When people are buying golf balls, they’re generally thinking about two things. One is getting a golf ball that offers a performance benefit of some type. Maybe they’d like more distance, more feel, or more spin around the green. The second is cost. Is a golfer shopping for the absolutely best golf ball for their game, or the best ball for their game at a certain price point? To Titleist’s golf ball team, there’s a third and even more important thing golfers should consider when they’re buying golf balls: consistency.
Walking through a Titleist golf ball facility near its headquarters in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, I was starting to understand just how important consistency is to the company. The location of this particular facility is a close-kept secret at Titleist. To go there, I agreed not to publish its name, as it offers a hint to its location. And when I toured it in late March, I was the first media member to visit. In fact, only a fraction of Titleist employees have ever been inside the building.
The facility is not impossibly large or busy like the company’s golf ball manufacturing plants, nor does it have the immediate “wow factor” of Titleist’s Manchester Lane Test Facility. The one-story building and what goes on inside, however, is arguably the key to Titleist’s dominant position in the golf ball industry. It’s where the company makes good on the promise to “own every step of the process.”
Titleist’s parent company, Acushnet, sells extremely popular golf clubs, golf clothes and golf shoes, but there’s nothing more important to the company than the success of its golf balls, and it’s been that way for a long time. The company’s leadership position goes back to the 1949 U.S. Open, which was the first time Titleist led what’s known as the ball count (how many golfers are using a certain brand of golf ball in a tournament). It hasn’t relinquished the title in the nearly 70 years since. Today, Titleist is the most-used golf ball on all the leading professional golf tours. The company also owns more than a 50 percent market share in golf balls, and it has built an infrastructure to ensure its continued success.
Each day, Titleist produces more than 1 million golf balls in its golf ball manufacturing plants. About 500,000 of those balls are its flagship Pro V1 and Pro V1x models, which are the best-selling golf ball models in the world. That gives Titleist the distinction of being the most popular golf ball brand in the world, as well as the world’s most premium golf ball brand. And if you ask Titleist’s golf ball team why, they’ll tell you it’s the way its golf balls are made.
In the golf ball world, it’s commonplace for companies to outsource the production of their golf balls. For small golf ball companies, it’s usually a necessity given the huge cost of owning and operating a golf ball manufacturing plant. Titleist rejects the practice. It manufacturers all of its golf balls in Titleist-owned facilities, and it only manufacturers Titleist golf balls. The only caveat is that Titleist designs and manufactures golf balls for Pinnacle, a brand owned by Acushnet.
Standing in the secret facility, I was looking at the heart of those manufacturing plants. It’s where Titleist makes the machines and tools it uses to make its golf balls. Titleist’s leadership says that making its own golf ball manufacturing equipment provides the company with a competitive advantage in creating both better performing golf balls and more consistent golf balls, and there’s no denying that Titleist takes the practice seriously. The company makes its own golf robots for its internal golf ball testing. It even makes the rubber golf tees it uses for its robot tests. When it comes to actually making its golf balls, Titleist is even more granular, and you don’t have to look any further than the outside of a golf ball for an example.
The tools responsible for a golf ball’s dimples are known as “hobs,” and Titleist produces them inside its secret facility. They’re so important to Titleist’s golf ball team, in fact, that Titleist’s hobs are never disposed of even after they’re taken out of production. Every hob the company has made since the 1970s has been locked away for safekeeping.
Hobs are made of steel and look a lot like the end of a trailer hitch. They’re used to make the steel dimple cavities that are responsible for the dimple patterns of millions of golf ball, however, and for that reason they’re formed with incredible precision. To create a hob, copper electrodes jolt its exterior with 10,000 volts of electricity, which forms it into a dimple pattern that’s exact to one-third the thickness of a human hair. Few golfers realize that after a golfer makes contact with a golf ball, it’s the design of its dimples that are fully in control of a golf ball’s trajectory. While dimples can’t change the launch or spin of a golf ball — that’s programmed by a golfer at impact and a function of the materials used in a golf ball’s design — their interaction with the air can make a golf ball go higher and lower, and if they’re not perfectly designed, totally sideways.
Titleist’s golf ball team would prove this point to me later in the day in a robot test at its Manchester Lane Test Facility. The robot hit several shots with the company’s Pro V1 golf balls, each of which landed essentially in the same spot on the outdoor driving range. The company then hit intentionally flawed Pro V1 golf balls on the robot known as “donkey-elephant” balls. On one side of the ball was a donkey, the logo of the Democratic Party in U.S. politics. With the donkey pointed at the target, the ball hooked sharply to the left almost immediately into its flight due to the deeper dimples on the left side of the ball. On the opposite side of the ball was the elephant logo of the Republican Party. After it was aimed at the target, which positioned its deeper dimples on the right side of the ball, the test technician walked outside the robot room to check the road that runs along the right side of the driving range. It was clear, so he hit the button that started the robot’s arm. Had a car been driving by, it might have been struck with a wicked slice.
The robot also hit two other intentionally flawed Pro V1s that produced even more drastic effects. One had dimples on only one-half of the ball, and it curved about twice as much as the donkey-elephant balls. The robot also hit a third ball with no dimples. It nose-dived directly into the ground less than 100 yards into its flight. The point of the experiment was to show not only that dimples work, but also to illustrate how precise they need to be to create a consistent trajectory. Changing the depth of a dimple or the angle of its edges only fractionally can significantly affect the way a golf ball flies, according to Titleist’s golf ball team, and a detail as small as the amount of paint applied to a golf ball can significantly affect performance.
Just like Titleist doesn’t mess around with dimples, it also doesn’t mess around with its intellectual property. The company made headlines in March when retail giant Costco, in response to a letter sent by Acushnet that accused Costco of infringing on Acushnet patents, sought a declaratory judgment from the U.S. District Court in Seattle related to its Kirkland Signature golf balls.
The news was widely reported, both inside and outside the golf world, given Costco’s outsider status in the golf industry. It also didn’t hurt that the Kirkland Signature golf balls weren’t available for purchase at the time. Costco had been selling them for the price $1.25 per ball, roughly one-third the price of Titleist’s Pro V1 and Pro V1x golf balls, on the few occasions they were available online or in select Costco stores. When asked about the potential dispute with Costco, Titleist representatives responded that the company does not comment on ongoing legal matters.
If a legal dispute were to occur between Acushnet and Costco, it would not be the first time the company was engaged in high-profile litigation. Acushnet has gone to court with golf ball companies big and as small in the last two decades, and it’s clear why the company doesn’t shy away from litigation. Titleist owns more than 40 percent of all issued golf ball patents. It also employs six of the top-10 golf ball patent holders, each of which holds more than 100 patents individually. Inside Titleist’s R&D Department, its patent plaques are on full display alongside a main hallway. When you turn the corner, hundreds more line an even longer hallway.
“It’s not that Titleist is walking around saying we’re the best, but we’re very proud of our commitment,” says Michael Mahoney, Vice President of Titleist Golf Ball Marketing. But Mahoney points out that with golf balls, there’s no “silver bullet” for success. Everything in a golf ball — from its core to its cover and all parts in between — needs to be perfectly executed for it to perform as designed. Each of the golf balls in a dozen need to perform the same, as does every dozen of those golf balls in pro shops around the world. Only by guaranteeing that can a company be sure its golf balls are giving its customers the best chance to succeed on the course.
To illustrate his point, Mahoney asked me to think about an avid golfer who uses a specific model of golf ball. He then asked how many golf balls that golfer might use in an entire season. I put myself in that golfer’s shoes. I assumed he or she might lose an average of three balls per round, and play an average of at least four rounds per month for six months. That’s a minimum of 72 golf balls.
“All those golf balls need to perform the same,” Mahoney said. “And if they don’t, that golfer isn’t playing a Titleist golf ball.”