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�-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� to four inches and then launched it at 12 or 13 degrees with little spin. He was playing a solid-core ball made by Bridge-stone, 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.