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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 currently a senior at Boston College High School in Massachusetts. He is a member of the varsity golf team, competes in junior events, and has a 2.7 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

Fantasy Preview: 2018 Zurich Classic of New Orleans

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Just as in 2017, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans will once again provide a change in format for the players this week. Players will team up once more at TPC Louisiana for a combination of Best Ball (Rounds 1 and 3) and Alternate Shot (Rounds 2 and 4). Unfortunately, the change in format means that there is no DraftKings this week.

The course is long at over 7,400 yards, but it’s also very generous off the tee. TPC Louisiana offers the opportunity to go low, and players took advantage last year despite the inclement weather conditions. It took a Monday playoff to separate them, but eventually Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt pipped Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown by making birdie on the fourth playoff hole to take the title after both teams had posted 27-under par in regulation.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Justin Rose/Henrik Stenson 7/1
  • Patrick Reed/Patrick Cantlay 12/1
  • Justin Thomas/Bud Cauley 14/1
  • Bubba Watson/Matt Kuchar 14/1
  • Jordan Spieth/Ryan Palmer 14/1
  • Jon Rahm/Wesley Bryan 16/1
  • Rafa Cabrera Bello/Sergio Garcia 22/1

For the first time, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar (14/1) will team up for this event. Last year, Watson played alongside J.B Holmes. The two performed well, finishing in a tie for fifth place. TPC Louisiana has been a course that has suited Watson’s game over the years, his prodigious length being a significant factor. Along with his T-5 in 2017, Watson has a victory and three other top-20 finishes at the course when the event was an individual stroke-play tournament.

While Watson can be feast or famine at times, Kuchar is Mr. Consistent. He hasn’t missed a cut in over a year, and he has been a top-10 machine over the past few years on the PGA Tour. Despite this, Kuchar hasn’t been able to convert many of his top-10 finishes into wins, but playing alongside Watson this week — who has already notched two victories in 2018 — may help his cause. Over their last 24 rounds, Watson ranks third for Strokes Gained-Off the Tee and eighth in Strokes Gained Total. Over the same period, Kuchar has been predictably consistent, ranking in the top third in the field in every major Strokes Gained category. It’s an intriguing partnership, with Watson’s explosiveness combined with Kuchar’s consistency, and it’s a cocktail that should prove to be a formidable force at TPC Louisiana.

Two men with the hot hand coming into this event are fellow Americans, Jimmy Walker and Sean O’Hair (25/1). Last week at the Valero Texas Open both men excelled, posting the highest finishes of their year thus far. Walker finished solo 4th, while O’Hair grabbed a T-2. It’s the pairs first time playing TPC Louisiana together, but Walker has some good course form to lean on. Back in 2012 and 2013, he posted back-to-back top-20 finishes, which shows that TPC Louisiana is a course that fits his game. Accuracy off the tee has never been Walker’s strength, but the generous fairways may be one of the reasons that he has performed well at this course.

O’Hair has been in good form as of late. The Texan has three top-15 finishes in his last six events, and last week he recorded his highest Strokes Gained Total at an event in years. Walker also seems to have turned a corner with his game. Along with his excellent performance last week, he managed a top-20 finish at the Masters, and his Strokes Gained-Total at the Valero was his highest since his 2016 PGA Championship victory. With both men coming off their best performances in a long time, they should be confident. The duo looks to be a decent value to mount a challenge this week.

Last year’s runners-up Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown (40/1) are hard to ignore at their price this week. Brown has struggled mightily for form in 2018, missing six cuts out of 11 events played so far this year, but the prospect of playing alongside Kisner may be the boost that Brown’s 2018 is needing.

Kisner’s form has been strong as of late. He backed up his runner-up finish at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play with a T-28 at Augusta before grabbing a T-7 at the RBC Heritage. At Harbour Town, Kisner’s iron play was especially sharp, with his Strokes Gained-Approaching the Greens total being the highest since the Memorial last year. Despite Brown’s slump, in a highly tricky format to predict, the pair showed enough chemistry last year and an ability to excel in the format, which is enough for me to consider their price a little undervalued this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Bubba Watson/Matt Kuchar 14/1
  • Jimmy Walker/Sean O’Hair 25/1
  • Kevin Kisner/Scott Brown 40/1
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Podcasts

Gear Dive: Legendary club builder Larry Bobka speaks on Tiger’s old Titleist irons

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Legendary club builder Larry Bobka joins us in the first episode of our new podcast called “Gear Dive,” hosted by Johnny Wunder, GolfWRX’s Director of Original Content. Gear Dive is a deep look into the world of golf equipment, and Wunder will be interviewing the craftsman, the reps and the players behind the tools that make up the bags of the best golfers in the world.

Bobka, our first guest, is a former Tour rep and club builder involved in some of the most important clubs of the past 25 years. From his days at Wilson Golf working with legends such as Payne Stewart, Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer, he transitioned into the Golden Age of Titleist/Acushnet building clubs for Tiger Woods, Davis Love, David Duval and Brad Faxon. He currently runs Argolf where he builds and fits handmade putters for Tour players and amateurs alike. He’s one of the Godfather’s of modern golf equipment.

Skip to 45:30 for the discussion about Tiger’s Titleist irons.

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

What do you think of the new podcast? Leave your feedback in the comments below!

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Podcasts

Gary Player joins our 19th Hole podcast, talks past and future of golf

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Hall-of-Famer and career Grand Slam winner Gary Player joins host Michael Williams for an exclusive one-on-one interview at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf tournament and Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri. Player talks about the past and future of the game, including his take on everything from reigning in the golf ball and golf courses, to advocating for more testing for performance enhancing drugs on the Tour. Steve Friedlander of Big Cedar Lodge also appears.

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

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19th Hole

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