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The Best Golf Ball Ever?

james.peltz@latimes.com

The longest golf ball on the PGA tour these days is the Pro V1, and it’s also flying off shelves at golf shops--that is, whenever weekend duffers can find it.

This new golf ball, made by the dominant ball manufacturer in the sport, Titleist, is suddenly all the rage among the sport’s professionals and America’s 26 million weekend amateurs.

To hear Titleist’s fans tell it, the Pro V1 utilizes a new technology that combines a much bigger solid rubber core with an extremely thin outer cover that gives the ball more distance for long drives off the tee. Yet it also spins in such a way as to provide excellent control for shorter shots hit to putting greens and even offers a smooth feel when putted.

Titleist’s rivals say their newest balls are just as good and use similar technology. But since Titleist unveiled the Pro V1 last October, an extraordinary number of pros have won tournaments with it. Dozens of other pros switched to the ball and publicly asserted that it was making them better players.

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That convinced many of the nation’s amateur golfers that they had to have the ball too. Yet because Titleist is still gearing up production of the Pro V1, the ball remains in short supply. Golfers are clamoring to get the

few balls that Titleist is rationing to golf-course pro shops and retail outlets.

“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen with a golf ball,” said Jeff Barber, manager of the Griffith Park Golf Course in Los Angeles. “Everybody wants it.”

Barber gets only 24 dozen Pro V1s a month from Titleist, which he sells for a fairly lofty $48 a dozen, plus tax. That’s two to three times the price of average balls, although the top-end rival Nike golf ball sells for about $40 a dozen. Yet “within two or three days the [new Titleist balls] are sold out,” Barber said. Customers “buy four to six dozen at a time.”

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The popularity of the ball is certainly good news for Titleist, a Fairhaven, Mass.-based unit of the Acushnet golf-equipment division of Fortune Brands Inc. The Pro V1 is the latest in a string of innovations that manufacturers keep trotting out to boost sales, and that players hope will improve their scores.

But what’s so special about the Pro V1?

Until last year, most pros and top amateurs used golf balls that were “wound,” meaning they had a small, liquid-filled center that was tightly wrapped by elastic strands, which in turn were covered with the familiar dimpled, white polymer casing.

For decades most weekend amateurs have used “solid-core” golf balls, which have a large, rubber core inside, often provide a few extra yards on tee shots and tend to last longer than wound balls. But most top players felt that wound balls offered better control and “feel” to spin shots close to the hole.

As Titleist began searching for a new ball to develop, it took notice of the “emergence of Tiger Woods and the more athletic [pro] golfer who’s in much better shape than golfers were 20 years ago,” said Bill Morgan, Acushnet’s vice president of research.

“These are players who are looking for high speeds and a low spin off the tee, but enough spin and a good descent for giving them control into the green,” he said. “So the burden” of satisfying this new breed of player “is now on the equipment side, whether it’s drivers or balls,” he said.

The solid ball provided the low spin and distance that golfers want off the tee. So the challenge, Morgan said, was “how can we fix that [solid] construction to provide better control” that seemed available only with wound balls?

Titleist’s solution was twofold: Use as big a rubber center as possible--"The core is the engine of the golf ball,” Morgan said--while encasing it with a cover that’s much thinner than before, using a synthetic material called a urethane elastomer.

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The second step was developing new manufacturing processes to make such a ball. Acushnet won’t discuss those for competitive reasons, except that “it was a major shift from the construction and approach that we had used in the past,” said Wally Uihlein, Acushnet’s chief executive.

The implicit challenge of golf is severe enough that players--especially amateurs--always are searching for new clubs and balls that they believe will give them an edge.

A Titleist rival, Carlsbad-based Callaway Golf Co., grew rapidly in the 1990s by filling that demand with its “Big Bertha” metal drivers and other exotic, oversized clubs that were snatched up by millions of golfers.

In the last two decades, the average PGA player has added almost 20 yards’ distance to his drive, thanks to higher-tech clubs and golf balls.

There’s no question that this new equipment helps touring pros lower their scores. Next year the Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters tournament, will lengthen several holes in response to how far today’s players strike the ball. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus said he wasn’t surprised; he’s long called for standardizing golf balls before technology takes the difficulty out of many famous courses.

Yet the gains of the Pro V1 and other new gear don’t trickle down to most weekend players; statistics show that amateur scores haven’t changed much over the last decade. No matter. Players think the new equipment will help because they’ve seen the pros’ success, which is enough to drive retail sales.

That’s important given that the $750-million U.S. golf-ball market is growing at a paltry 2% to 3% a year because the balls are largely a commodity business. If Titleist or its rivals want to grow, they have to take market share from each other by introducing new balls that purport to be innovative.

Which is what Titleist was thinking in late 1999 when the company put the manufacturing equipment in place at its factories in the New Bedford, Mass., area to make the new Pro V1.

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At the time, Titleist’s market leadership in balls was under increasing attack. Nike was suddenly a force because Woods--who has shattered innumerable records in golf in the last year--switched to Nike’s ball a year ago and won the Masters this week using its ball. Callaway also introduced a new ball with great fanfare last year, and neither takes a back seat to Titleist.

“We still feel we have a superior product,” said Mike Kelly, marketing director for Nike’s golf division.

Titleist, though, was growing confident about its new ball last summer after letting about 100 touring pros test the Pro V1to get their feedback. “We became convinced we had something that exceeded our expectations,” Uihlein said.

After the company formally made the ball available on the pro tour in October, players using the Pro V1 won 13 of the next 17 tournaments. The winners included stars such as Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III and also golfers who had been struggling such as Joe Durant. So far this year five of the 10 longest hitters on the PGA tour are using the Pro V1, as are seven of the top 10 players with the lowest scoring average and eight of the top 10 money winners.

Yet from a distance, it’s still hard to see how the Pro V1 differs much from its competition. The new Callaway and Nike balls also are solid, not wound. And Callaway says that its new Rule 35 ball “has one of the thinnest [urethane] covers,” which allows “for a larger core” that provides longer distances, and that its manufacturing process is unique. Sound familiar?

Plus, Annika Sorenstam last month shot an astonishing 59 using Callaway’s ball during one round in Phoenix--becoming the first to shoot so low a score in a Ladies Professional Golf Assn. event.

Nike, meanwhile, simply points to the fact that the game’s best player, Woods, uses its ball.

Unfortunately for Nike, Callaway and other competitors, many average golfers simply want Titleist to get more of its balls to market. Titleist is ramping up to produce about 4 million dozen balls this year, which Uihlein figures would give the Pro V1 10% of the roughly 40 million dozen balls sold annually in the U.S.

The company also figures that, sometime this summer, it will have made enough balls for sale that it no longer has to ration the balls to retailers.

Even if golfers can buy all the Pro V1s they want, it’s unlikely they’ll suddenly become better players. According to the U.S. Golf Assn., the average men’s handicap--the typical number of strokes a golfer shoots above par--has dropped less than one stroke over the last decade despite all the new equipment that’s been introduced.

“Their scores aren’t changing,” even with all the innovations in clubs and balls, said Barber of Griffith Park. “Your local amateurs are simply learning how to hit the ball further into trouble.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Golf’s Newest Star

Golf-ball maker Titleist is scoring with pros and amateurs alike with its new Prv V1 ball. Rivals Callaway Golf and Nike also sell newly designed balls, and the world’s best golfer, Tiger Woods, plays Nike. But golfers are still clamoring for the Pro V1, whose technology employs a bigger rubber core and an ultra-thin cover for added distance and good control with shorter shots.

The Pro V1’s Impact

Titleist’s new Pro V1 ball has developed a big presence on the PGA tour since its introduction last October.

* Seven of the top 10 PGA players with lowest scoring average use the Pro V1.

* Five of the tour’s 10 longest hitters play the ball.

* Eight of the 10 leading money winners are Pro V1 users.

Jesper Parnevik:

*Parnevik’s average drive using Titleist Pro V1 in 2001: 280.0 yards.

*Parnevik’s average drive using a wound ball in 2001: 273.3 yards.


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