’s Quintavalla.
“It is not the position of the USGA that we have any plans to consider bifurcation of the rules,” says Quintavalla. “The USGA believes that one set of rules for professional and recreational players is one of the great strengths of the game.
“Around 2005 we did a bunch of statistical analyses looking at the people playing the game at the top levels, and how folks on the PGA Tour, say someone in the top 10 in distance and the bottom 10 in distance, how much did they gain in distance [we are talking about a period essentially before and after the adoption of the solid ball],” says Quintavalla. “We were trying to figure out who benefited the most from the change in technology. Who are the guys who were driving it a long way to begin with or the guys who, like the Corey Pavin, who didn’t have so much distance. What we found, and it was a little bit surprising, is that the top 10 percent of players didn’t gain any more distance over the guys who were on the bottom of the tour over that five years. The guys with the shortest drives at the beginning were still the guys with the shortest drives at the end, but their incremental increase was no more than the guys as the top.”
The USGA was also looking to see if greater accuracy was being achieved through technology in the solid ball.
“We have also looked at improvements in accuracy with the solid ball. We aggressively looked,” Quintavalla. “We set up golf ball launchers, we set up robots, we found new solid balls and older wound golf balls. What we found there, if there had been a change—and our performance during the whole wedge groove thing where our research indicated a distinct influence on the skills—it would have been incumbent on us to do something about that.
“We did not find that the solid golf ball as opposed to the wound ball driven by the same club on the same day by the same driver, a good driver or a bad driver, was any straighter in terms of yards away from the center line,” says Quintavalla. “What we did find was a huge difference in straightness because of clubs. A wound ball and a solid ball off the face of a titanium driver will both have about the same deviation from the fairway centerline.”
TaylorMade’s Snell sees four factors in added distance, 25 percent the ball, 25 percent the player, 25 percent the equipment and 25 percent the agronomy. As for the future of golf ball development:
“I have a project list that is full,” Snell says. “I think the distance part of it isn’t really going to change. You aren’t going to see an increase in distance from late ’90s to maybe 2010. That’s not going to happen anymore. But when you play golf and shoot 100, you are only hitting 14 drives. So you have 86 other shots you have to play, and those are the areas we can look out to help out with the feel, the short game.”
But something that Lee Trevino said years ago about the flight of the ball during the wound ball era, is still likely to apply to most of us who are just trying to get the ball airborne and headed towards the target.
“You can talk to a fade,” said Trevino. “But a hook won’t listen.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.