According to an unusual statistic I came across recently there are 2,378 golf balls in the air during any given second around the world. Or to extend that out, it equates to 75 billion seconds of golf ball “airtime” per year. So it’s true golf balls play a significant role to golfers.
Right now there’s a lot of buzz in the ball market with big claims being made from a raft of new entrants. New models claim to be longer off the tee and offer more spin from short range while suppling buttery softness and feel. The industry standard premium ball, Titleist’s Pro V1, has consistently led the way in terms of performance since its launch in 2000. Bridgestone, Callaway, Srixon and TaylorMade are also competing at the top end of the market, which is defined at up to $4 per ball.
But imagine getting all that performance at a fraction of that price? Golfers are starting to sit up and take notice. Should Titleist and the other premium golf ball manufacturers be quaking in their corporate boots? And where does golf ball evolution go from here?
Who Makes the Best Golf Balls?
The ideal ball is one that maximizes distance through low spin with the driver, minimizes the effect of wind, stays straight on off-center hits and spins when it hits the green and offer the right feel.
If you ask Tiger Woods what the best golf balls are, he would say Bridgestone (he’s a brand endorser and uses the company’s B330S). Jordan Speith would say Titleist (he uses a ProV1x) and Phil Mickelson would say Callaway (he uses a Chrome Soft). If you ask a 20-handicap golfer the same question, he or she would probably say any number of brands and balls. And it’s not simply an endorsement issue; it comes down to the requirements of the player. In other words, what ball best suits a golfer’s needs in terms of performance… and of course, what’s the price?
It’s kind of like asking who makes the best beer. It’s a topic that sparks ongoing debate in bars all round the world, because everyone has their own favorite. It’s the same with golf balls. Brand loyalty and marketing play a big part in a golfer’s purchasing decision, and improvements in technology have made “the best ball” hard to define.
One thing is for sure, the market is certainly evolving. With the news that Rory McIlroy has chosen to return to Titleist’s Pro V1x golf ball and Bubba Watson will play Volvik’s S4 in pink, we are seeing success by both new and old brands.
There is so much technology behind golf balls these days. Polymers and associated materials are advancing at rapid rates, and computer aided design is enabling a better understanding of aerodynamics and performance. Manufacturing is getting more sophisticated and ball-testing technology can optimize the effects of dimples size and shape, spin, attack angles and aerodynamics.
The theory that every player is different is substantiated by Bridgestone, which has invested heavily in its golf-ball testing research and has more than two million swings in its database.
“Getting fitted for your ball is like getting fitted for your driver,” says Adam Rehberg, Bridgestone’s Head of Golf Ball Fitting. “Swing speed, launch angles and spin rates will point you toward a specific ball to optimize your goals. We are very enthusiastic at Bridgestone, as we don’t just make one ball. We are constantly pushing boundaries, and being part of a conglomerate, Bridgestone Golf balls has access to a ton of R&D from Bridgestone Tires. Polymers being used on tires today will undoubtedly be put into play by Bridgestone Golf.”
One Ball for One Swing?
According to Bridgestone’s swing database research, we are all different and swing a golf club differently.
“We gather real golfer data, not just generated from a robot,” Rehberg says. “We realize that people will not hit the ball perfectly. They will have different swing speeds, attack angles and face angles. Golfers should play a profile of ball that meets their needs that will optimize their performance, be that a slower swing speed or better feel round the green.”
But this tee-to-green strategy is different from Titleist’s recent advertising campaigns that say either its Pro V1 or Pro V1x will be the best-performing Titleist golf ball for golfers whatever their level of play.
Titleist takes a green-to-tee approach in its golf ball development and fitting, which involves an evaluation of all shots on the golf course. The greatest emphasis is placed on shots into and around the green, because “the golf ball that performs best on these shots is your key to lower scores,” the company says.
“Many golfers are led to believe they should be fit for a golf ball based solely on their driver swing speed,” the company says. “This is a flawed approach. The truth is golfers use a wide range of swing speeds to execute the vast array of shots required in every round. The golf ball must perform with every club, at every speed, on every shot.”
So in theory, a 20-handicap golfer can play exactly the same ball as their golfing idol does. But who is right?
New Players in the Market
In recent years, the golf ball industry has become packed with new entrants and existing companies that have created an ever-expanding array of models. New players like Vice, Snell, MG and Kirkland are offering urethane-covered golf balls at significantly lower prices. Test data and on-course feedback from golfers suggest that the technology gap is narrowing and more direct-to-market channels enable these companies to reduce overheads.
Judging by some social media-generated player feedback and by sales of these new entrants, golfers are buying into the price-performance deal. And then you have companies like Volvik with their new S3/S4 balls available now in different colors, not to mention Callaway’s success with its Chrome Soft Truvis golf balls, which have soccer ball-like graphics and sold so well Callaway struggled to meet demand.
New Ways to Buy Balls
Balls are also more likely to be bought online rather than through a pro shop these days.
“Trends are showing that consumers are more comfortable buying stuff on their mobile devices” said Elliot Mellow, Bridgestone’s Head of Golf Ball Fitting. “We have changed our channel model selling more direct online through our own website and partner websites and anticipate that to grow.”
It’s easy to see how technology can push down golf ball prices. There are already scenarios in the future that see a drone delivering a consignment of balls to the first tee before you play, presumably ordered on your smart phone that day.
The Golf Ball of the Future
So how will the golf ball of the future differ? It took 200 years for the featherie to make it to the guttie. How long will we have to wait for the next generation breakthrough?
Talking to Dean Snell is a fascinating insight into ball technology, history and engineering. He worked at Titleist to develop the Pro V1 and then at TaylorMade to design its Penta golf balls. Now he heads up his own golf ball company, Snell Golf, and is adamant that the ball regulations are so tight now that the distance feature has been maxed out.
“The area to focus in on now is from 150 yards and in,” he said. “And essentially that means spin rates.” And he doesn’t just focus on balls for pro golfers. At TaylorMade, he was behind its Noodle, Burner, RocketBallz and Project (a) golf balls, which were designed to perform for average golfers.
Snell says many golfers are being mis-sold on the concept that they need a lower-compression ball for slower swing speeds, believing that it will give them greater distance.
“Based on a 100 mph swing hitting the ball 250 yards, a low-compression ball will only add about one extra yard of distance compared to a higher compression ball,” he says. “But this tiny pick-up in distance is completely offset with lack of feel and ability to spin the ball on or around the green. In order to get enough backspin, you have to have a big enough contact area and you have to have the cover going into the grooves. A very hard ball, even if it had a soft cover, it wouldn’t be interacting with very many grooves, so you do actually need it to deform a certain amount.”
Bridgestone, on the other hand, is adamant it can help golfers hit the ball farther.
“We have invested a lot of R&D research into aerodynamics,” Elliot says. “Our ‘Dual-Dimple Pattern’ will offer less drag and shallow out the landing angle for more roll-out. We will be introducing a new dimple in 2017 that will also add stability and added forgiveness. In addition, we see next generation advances in the ball core. We are moving to a gradational-compression core technology. This will offer one-piece performance, but act like a dual core. We see this offering significant added distance.”
The ball of the future may also be optically different, be it in color or design. Like Volvik and Callaway, Bridgestone representatives see the value of color in certain ball segments, but they say it less than 5 percent of total sales. But they’re working on something novel as well.
“We are always looking at ways to help the golfer and I have a new optics-driven concept ball sitting in my desk right now that we are very excited about,” Elliot says. “It will be very different than anything else on the market. It is still in the R&D stage and will involve a different manufacturing process, but it could be available on the market in 2017.”
Is It All Just a Load of Balls?
Lots of golfers couldn’t care less about what ball they play, especially if they are at the beginner or less-advanced stage. Given that they will be donating a lot of balls per round to the local wildlife, they want something that delivers price performance. After all, they can hit a TaylorMade just as far into the woods as they can hit a Top Flight. But there are differences in performance between brands and models. How much of it is a placebo effect? We all love our golf brands and are passionate about how much superior they are to the competition… but we say the same about our beer, our cars, our phones and everything else.
To succeed in the golf ball business is all about winning user acceptance and distribution. The barriers to entry have diminished a lot over the last 10 years. If Microsoft or Apple decided to muscle in, it would become very interesting indeed.
So you can wrap yourself up in all the ball technology you want. Heck, I’m a lifelong marketing guy; I know how it all works. But the truth is play the ball you’re most comfortable using, one that matches your skill level, personality and pocket.
Bubba summed it up pretty well in his recent signing with Volvik. “As long as the performance differences are not huge, I can have a lot more fun hitting a pink golf ball, so why not?”