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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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