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Opinion & Analysis

How much of Bubba Watson’s success in 2018 can be attributed to his golf ball change?

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Every serious golfer understands the importance equipment has in allowing a player to play his or her best. Conversely, playing with equipment that isn’t exactly right can seriously hinder a golfer’s ability to play his or her best golf. Tour pros are no exception to this. Rory McIlroy’s poor 2013 season, the first year of his switch to a full bag of Nike clubs, is often cited as evidence of a player’s game suffering from being uncomfortable with equipment. And he’s far from the only player whose game suffered following a drastic equipment change.

Last year, Bubba Watson shocked fans, fellow tour pros and GolfWRX Members when he switched to a Volvik S4 golf ball from his previous ball, the Titleist Pro V1x. Watson was the only player on the PGA Tour with a contract to play Volvik balls. At the U.S. Open, 102 players teed up a Titleist. One player used a Volvik: Bubba. Much of his interest, to the surprise of many, was in the flashy colors of the balls.

Here’s what Bubba said to Golf Digest about his switch last year: “I took five balls out and hit all kinds of shots. Teddy [caddie Ted Scott] bought some [Volvik S4 golf balls] and tested them as well. And we couldn’t come up with anything wrong with them. Then it comes down to the fun factor — how could you not want a colored ball when you have a colored driver?”

It appeared to be a shockingly cursory testing process, as Bubba didn’t even mention testing the balls on Trackman before agreeing to play Volvik. For many, what ensued was predictable. His game plummeted.

Bubba had one of the worst years of his career. He underwent an unprecedented drop in the Official World Golf Rankings, going from 10th at the beginning of the year all the way to 89th. He ranked 145th in Strokes Gained Approach-the-Green, 156th in Strokes Gained Around-the-Green and 145th in Strokes Gained Putting. Watson hit less than 60 percent of fairways, landing him in the 112th spot on Tour. He ranked 161st in Greens in Regulation, and he finished 91st on the Money List. For a two-time major champion and a then nine-time winner on the PGA Tour, those numbers are… well, they’re not good. Unsurprisingly, Bubba arrived at his first tournament of the year with a year’s worth of frustration and a few sleeves of Titleists.

“My deal was up, and so I’m… ball-free,” said Watson after questions were asked of his ball situation. After an uneventful fall season, Bubba stormed into the new year, winning the Genesis Open at Riviera for the third time in his career. A month later, he won the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, emphatically beating Kevin Kisner 7&6. These wins were the 10th and 11th wins on the PGA Tour for Bubba, an extremely impressive career to say the least.

In addition to winning two of the biggest tournaments of the year thus far, a feat that would have seemed impossible just six months ago, Bubba’s stats are exponentially better for 2018. He ranks second in Money Earned, 11th in Greens in Regulation and 52nd in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green. He is back to 19th in the Official World Golf Rankings, currently sits at third in the FedEx Cup rankings and finished T5 at the Masters.

So. how much of this is the ball?

First, we have to determine which facets of the game are most affected by the ball. Tour pros can notice appreciable differences, even across varied top-tier balls from different manufacturers, in driving distance and accuracy, iron play distance and trajectory control as well as accuracy and shot variance for wedges and green-side shots. A ball change can drastically change spin numbers throughout the bag. Consistency and control are paramount aspects of golf balls that often set brands apart from each other. The only area that would almost certainly not be affected would be putting.

With this in mind, Bubba has improved in the following stats: SG Off-the-Tee, SG Approach-the-Green, SG Around-the-Green, SG Tee-to-Green, Greens in Regulation and Birdie Average, among others. All of these stats can be directly influenced by the golf ball. And while it’s obvious that these improvements are due to better play, it’s not clear if this better play is due to a different ball. Obviously, there’s more factors affecting play in professional golf than the golf ball.

At the end of the day, we can’t know for sure how much of Bubba’s refurbished game can be attributed to the ball saga. There’s plenty of other variables in play. Bubba is almost certainly more comfortable with his swing, and he is understandably a lot more confident. For someone who is infamous for being an emotional player, good play almost always breeds confidence, which lends itself to even more good play. It’s entirely possible that Bubba is simply in a better place with his game, and maybe his ball doesn’t have much to do with it. However, the evidence could suggest otherwise.

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Malcolm is an incoming freshman at Tufts University, and he recently graduated from Boston College High School in Massachusetts. He plans on playing on the golf team at Tufts and has a 2.5 index. He plays out of The Country Club in Brookline.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. The Champ

    Apr 11, 2018 at 9:41 pm

    Yep, Vodka golf balls will do that to you, we all know that playing drunk doesn’t help. Oh, wait I read this whole article thinking vodka instead of volvik. That’s a shame.

    All joking aside, the author deserves props for a well-written article, especially only being a senior in high school. I’ve seen many way worse articles from professional writers. Cheers! ????

  2. peter collins

    Apr 11, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    I WAS GIVEN THREE SLEEVES, AFTER THE FIRST SLEEVE, I GAVE THE OTHER TWO SLEEVES BACK. Oooooppps caps

  3. David Keen

    Apr 11, 2018 at 11:44 am

    My question is: if he’s switched back and his deal is up, why does he still have Volvik advertised on his shirt?

  4. Del

    Apr 11, 2018 at 6:51 am

    You would think that the article would at least mention his undisclosed health issues that caused him to lose 20 pounds as one of the “other variables in play”. Didn’t he even mention after one of his wins that his medical issues caused him to contemplate retirement?

    I’m not arguing that they ball had nothing to do with it, but that’s quite an important point to completely ignore for an article discussing “how much” the ball change impacted how success.

  5. Jack

    Apr 10, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Just cuz they sell for a premium price doesn’t mean they are premium! No idea. I’ve only found their cheap balls (in bushes) which are just normal balls I guess. Easy to find when it gets dark.

  6. ogo

    Apr 10, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    Forget the clubs…. it’s all about the baaaaaall …. 😮

  7. farmer

    Apr 10, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    The ball was undoubtedly an issue, but there appeared to be health problems as well. He looks much better this year.

  8. Man

    Apr 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    100% it’s the ball. Don’t play junk balls, kids. And Volvik is junk.
    It’s ruining even the Long Drive and they don’t want to admit to it – yet.
    Who cares about colors when it doesn’t perform

  9. Rev G

    Apr 10, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    I’m sure it mattered a lot. Not so much because Volvik doesn’t make decent balls. But because a player switched from a tour level ball that he’d been playing for years and that he had tremendous feel for – to a ball that was very different and as noted by many who’ve tried it, has less feel.

  10. The Law Professor

    Apr 10, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    From someone who grades college-level writing regularly, this is a nicely-written article and I expect the young man who wrote it will continue to hone his writing skills and put them to great use in his future career.

  11. James T

    Apr 10, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Where can I buy some Volvik golf balls?!

  12. Tyler

    Apr 10, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    I completely agree and have been saying this since he changed. I think Volvik was one of the worst feeling premium priced golf balls, especially when putting, that I have tried.

  13. Jared D

    Apr 10, 2018 at 11:54 am

    What a fantastic article Malcolm!

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Opinion & Analysis

What makes Bryson DeChambeau so good? A deep dive into the numbers

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I can relate, in a way, to this mad scientist of golf. When I had the idea to create a better method of analyzing golf by comparing each shot to a computer model of “scratch” performance 29 years ago, I was considered quite strange. My idea is now what is known as strokes gained analysis and has become the accepted standard for golf analysis. If you are interested in my journey, read The History of Strokes Gained on my website, ShotByShot.com.

Given Bryson’s recent success, will we all soon be switching to 7-iron length irons and practicing Bryson’s one-plane swing? I doubt it, but it is clear that Bryson is here to stay, so I decided to see exactly how his recent winning performance compares to that of other winners on the PGA Tour. Accordingly, I ran my analysis of Bryson’s ShotLink data for his three wins (The Memorial, The Northern Trust and the most recent Dell Technologies Championship). I compared this analysis to a similar analysis of all of the PGA Tour winners in 2017. For added perspective, I ran the same analysis for the entire 2017 Tour and for all the players that missed cuts in 2017.

As Bryson’s data sample is only 12 rounds on three courses, one might question how the numbers might be skewed by the differences in relative course difficulty as well as the relative strength of the fields. I believe we can agree that Bryson has won on relatively difficult courses and against very strong fields. Accordingly, I will overlook these factors.

Tee Game: Driving

Bryson’s driver is normal length. It is his irons that are all 37.5 inches long, or about the length of a standard 7 iron – why do the TV commentators always say “6 iron”? Anyway, Bryson’s unique one-plane swing produces long, straight drives. He averaged over 300 yards, 15 yards longer than the field, and hit more fairways than the 2017 winners.  Further, Bryson (Blue arrows below) had 35% fewer driving errors than those made by the 2017 winners. So LONG and STRAIGHT! Perhaps we all should be working on our 1-plane swings?


Approach shots 

I put Bryson’s approach game as not quite as good as the 2017 winners. His strokes gained relative to the field’s is not as strong (perhaps this can be attributed to stronger fields?). Bryson did hit more greens-in-regulation (blue arrows below). BUT remember he hit more fairways and made fewer errors. Finally, Bryson’s proximity when he hits the greens* is closer to the 2017 Tour average than it is to the 2017 winners.


*I look at “Proximity” much differently than the PGA Tour. The Tour’s proximity to hole includes approach shots that miss the green within 30 yards of the green’s edge.  I believe a miss is a miss and should not be counted at all.  For more on why, read my 2/26/18 GolfWRX article:Is Tiger’s “No.1 Proximity to the Hole” a meaningless stat?

Short Game (shots from within 50 yards of the hole)

Again, Bryson’s wedges are 7-iron length, about two to three inches longer than a standard sand wedge. His short game data would indicate that the extra length does not present an issue from the sand. I chalk this up to the fact that for the most part greenside sand shots tend to be full swings. It is the shape of the swing that controls distance not the length.

Chipping and pitching, on the other hand, require a myriad of different swings and touch shots. The longer shafts seem to have a negative impact here which has been mentioned many times in the TV coverage. Below (Blue arrows) show that Bryson’s strokes gained around-the-green are about half the margin from the field’s as the 2017 winners. His chipping and pitching results are nowhere near the 2017 Winners. Perhaps Bryson should consider at least one normal length wedge for use around the greens? To support this, Bryson was ranked No. 118 in strokes gained around the green, with a negative .034 strokes gained thru the Well Fargo Championship (more than half way thru the season). He has improved since to No. 63 and a +.15 strokes gained in this category.


Putting

Bryson’s putter is 39 inches long, about three inches longer than standard, and he rests the grip against his left forearm. Personally, I believe his stance and stroke look very stiff and mechanical, which may account for what I discovered in his putting stats. Bottom line, he is outstanding from fairly close range (inside 20 feet), but very average from 30-plus feet. Bryson has almost TWICE as many three-putts as the 2017 winners from 30-plus feet (.5/round vs. .29/round for the 2017 winners). This makes sense to me as stiff and mechanical do not seem compatible with “feel” and optimal distance control.

That said, his success from close range might more than offset his apparent long-range weakness. Note below that Bryson’s one-putt success is noticeably better than the 2017 winners from every distance up to 20 feet. Incidentally, these ranges represent 68 percent of Bryson’s first putt opportunities. Very impressive! I may look more closely into Bryson’s short putting technique.


In conclusion, while Bryson DeChambeau is a maverick, he has found a unique method that works for him and has now made the entire golf world take notice. Will he change golf? Possibly. If he continues to have success, and I believe he will, I can see the aspiring, young players trying to adopt his methods just as many started to learn to putt while anchoring. As an aside, I firmly believe that the ultimate ban on anchoring had little to do with those of us that were struggling with the skill but everything to do with the fast-growing number of juniors that were having success using OUR crutch.

That is not to say that anything that Bryson is currently doing could be construed to be illegal. But he is clearly being watched. His side-saddle putting was thwarted by the USGA, and more recently, his use of a compass to help read his putts. Who knows what he will come up with next? I will be watching too!

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Podcasts

The Gear Dive: Accra Shafts — Finau’s proto, “What is the function of the shaft in a club head?”

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Accra Shafts’ Ken Thompson and Gawain Robertson chat with Johnny Wunder on the challenges of the shaft industry, what makes their shafts the best in the business, and Tony Finau’s custom set up.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

3:45 — What makes Accra so special
5:30 — The origin of Accra
8:45 — The importance of TOUR Validation
15:10 — What is the function of the shaft in a club
17:30 — The TOUR ZRPG
23:40 — Mock Fitting for a specific player profile
31:00 — Accra Iron shafts
36:55 — Ryan Palmer
39:45 — Tony Finau
43:10 — Matt Kuchar
53:20 — S3 BluePrint Technology

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Opinion & Analysis

7 tips for senior golfers to play better and enjoy the game longer

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Have you ever played a golf course and remembered where you used to hit the ball on certain holes? Have you ever gotten to a 360-yard par-4 and recalled when you used to lick your chops because you knew a little flip wedge for your second was ahead? Ever made shooting your age your next big goal? If you have, welcome to golf’s back nine, the time when you keep seeking improvement knowing full well it will never be what it once was.

Aging is another vivid example of the paradoxical beast that lies at the heart of our game. If we’re totally honest, we admit we can’t do anything as well as we did 25-30 years ago. Yet a little voice never far from our golf ears keeps whispering, “If you just move the ball in your stance and adjust your grip, you will hit it solid again.” That’s when we need to be honest and ask, “What does solid mean at 65-70-75 years old?” It certainly isn’t solid like it was at 35 years old, but it may be more solid than the last shot, or yesterday. And as we’ll see, it just might be solid enough for the home stretch. So we keep playing and practicing in a search for golf’s version of a fountain of youth.

If you are, like this author, closer to the 18th green than the first tee, here are 7 golden nuggets for the golden years:

1. Forget how you used to play

Stay present and take what the game gives you now, here, today. If that’s 210 off the tee, get your fairway woods and hybrids out and do the best you can with your inevitably longer approach.

2. Work on your scoring game

If aging has robbed you of flexibility and strength, it does not have to affect your game from 100 yards in. Seniors need to chip and putt more than any other age group.

3. Yoga and Pilates

If you think we’re old, we are a babe in the woods compared to these ancient disciplines. The mind/body connection is vital for seniors. And… the results speak for themselves! Staying as flexible and as strong as you can for as long as you can is vital for senior golf. Oh, and walk and carry whenever possible!

4. Get properly fitted

Not only do we play senior golf dreaming of yesteryear, male seniors often let testosterone affect their game. I get sooo many seniors coming to see me who are ill-fitted for their equipment, or more accurately, using equipment that once fit their game85-90 mph clubhead speed does not likely require a stiff shaft, 9 degrees of loft or 75 grams of weight to achieve proper launch and landing conditions. Good senior golf demands brutal honesty with yourself.

5. Consider swing “adjustments,” not “new swings”

I don’t want to be a bearer of bad tidings here, but as a teacher of many years, I know this much: The swing you’ve had for oh so many years is not going to change. At least not very much. The does not mean it can’t be made more effective. I “tweak” seniors, not break them down.

6. Play forward tees

I’m a club professional, and I was a fairly decent player once. At 70 years young, I am proud to say that I play white tees measuring no more than 6300 yards. And in a few years, I’ll likely move up again. It’s just a fact of life and denying it is futile.

7. Check your fundamentals

Just because a certain grip, posture or ball position was effective once, as we age, all these may need adjustments from time to time. Swings get shorter, slower, narrow, etc. And as they do, we have to allow for these things and find new ways to complement the “senior swing.”

The alternative to all of the above is a garage sale. And as long I can swing a golf club, I will be doing so. If I want to enjoy the game, I’ll do so with lighter clubs, from shorter tees, chipping and putting my way into the hole. We’d all like to turn back the clock, but the last time that happened was, uh, never.

Enjoy the back nine. I know I am.

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