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Great Balls Of Fire The record-low cut at the Masters was only the latest example of how a hot trend in equipment has affected the Tour

April 16, 2001
April 16, 2001

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April 16, 2001

Great Balls Of Fire The record-low cut at the Masters was only the latest example of how a hot trend in equipment has affected the Tour

The grounds at Augusta National looked the same as usual last
week--azaleas, dogwoods and rich green grass--but there were subtle
signs that the landscape of golf had changed. The fence on the
driving range had been raised 10 feet to keep bombers such as
Justin Leonard and Mark Brooks from hitting balls onto Washington
Road. The Masters chairman, Hootie Johnson, announced plans to
lengthen some of the par-4s so caddies raking greenside bunkers
will be safe when Tiger Woods tees off behind them. Someone even
suggested putting out warning fliers for spectators: GOLFERS ON
TEE ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

This is an article from the April 16, 2001 issue Original Layout

To see what was behind these changes, you had to have either a
discerning eye or a copy of the Darrell Survey, the weekly tally
of the equipment used by touring pros. At the 2000 Masters 59 of
95 players used wound golf balls, which have a core, a layer of
tightly wound rubber bands and soft covers--the professional's
ball of choice for decades. This year, though, only four players
used wound balls, and those who did couldn't have looked more
passe if they had teed up acorns. Twenty-four of the top 25
finishers (the only holdout was Kirk Triplett), including the
winner, Tiger Woods, played solid-core balls.

"The wound ball is dead," crowed Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf
and one of the suspected assassins. "This is a big technological
story. This is deep."

"It's clearly a watershed," agreed Callaway Golf vice president
Richard Helmstetter, who called the new balls--especially his
company's Rule 35 and the Titleist Pro V1--"shockingly better."

At times the year-old ball wars have been shockingly bitter.
Nike, a newcomer to the ball business, captured the high ground
last spring when Woods switched from a Titleist wound ball to the
solid-core Nike Tour Accuracy and promptly won the U.S. Open by
15 strokes and the British Open by eight. Competitors huffed that
the Tour Accuracy, manufactured for Nike by Bridgestone Sports of
Japan, was only a variation of the Bridgestone Precept, a
solid-core ball that has been on the market since 1988.

Titleist, the dominant manufacturer of wound balls and the maker
of the most-played balls on the Tour, did more than huff and
puff. Titleist launched a fall counteroffensive, introducing its
Pro V1 on Tour last October and signing big-money endorsement
contracts with Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III. Those signings
miffed Titleist top gun David Duval, who went AWOL and cut a deal
with Nike. More recently, television golf analyst Johnny
Miller--who endorses the Rule 35, a ball similar to the Pro V1 but
developed independently--dismissed the Tour Accuracy as "a
dinosaur." That infuriated Nike Golf's president, as did
Titleist's claim that the Pro V1 was in the pipeline before Nike
ever thought about getting into balls. At a party in Augusta last
week, Wood said, "You have all these Titleist players raving
about the Pro V1, but that's because they had been playing a
piece of s---, and you can print that."

To the Titleist claim that it tried to sell its players on
solid-core balls long before Woods and Duval defected, Wood shot
back, "Tiger never hit the Pro V1. Who was Titleist saving it
for? Find the guys who tried that ball [before Tiger left] and
show them to me. I respect the hell out of Titleist, but when you
own the plant and equipment and 60% of your profit comes from
wound balls, why change?"

The only thing the ball warriors agree on is this: The new
solid-core balls, whatever name is printed on them, fly farther
and straighter than any other in the game's history. Mickelson
raised eyebrows last fall when he used a Pro V1 to outdrive Fred
Couples by about 40 yards a hole in a televised exhibition match.
Woods raised warning flags at the British Open when he played
four rounds without splashing his Tour Accuracy in one of the Old
Course's fabled fairway bunkers. ("That was an absolute joke,"
Jack Nicklaus said at Augusta. "That golf course withstood the
test of time for hundreds of years, and all of a sudden not a
bunker was in play, not only for Tiger but also for dozens of
other guys.") In February, at the Phoenix Open, Tour veteran
Andrew Magee aced a 332-yard par-4--a hole he had never reached
from the tee before switching to the Pro V1.

There is statistical evidence to support the anecdotal. Jeff
Sluman switched from wound to solid and saw his driving average
jump from 265 yards to 278.9. Joe Durant, a two-time winner this
year, made the change and went from 272.1 to 281.1. As a group,
Tour players are averaging 274.7 off the tee this year. In 2000
they averaged 273.2. As driving distances have gone up, scores
have come down. Brad Faxon won the Sony Open with a
tournament-record-tying 20 under par. Mark Calcavecchia made 32
birdies at the Phoenix Open and shot the lowest 72-hole total in
Tour history. Love shot a final-round 63, the lowest finishing
score in tournament history, to win the AT&T Pebble Beach
National Pro-Am. Annika Sorenstam, playing the Rule 35 in
Phoenix, shot the first 59 in the history of women's golf and set
LPGA scoring records for 36, 54 and 72 holes.

There is testimony. Mickelson says the Pro V1 is "the best ball
that's ever been created" and compares its introduction to that
of steel shafts in the '30s. Says Jim Furyk, who plays the
Spalding Strata Tour Ultimate, "I've taken it over some doglegs
this year that I couldn't in the past." This is obviously the
language of commerce--virtually all Tour players have incentive
contracts with ball companies--but the hyperbole doesn't seem as
forced as usual.

For real proof that the golf ball firmament has shifted, one need
only visit Titleist Ball Plant No. 1 in Fairhaven, Mass. A year
ago the Fairhaven plant cranked out liquid-center wound balls
with practiced efficiency. Now many of the machines that produced
the Professional, Tour Prestige and Tour Distance SF balls are
off to the side and covered with plastic. In their places are
bins full of purple rubber cores--the guts of the Pro V1. "We saw
the writing on the wall as early as 1994 or '95," says Bill
Morgan, Titleist's top ball developer.

Unfortunately, the writing was in a language that was hard to
read. Solid-core balls were already popular; they were marketed
as distance balls for the recreational golfer. These balls flew
farther because they didn't spin a lot, but the pros wouldn't use
them for the same reason--they didn't spin a lot. The pros
preferred a ball with lots of backspin and other control
properties, and that was a somewhat fragile wound ball with a
soft balata cover. "You could have one or the other," says
Morgan. "Everybody said his ball gave you both distance and
control, but none did."

Complicating matters was the sad fact that the pros didn't know
what was good for them. Most Tour players drove their high-spin
balls with low-lofted drivers, launching their tee shots at a low
angle with lots of backspin. The combination produced that
much-envied pro trajectory, the low shot that climbs and then
falls softly. "So cool," says Callaway's Helmstetter. "Man, it
was like an airplane taking off." He laughs. "Goes nowhere!"

One of the first American players to glean this truth was the
Senior tour's Jim Colbert, who let Callaway technicians study his
swing and equipment at their test center in Carlsbad, Calif.
Colbert was using a terrifying looking 4 1/2-degree driver and
launching the ball with 4,500 revolutions per minute of backspin,
a combination guaranteed to confuse any golf ball. Working with a
launch monitor--a gadget that measures launch angle, clubhead
speed and ball rpm in the instant after impact--Colbert found he
gained yardage by using a more lofted driver and by swinging it
less aggressively. Says Helmstetter, "Jim quickly learned to
launch that puppy high with no spin."

Something similar was going on in Asia, where Japanese star Jumbo
Ozaki wowed visiting Westerners with his booming tee shots. Since
Ozaki was about as tall as a file cabinet and pushing 50, the
visitors reached the obvious conclusion: He was cheating. Rumors
spread that Ozaki was playing a hot ball, an illegal prototype
manufactured for him by the engineers at Bridgestone. "When you
think about it," says Helmstetter, "Jumbo was one of the first
who teed it up 3 1/2 to four inches and then launched it at 12 or
13 degrees with little spin. He was playing a solid-core ball
made by Bridgestone, and those balls were, and are, very good."
In a related development, various ball companies used their
launch monitors to study long-drive champions like Art Sellinger
and Jason Zuback, who smoked their drives 350 to 400 yards. These
brutes, it turned out, typically launched their drives at 15 or
16 degrees and around 2,000 rpm.

The challenge for the ball makers, then, was to find what Nike's
Wood calls "the Holy Grail"--a technology that would make a ball
spin less off the tee and spin more around the greens. The answer
proved to be urethane, a durable, moldable material used in floor
finishes and bowling balls. Applied to the outside of a solid
golf ball, a thin coat of urethane exerts little influence when
struck hard, but it has a soft feel and a bit of grab on finesse
shots.

There is disagreement about who was first to perfect a urethane
process, but Nike-Bridgestone won the rush to the marketplace,
and in 2000 Nike jumped from a 1% to a 9% share of the consumer
ball market. Callaway introduced its own urethane-coated solid
ball in February 2000, having spent three years and $150 million
building a state-of-the-art ball plant in Carlsbad. But Callaway,
to its regret, did not divulge the Rule 35's composition or
properties. "We made a mistake in not telling the technical
story, and it was my fault," says the company's founder and CEO,
Ely Callaway. "We soft-played it to the point that it was a
soft-boiled egg."

In Fairhaven last summer, the situation was dire. Loyal Titleist
guys such as Leonard, Love and Mickelson were frantic, convinced
that their wound balls put them at a competitive disadvantage.
"They were going to bolt if Titleist didn't come up with
something great," says an industry source. "Which Titleist did,
in the nick of time." These days it's all smiles in Fairhaven.
Through the Masters, 29 of the top 50 players on the Tour money
list play the Pro V1, and all but six tournaments in 2001 have
been won with a Titleist.

That doesn't surprise Nick Raffaele, director of Tour relations
for Spalding. He wonders why people are so impressed by the Pro
V1's winning percentage when Titleist has ball deals with a
majority of Tour players. "If I own 75 percent of the NFL teams,"
says Raffaele, "my odds of winning the Super Bowl are pretty
good."

Then you have such players as Juli Inkster, who loves her new
ball--she plays the Pro V1--but worries for the future of golf.
"They're going to have to put a stop to all this," Inkster said
at last month's Nabisco Championship, "or these courses are going
to become obsolete, especially for the men."

Most players, though, are having a ball--hitting it farther,
hitting it straighter and sleeping better at night. Consider
these facts: Chris DiMarco, a Masters rookie, was 10 under par
after two rounds last week....The 36-hole cut equaled the record
low....Three-hundred-yard drives were as common as Georgia
woodpeckers.

Nicklaus, who remembers when even a Golden Bear needed two woods
to reach the par-5s at Augusta, shook his head over the trend.
"Pretty soon," he said, "we'll be teeing off from downtown
somewhere."

He could have added: "And we'll still be getting home in two."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKTWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS

The Revolution

In a year, the wound ball (left) has gone from being the ball of
choice to near extinction on Tour. Here is the percentage of pros
who played with a wound and a nonwound ball (below, right) at the
last two Players Championships.

WOUND NONWOUND

2000 68% 32%
2001 9% 91%

The Players
Six companies dominate the ball count on Tour. Here's the
percentage of pros who played each manufacturer's ball in
tournaments through the Players Championship in 2000 and in 2001.

2000 2001

Titleist 63.5% 56.6%
Nike 5.2% 14.9%
Bridgestone 6.9% 7.5%
Spalding 8.1% 5.9%
Maxfli 9.3% 5.6%
Callaway 3.0% 5.3%
Others 4.0% 4.2%

The Leader
This year on Tour, the players who use a Titleist ball have won
60% of the tournaments. Here's Titleist's winning percentage
over the last four years.

WINS/EVENTS WINNING %

1998 30 of 44 68.2%
1999 40 of 46 86.9%
2000* 26 of 42 61.9%
2000[**] 4 of 6 66.7%
2001 9 of 15 60.0%

*Before introduction of Pro V1
[**]After introduction of Pro V1

The Man
Here are Tiger Woods's Tour stats for the first four months of
2000, when he used a wound Titleist, and for the rest of the
season, when he used a nonwound Nike model.

TITLEIST NIKE

Driving Distance 288.9 305.4
Greens in Regulation 73.6% 76.4%
Putts per GIR 1.748 1.692
Scrambling 64.5% 69.4%
Wins 3 5

Mickelson says the Pro V1 is "the best ball that's ever been
created" and compares its introduction to that of steel shafts.