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The Technology of Golf: The Golf Ball

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Andy Brumer provides fascinating insight into how technology is changing the game of golf and how you can improve your game because of it. In this chapter, you'll find an illustrated assessment of the latest technology being employed in golf balls.

There's no more fitting symbol for the game of golf than a circle. Golfers complete their "round" on the 18th green just steps away from where they began it on the first tee. The ideal golf swing inscribes a circle through the air, and the hole and the golf ball are, of course, perfectly round. Far from a flat two-dimensional sphere, however, today's golf balls are full-bodied treasure chests of multiple technologies and performance tricks. Some, like Jack Nicklaus, feel the golf ball is too good now. They contend it flies too far and straight and is both making classic golf courses obsolete (for instance, because they have become too easy to play) and mid-level golf pros able to compete with the more talented players. Others feel that average golfers playing for fun deserve every advantage, aid, and inch afforded to them without violating the rules of the game.

Billy Mayfair, PGA Tour player, on today's golf ball

Everyone is talking about testing the new driver heads for illegal COR, etc., but I think the golf ball is making more of a difference in the game than anything else is. The golf ball has changed the game more than the driver has. I play the Titleist ProV1x ball, and it doesn't curve as much anymore like they used to. You just swing as hard as you want at it and it goes straight at the flag. Working the ball is still important on certain shots, but it's not as much of a must thing anymore. One of the guys I remember who used to work the ball the best in the world was the late Payne Stewart. He brought the ball in high, low, left-to-right, right-to-left, every which way possible. That was what made him such a great player. These days I don't think working the ball would help him as much, because you don't need to shape the ball like you used to because the ball just flies so straight. I think 95% of the guys on Tour would say that the changes in the golf ball today have made a bigger difference in the game than anything else has.

Just like golf clubs, golf balls must fit the golfer, and as with clubs, a player's task is to match the ball that best complements his or her specific swing and style of play. Golf balls, although not inexpensive, are affordable enough to allow a degree of experimentation. As they do with clubs, players should try different brands and types of balls before settling on one. Finally, golfers must match their golf ball not only to their swings, but also to their golf clubs. While doing so requires a bit of study and effort, the dividends it pays in better scores and shots can transform a round of golf from "a good walk spoiled" (to quote Mark Twain) into a day in paradise. In other words, it's a whole new ball game when it comes to the golf ball today.

Almost 10 years ago, the PGA Tour tentatively discussed a rule change that would have required all the pros to play the exact same brand and style of ball. The sentiment among players was that this would be fine as long as the new standard was the brand and style that they already played. Back then that meant a soft balata-covered wound ball (with rubber bands), such as Titleist's Tour Balata, or Maxfli's HT. The game's best golfers at that time categorically ignored the hard-feeling, two-piece/solid-core "distance" balls, such as Top-Flites and Pinnacles, favored by many average golfers. Although offering unmatched distance off the tee, these balls spun very little around the greens. The pros may "drive for show," but they chip and putt for dough. The image of one playing with a ball difficult to control in the scoring zone is as incongruous, if not hilarious, as a tennis player taking the court in snow boots.

The Top-Flite Strata golf ball, introduced in the mid-1990's, however, did the unimaginable. It merged a high-spinning, soft-feeling Tour Balata type of ball, with the low-spinning, long-flying, and durable Pinnacle or distance ball into a whole new class of product. This remarkable three-piece ball, was, indeed, two balls in one: It was a long-flying/low-spinning distance ball off the tee, and a high-spinning control ball off the irons. Remarkably enough, Strata's ball design team accomplished this two–for-one feat rather simply. They just added a soft polyurethane cover on what was virtually a Top-Flite distance ball, and then added a thin middle or mantle layer that encased the ball's already large and solid rubber core.

Figure 2.1Figure 2.1 The Top-Flite Strata golf ball

A few years later, balls such as Callaway's Rule 35, Titleist's ProVI, Maxfli's M3 Tour, Nike's TA2 (both the Long and Spin models), and others, including new balls from Strata, improved on Strata's original breakthrough, by improving the durability of their urethane outer covers and making them thinner and firmer for added distance. At the same time, advances in rubber systems allowed ball makers to design cores that were more energetic or "faster," for even more distance on shots hit with the longer clubs, while maintaining a nice soft feel. Here's the short course on how these long-flying/soft-feeling balls work and why they represent a sea change in the history of golf ball design.

Figure 2.2Figure 2.2 Titleist's ProVI golf ball

A golfer swings the driver, fairway woods, and long irons, on a relatively level path into the ball—so the clubhead penetrates through the three-piece ball's soft outer cover layer and compresses its firmer mantle layer and solid energy-packed core. On such swings, the clubhead "sidesteps" or mitigates the ball's high-spin-producing cover, which results in the kind of high launch/low-spinning drives that optimize distance (as discussed in the next section). Furthermore, the reduced spin on the ball also means it will hook and slice much less than its Balata forebears, so the golfer gains not only distance but also accuracy.

On short and mid-iron shots, a golfer strikes down on the ball with a more descending blow. This action pinches the three-piece ball's thin and soft outer cover for shots that spin a great deal. The clubhead's force is also strong enough to reach or engage the ball's mantle level, which contributes height and distance to the iron shots. The blow with an iron, however, does not reach the ball's core or center layer, because the club contacts the ball obliquely at an angle, rather than squarely with all of its energy and mass as does a driver. If it had, the core layer's energy and speed would reduce the spin of the ball and it would be next to impossible for even skilled golfers to control the distance of their shots. Chips and putts almost exclusively use this soft cover for the kind of spin control and feel golfers need for scoring shots on and around the greens.

If the progression from a two- to three-piece ball yielded such performance benefits, why wouldn't companies progress to a four-piece ball? Of course, this is exactly what they did, with balls such as the Ben Hogan Apex Tour, Titleist's ProV1x, the Nike One, and the Strata Tour Ace. All but Titleist's ball feature a second firm mantle layer that acts like a conduit during impact that transfers extra energy into the core for even more low-spin-derived distance. The ProV1x achieves extra firmness by adding a second core. These balls perform best, however, for golfers with exceptionally high clubhead speed (in excess of 100 mph with the driver), because it takes considerable force to penetrate the additional material added to the balls.

Figure 2.3Figure 2.3 Nike's One golf ball

At the same time, ball makers were applying this new fast/soft/low-spinning core and high-spinning/soft-cover technology in much improved (and considerably less-expensive) two-piece balls. Products such as Titleist's Next, Maxfli's A3, and others offered comparable distance as their three-piece compatriots, but marginally less spin off the irons and around the greens. This made them less appealing to most Tour players and low-handicappers, although extremely popular with budget-minded mid- and high-handicap players.

Companies then softened the covers and cores of these two-piece balls and birthed yet another class of two-piece balls aimed at a different demographic. Balls such as the Precept Lady Diamond, Maxfli's Noodle Spin, and Nike's Power Distance Super Soft have given golfers with very slow swing speeds (some women, seniors, and juniors) more distance than ever. All of these two-, three- and four-piece balls are virtually indestructible. You can't cut them. You can't scrape them, you can't blemish them in any way. All you can do is lose them.

Although the superior multilayer balls have driven the pro and better amateur batty with delight (if not delusions of grandeur), they seem to have also intimidated average golfers, who feel they lack the skill needed to play with them. This is a tragic misconception according to Maxfli's senior director of research and development, Dean Snell, who, while working for Titleist, was instrumental in the original ProVI's creation. In fact, Snell believes the average player benefits as much if not more from today's multilayer ball than a pro. Here's why.

Dean Snell, Maxfli's Senior Director of Research and Development, on common misconceptions about today's multilayer golf balls

There's a big push in the golf equipment industry right now to develop new technologies. So custom fitting has become more important, and everywhere you go you see fitting carts and fitting centers. If a person is going to spend a thousand or two thousand dollars on clubs, they want to know about what they are playing, and they want to play clubs that fit them. A dozen golf balls costs 40 or 50 bucks, so people don't take the time to understand the technology or the difference between balls, and, consequently, don't usually play with the ball that fits them best. People today still think that if it's cold outside, they have to play a 90-compression ball, and if it's hot a 100, and that's a total myth. Compression or the relative hardness or softness of the old wound balata-covered golf balls no longer matters. Today we can make a ball with a large rubber center that feels soft like the low-compression balls of years past, but flies far with a lot of initial ball speed like the old high-compression balls.

Figure 2.4Figure 2.4

But the real misconception average golfers have is that they feel they are not good enough golfers to play the new multilayer balls. They think that if Freddy Couples plays a Maxfli M3 Tour, for example, then they must not be good enough to play it, or that such a ball has too much technology that won't help them anyway. What the recreational player needs to know is that this technology is actually better for them than for the Tour player. It helps the Tour player, sure, but it helps them more. Here's why.

First, these balls have such a low driver spin rate that they don't hook or slice very much at all, making it easier to hit the ball straighter with the driver. In fact, today's multilayer better balls have essentially the same spin rate off the driver as do the Pinnacles, Top-Flites, and other distance balls that they have been playing anyway. In other words, from the tee, these balls perform like distance balls, so there is no need to fear them.

Finally, when a Tour player shoots 70 in a round, he or she hits the driver 14 times, which we've fixed or made better because the ball goes farther and straighter for these 14 shots. Recreational players, who shoot 100, also hit 14 drives in the round, so they gain the same benefit off the tee as the Tour player does from the multilayer ball, with respect to this lower spin rate. Instead of playing 56 additional shots to the green and including putts (to make up their round of 70) as do the Tour players, they play 86 shots, which will fly higher, stop quicker on the greens, and offer more short game control and feel softer with the putter. That's 86 out of 100 shots that this type of ball improves for the average player, whereas for the Tour player it improves 14 out of 70 shots. So the percentage of improvement is actually higher for the recreational golfer than for the pro, which, again, means there is no need for average players to fear multilayer technology.

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