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?”
Kingston Heath: The Hype is Real
We touched ground late in the afternoon at Melbourne Airport and checked in very, very late at hotel Grand Hyatt. Don’t ask about our driving and navigating skills. It shouldn’t have taken us as long as we did. Even with GPS we failed miserably, but our dear friend had been so kind to arrange a room with a magnificent view on the 32nd floor for us.
The skyline in Melbourne was amazing, and what a vibrant, multicultural city Melbourne turned out to be when we later visited the streets to catch a late dinner. The next morning, we headed out to one of the finest golf courses that you can find Down Under: Kingston Heath. We had heard so many great things about this course, and to be honest we were a bit worried it almost was too hyped up. Luckily, there were no disappointments.
Here’s the thing about Kingston Heath. You’re driving in the middle of a suburb in Melbourne and then suddenly you see the sign, “Kingston Heath.” Very shortly after the turn, you’re at the club. This is very different than the other golf courses we’ve visited on this trip Down Under, where we’ve had to drive for several miles to get from the front gates to the club house.
Nevertheless, this course and its wonderful turf danced in front of us from the very first minute of our arrival. With a perfect sunrise and a very picture friendly magic morning mist, we walked out on the course and captured a few photos. Well, hundreds to be honest. The shapes and details are so pure and well defined.
Kingston Heath was designed by Dan Soutar back in 1925 with help and guidance from the legendary golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who added to its excellent bunkering system. Dr. MacKenzie’s only design suggestion was to change Soutar’s 15th hole from a 222-yard par-4 (with a blind tee shot) to a par-3. Today, this hole is considered to be one the best par-3 holes Down Under, and I can understand why.
I am normally not a big fan of flat courses, but I will make a rare exception for Kingston Heath. It’s a course that’s both fun and puts your strategic skills to a serious test. Our experience is that you need to plan your shots carefully, and never forget to stay out of its deep bunkers. They’re not easy.
Kingston Heath is not super long in distance, but it will still give you a tough test. You definitely need to be straight to earn a good score. If you are in Melbourne, this is the golf course I would recommend above all others.
Next up: Metropolitan. Stay tuned!
NBA Great Byron Scott explains why Charles Barkley’s golf game deteriorated
It’s the season for basketball and golf, and NBA great Byron Scott had some interesting takes on each when he joined our latest episode of “The 19th Hole with Michael Williams” podcast.
When asked who would win a matchup between his Showtime Lakers — consisting of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy — and the current Golden State Warriors, Scott left no doubt on the outcome.
“I give [the Warriors] a lot of credit for the way they playy the game,” Scott said. “They play a very unselfish brand of basketball and it’s all about winning for them. None of the players have agendas and I admire that. But if we go a a seven game series, we in our heyday and those guys playing the way they play now, we would look at them and say ‘we win this series in five or six games.'”
Scott did recognize the fact that the way the game is refereed would have a bearing on the outcome, however.
“Are we going to play 80’s rules or are we going to play 2018 rules where you can barely touch anybody?” Scot said. “If we play the 80’s rules where you can have the physicality in the game, where we can really get after you, then the series is going to be a pretty short one.”
Scott also talked about playing golf with Charles Barkley and his attempt to cure his now-famous swing issues.
“I played with Charles when he was about a 8-handicap; that was the first time I played with him…he had a really good swing,” Scott said. “Two years later I played with him [at the American Century Celebrity Pro-Am] in Lake Tahoe. That’s when he had the swing that he has today. I was shocked! I was like, ‘Man, what happened?’ He told me the story about hitting somebody (in the gallery) and that he just couldn’t pull the trigger anymore. And I said to him, ‘Are you that mentally weak that you hit someone in the gallery and now you can’t pull the trigger? C’mon, Charles; you’re supposed to be tougher than that.'”
Scott’s motivational speech was well-intentioned, but not especially well-received by Sir Charles.
“He proceeded to curse me out because he didn’t appreciate the way I said that,” laughed Scott. “It was funny, though because the first time he had that really good swing, but ever since then he’s been awful. And he continues to be awful and I don’t think there’s a cure right now for Charles besides just putting it down for a year or two and trying to pick it back up.”
We’d need a time machine to see that Lakers-Warriors matchup, but a Scott vs. Barkley match play on the links sounds like it would be most entertaining.
Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
Fantasy Preview: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play
The second World Golf Championship of the year begins this week for what will be the final stop before The Masters for the majority of players in the field. As always with WGC events, the field is stacked — only Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose are missing from the world’s top-10. With an earlier start than usual, 16 groups of four will battle it out in a round-robin format starting Wednesday. The winner of each group will advance to the last 16, which will complete in a straight knockout format from there on in.
Austin Country Club has held the event since 2016, and it’s been a course that has offered up lots of excitement so far. Expect more of the same this week, with four reachable Par 5s on offer as well as a drivable Par-4. The Par-71 course is a modest 7,043 yards with plenty of elevation changes and a mix of tight, tree-lined fairways on the opening nine. The fairways on the back 9 are more generous. Some of the key stats that I’m focusing on this week include Par-5 Scoring, Proximity to the Hole Inside 125 yards and Birdie or Better Percentage, which is always important in match play. Last year, a red-hot Dustin Johnson beat Jon Rahm in the final 1 up, which was his third-consecutive victory at the time.
Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)
- Rory McIlroy 7/1
- Dustin Johnson 8/1
- Justin Thomas 10/1
- Jon Rahm 12/1
- Jason Day 14/1
- Jordan Spieth 20/1
- Phil Mickelson 20/1
For me, this is the most difficult event on the calendar to predict. Over 18 holes, any player in the field is capable of beating anyone else. We saw just that last year when Hideto Tanihara defeated Jordan Spieth 4&2 and Soren Kjeldsen took down Rory Mcilroy 2&1. For that reason, it’s certainly an event that I’d advise to play conservatively, especially before we reach the knockout phase. Despite the unpredictability of some of the results, however, recently it’s been an event that has been won by the world’s elite. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day (twice) have claimed the title in the past four years.
From the top of the board, it’s multiple champion Jason Day (14/1, DK Price $9,200) who gets my vote. The Australian has played a limited schedule so far this year, and he seems to be flying under the radar for the year’s first major. I find the lack of attention surprising. He has a win and a second-place finish to his name already in only three starts this year. Last week at Bay Hill he finished T22, where he appeared a little rusty on the opening couple of days before shaking it off and shooting an impressive 67 on Saturday.
Austin Country Club is a course that undoubtedly suits Day. He dominated the event in 2016 when he was playing his absolute best golf, and he was very unfortunate that he was unable to defend last year on account of his mother’s health. It was an issue that appeared to effect his entire season, but there is no doubt that the signs are very good for Day in regards to 2018. Mainly, because he has the magic touch back with the putter. In 2016, he had one of the greatest putting years of recent times, and albeit early on in the season, he is currently on course to match it. Day leads the field in putting for the season by a decent margin, and on the slick bermuda greens of Austin Country Clubs, where he has memories of holing just about everything two years ago, it could play a huge factor yet again this week.
Along with the Queenslander’s fabulous form on the greens, Day is dominating the Par 5’s, where he sits second in the field over his last 12 rounds. Day loves to play aggressive golf, and it’s one of the reasons the match play format suits him so much. The odd blow-up hole is not the disaster that it would be in stroke play, and he has the ability to rack up birdies fast. So far this season, Day is third in this field for birdie or better percentage.
Day will be the favorite to advance from Group 8, which contains James Hahn, Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Dufner, but the unpredictability of the match play format means it will be far from easy. Should he do so, however, he may be an extremely difficult man to stop, and 14/1 is not a bad price on him repeating his heroics of 2016.
Patrick Reed’s (30/1, DK Price $7,700) return to form has been long overdue. With back-to-back weeks finishing in the top-10, he should be feeling confident in a format that in the past he has blown hot and cold in. Despite his colossus performances in the Ryder Cup, the WGC-Matchplay has been a frustrating event for the Texan. He has yet to make it past the Round of 16, but he seems to be rejuvenated by the return of his idol, Tiger Woods, to the PGA Tour. We’ve seen a far more aggressive Patrick Reed as of late.
With the top seed in his group being Jordan Spieth, there’s speculation that their matchup could be a fiery one. Last week, Patrick Reed was recorded saying that he guessed he needed to be Jordan Spieth to get a free drop after he was left fuming by a ruling. Personally, I don’t think there will be any hostility from either player, but perhaps the attention it has received over the last day will fire up Reed, who seems to produce his best when in the spotlight.
All facets of Reed’s game are firing at the moment. He is fourth in this field for Strokes Gained Tee to Green, Strokes Gained Around the Green and Strokes Gained Total over his last eight rounds. Not withstanding the volatility of 18-hole matchups, there is a sense that Spieth may be a little vulnerable right now. Reed will be relishing the opportunity to take him on in what could possibly be an important Game 3. At 30/1, there is a confidence about Reed at the moment that I like, and it could see him finally deliver in a format that he has adapted to so well in The Ryder Cup.
The star name in Group 7 is the current Masters Champion Sergio Garcia, but I’m willing to take him on this week with Xander Schauffele (66/1, DK Price $7,400). The 2017 Rookie of the Year has been playing well as of late with three-consecutive top-20 finishes. From that period, he scores well in the key statistics, which should bode well for him this week. The Californian is 10th for Strokes Gained on Par 5s for his last 12 rounds, and on a course where wedge play is vitally important, his short irons seem to be in excellent shape. Over the same period, Schauffele is 15th in the field for Proximity to the Hole from 100-125 yards and 16th from 75-100 yards.
He will have to overcome Garcia, as well as Shubhankar Sharma and Dylan Frittelli to advance to the next phase. Garcia has never looked comfortable at Austin Country Club, however, and I think Schauffele may be the best option to pounce on any weakness he shows. Schauffele does not rank outside 30th in this field for his last 12 rounds in any major statistic, and he is eighth overall for Strokes Gained Total.
Last but not least is Webb Simpson (100/1, DK Price $7,800), who is in Group 15 alongside Pat Perez, Gary Woodland and Si-Woo Kim. I think it’s fair to say that this looks to be one of the most unpredictable of the lot. Yet at 100/1, it was an easy enough decision to add Simpson to my stable this week, who just like Xander is performing well in the key statistics.
The former U.S. Open Champion is 17th in this field over his past 12 rounds on Par 5s, but it’s been his wedge play that really got my attention. Over the same period, Simpson ranks seventh for proximity to the hole from 100-125 yards and 15th from 75-100 yards. Some other good signs for Simplson include his putting, as he currently sits 11th for the season in Strokes Gained Putting. His scoring average for the season is also an impressive 69.5, which is seventh on the PGA Tour. At 100/1, it seems worth a small investment in what I’m expecting to be another roller coaster of an event with plenty of surprises.
- Jason Day 14/1, DK Price $9,200
- Patrick Reed 30/1, DK Price $7,700
- Xander Schauffele 66/1, DK Price $7,400
- Webb Simpson 100/1, DK Price $7,800
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