No Need to Speak in Tongues to Understand Modern Ball Offerings

TaylorMade's five-layer Penta TP

Tax code? Child’s play. For sheer, unadulterated regulatory chaos, check out the USGA’s list of conforming golf balls. That sucker runs to some 35 pages. And what about those advertising copy writers? Apparently every ball is thermonuclear long, with the gripping power of a Congressional lobbyist’s handshake and the soft feel of Jessica Alba’s skin.

Every ball. Imagine that?

So in the interest of science, the guys in the lab coats were consulted. All leading ball manufacturers were posed a series of questions, most decided to play along. The idea was to hopefully cut through the claims, clutter and nomenclature so as to better understand some of that big-picture stuff. This exercise didn’t exactly unearth the Rosetta Stone. But some of the hieroglyphics should be easier to interpret. The responding decoders are:

Bridgestone Golf—Brandon Sowell, golf ball marketing manager

Callaway Golf—Steve Ogg, vice president golf ball research and development

Cleveland Golf (Srixon)—John Rae, manager, research and development research group

Nike Golf—Rock Ishii, product development director for golf balls

TaylorMade Golf—Dean Snell, senior director of research and development

The average golf or sports retail shop serves up a riot of golf ball brands and models. How does a consumer sort through it all?

Srixon: A consumer would probably be most successful if they were familiar with the three basic types of golf balls on the market: premium, tour-caliber urethane[-covered] multi-piece balls designed for better players who crave added spin and feel around the green to lower scores; two-piece ionomer-covered balls, which are lower-cost balls designed for the higher handicap golfer that is intended to provide distance off the tee; and intermediate multi-piece ionomer-covered balls designed to provide more spin and control than two-piece balls and the opportunity for more distance than the urethane balls. [Note: Ionomer = surlyn.]

TaylorMade: It’s a wall of golf balls and it is extremely confusing. The educational process has to be twofold. Manufacturers need to better explain how golf balls differ and how consumers can best test the balls, and consumer need to go out and test a variety of balls so they can feel and see the differences.

Bridgestone: There are a lot of choices and it can be confusing. On top of that, there are several myths that are perpetuated by some of the leading companies. For example, the idea that a ball widely played on tour is automatically a good choice for most amateurs is crazy and a disservice to the majority of golfers. That type of message really puts revenue in front of the needs and enjoyment of everyday amateurs. We believe in education. Through our ball-fitting programs, online at our website, and at retail stores we strive to provide golfers with the information they need to make an informed decision.

Callaway: We suggest the following selection process: First, how much greenside control do you need? If you are a beginner, or struggle to hit the fairway, and not focused on greenside control then start with two-piece balls. Second, what is your budget? If you want the best combination of distance and control with good durability then a tour-level urethane-covered ball is the best choice. If you are more price sensitive, the best value in an all-round performance ball is the Top-Flite Gamer V2. Third, test a few balls head-to-head.

Nike: We recommend that consumers think about who they are and take just a little time to study. Understand your golf game—swing speed, spin, miss-shot tendency, what would make your game better, etc. And the back of a ball package and the Nike Golf website will tell more than you think. There is good information at those two places.

Is ability or swing speed a more important determinant in selecting a golf ball?

Bridgestone: Regardless swing speed, we approach fitting by measuring three critical elements that determine distance and launch angle: ball speed, spin rate and launch angle. These factors are different for every player and therefore it makes sense that different balls are needed to optimize launch conditions for different players.

Callaway: Ability, since greenside control characteristics are a more important factor than clubhead speed.

Nike: Swing speed is one determinant. But the level of back spin, amount of side spin, mishit tendency and weaknesses of his or her game are other areas we always look at for ball fitting.

Srixon: Ability would be more important than swing speed when it comes to fitting, though more often than not swing speed and ability are closely related. Selecting a golf ball that matches how a specific golfer plays will lead to better results than just giving all golfers the tour-level ball.

TaylorMade: We try to target ranges of players and we do the ranges based on handicap and ball speed. Typically higher-handicap players have slower swing speeds, but not always.

Putting aside price sensitivity, could or should most players use your tour ball?

Callaway: Not necessarily. Many high-handicap golfers who struggle to find the fairway should be playing a lower-spinning ball like our Big Bertha Diablo.

Nike: No. The selection depends on how you like to play and what part of your game you’d like to improve.

Srixon: Could play? Yes. Should play? No. Tour-caliber balls are designed to provide improved feel and control around the greens. Those attributes are capitalized on by better plays who have finely tuned wedge games. An ionomer-covered ball that doesn’t spin as much on chip shots may actually be more consistent for the player who is very inconsistent in terms of quality of contact.

TaylorMade: With the multi-layer technology in a three-, four- or five-piece ball, each time you add a layer you are able to add performance. We believe that a multi-layer ball has a bigger advantage [in terms of relative improvement] for average and recreational players than tour players.

Bridgestone: It depends on the needs and preferences of the player.

Should players be ball-fit from the driver down or the putter and wedges up?

Nike: Being fit from the green to the tee is best and what we always do with our athletes.

Srixon: We should be trying to teach consumers how much the short game affects scoring and how the right ball for the short game will be the best fit, but practically speaking, players need to be fit around what they truly want the ball to do. If their #1 priority is more distance off the tee, then fit them for driver distance. If their #1 priority is straighter ball flight, fit for that. More spin around the greens, softer feel off the putter—whatever a golfer is looking for or believes is needed is how you should fit them.

TaylorMade: Don’t chase the driver. We strongly recommend that people not base a ball fitting on the driver anymore. Get out on the course and start testing from 100 yards and in, trying different shots with two-piece and multi-layer balls. Fit from 100 yards and in and then match your driver to that ball. If you don’t notice a difference [around the green], buy the cheaper ball until you improve to the point that you need a better ball.

Bridgestone: We fit it like you play it, starting with a driver. In our experience after more than 50,000 [amateur] fittings, we have learned that the driver is the most demanding club to properly fit to an individual player. We also fit with irons so players can see spin rates and accuracy on approach shots. By limiting ball fitting to wedges consumers can be misled to a ball that does not fit all parts of their game.

Callaway: Putter and wedge up. Select the ball based on play around the green then select driver loft using that ball.

What, if anything, have you done in response to the new USGA rules on grooves?

Nike: We’ve fitted all of our athletes with the golf balls we had in 2009 [prior to the rule taking effect], the Nike ONE Tour and Tour D. We haven’t made any changes with our athletes due to the new groove rules.

Bridgestone: As soon as the groove rule became a reality we began working with our tour staff to see whether or not they were in need of a ‘spinnier’ ball. The overwhelming majority of our players felt the current models provide excellent spin and control, even with the new grooves.

Callaway: We created golf balls, the Tour i(s) and Tour i(z), that have more greenside control while utilizing our dual-core technology to keep the driver spin low. We call this ‘spin separation’ and the Tour i(s) has the highest spin separation in the market.

Srixon: Moving forward, we have several things in the works for 2011 and beyond that are directly aimed at combating the new groove rule, but currently we have changes [across] our ball products that are designed to produce more spin or more consistent spin.

TaylorMade: We asked our players: ‘Do you want something that adds spin and is shorter or do you want to adapt to the ball we have today?’ Players said they’d take the greater distance and try to rely on improved accuracy rather than give up distance to gain more spin.

Could daVinci have decoded it any better?

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