T om Watson started hearing fellow professional golfers talking about it around 2001. He could also see it with his own eyes, and he could see it in the statistics he obtained from the United States Golf Association.
The golf ball was not only changing — it was changing the game.
The average driving distance among PGA Tour players has increased from 263.6 yards in 1995 to 287.3 yards last season, according to tour statistics. Between 2000 and 2001 alone, the average rose 6.2 yards. And then up another 6.5 from 2002 to 2003.
“I started watching the guys hit the ball a lot farther than they did the previous year,” Watson says.
Golf club advancements have certainly made an impact on increasing distance off the tee. As has the conditioning and training of professional golfers. But the golf ball has evolved significantly in the last 15 years — if, perhaps, a little more under the radar of the weekend golfer.
“The ball is completely underestimated in its importance overall,” says Mike Pai, Nike Golf’s global category director for golf balls and golf bags. “People get excited about new clubs because they’re sexy. The technology is fairly visible. … What they don’t take into account is the fact that (the) golf ball is every bit as important.”
That last point, Watson would agree with wholeheartedly. In fact, he believes advances to the ball have had a greater impact than those of the golf club on players’ increased distance.
So with both the weather and golf season heating up, the question for golfers — which ball best fits their game? — is as important as ever before.
But Watson offers another question to consider.
“Is this good for the game or not?” he asks of the new technology and its impact. “That’s the bottom-line question.”
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Watson won eight major championships on the PGA Tour, including The Masters in 1977 and 1981. Now 59, he’s not sure how many more years he’ll play at Augusta National Golf Club.
This goes to the crux of his point — and his concern.
With players adding significant length off the tee, some golf courses have had to compensate by lengthening holes to maintain their challenge.
“I don’t think it’s good for the game, and the reason I don’t think it’s good for the game is that the golf courses themselves, they have to be changed,” he says. “It was designed to play a certain way, and just by adding length doesn’t necessarily make the hole the same.”
He says Augusta National illustrates the issue well, specifically how the tees on the seventh, 17th and 18th holes have been extended to adjust to the game’s long hitters. That leaves players like himself, who don’t get the same distance off their drives, to adjust as well.
For example, Watson says ideally he’d use an 8-iron or shorter club for his approach shot to Augusta National’s seventh green. Now, he’s having to hit 5-, 6- or 7-irons too often. On 17, he’s now hitting 4- and 5-irons where he’d prefer to use a 6-iron or shorter.
The problem, he says, is that the shallow greens were not designed to be approached by middle to long irons.
“That’s the problem with equipment, bottom-line. The golf courses have to be extended out for the best players, the longer hitters to play,” Watson says. “That sounds like sour grapes, but it really isn’t. I think there is a consensus that for Augusta, that the seventh hole plays too long.”
Of course, there are different lines of thinking. Steve Ogg, the vice president of golf ball research and development for Callaway Golf, has one.
“I think fans like it. I think players like to hit the ball a long way,” Ogg says. “I don’t think it has hurt the game.
“The trouble is that for some traditional courses, it’s made those courses easier to play. That frustrates people, and I can understand that frustration. Golf’s a game of history and heritage, and I can understand that. But it certainly has not hurt the pro tour game. I think it’s helped the popularity of golf.”
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Ogg left his job as an aerodynamics engineer at Boeing to join Callaway in 1997. He says many followers of the game probably don’t know how advanced the modern golf ball has become.
“I was surprised coming from aerospace into the golf industry how much technology there is (in the balls),” he says.
That technology has made it possible today for manufacturers to create golf balls capable of maintaining distance off the tee without sacrificing spin and touch closer to the green.
That option wasn’t available when Dean Snell, the senior director of research and development for TaylorMade Golf, got into the business 20 years ago.
“The golf ball has changed dramatically,” Snell says. “Back 20 years ago, there were tour golf balls and distance golf balls.”
The balls preferred by pro golfers were wound with soft balata covers that provided the spin they desired around the greens. But the balls sacrificed distance and durability. The alternative two-piece distance golf balls, solid and with harder covers, produced greater length off the tee but didn’t allow for the same short game spin.
“It used to be you could get control, but you didn’t have the distance. Or you could get distance, but you couldn’t get the control,” Ogg says.
The Titleist Professional came along in the mid-1990s with a urethane cover. Though that model retained use of the wound center, it was on to something. The Top-Flite Strata came out in 1996, and gained attention for its solid core multi-layer design — with a soft outside cover for control and a firmer inside cover to maintain greater distance.
Later, such technologies merged in the creation of balls such as the popular Titleist Pro V1, the Callaway Rule 35 and the Nike Tour Accuracy, which combined multi-layer construction and soft, yet durable urethane covers.
“Now the tour players don’t have to give up distance,” Ogg says, “and they still get the control.”
It was the growing use on tour of the popular Pro V1 that started catching Watson’s eye. He, too, has since switched to the ball, though he still has some thoughts on the matter.
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Watson continues to succeed on the Champions Tour, where he earned six top-10 finishes in 10 events last season. But he’d still like to see the USGA and R&A in Scotland, the governing bodies that oversee the rules of golf, adjust the engineering parameters to reduce the distance of the modern golf ball by 5 to 10 percent.
But he doesn’t see that coming to fruition.
The leading golf ball manufacturers, meanwhile, continue to work to advance the ball. Pai notes that the advancements in golf ball technology aren’t meant for just the top-level professionals.
“I think the equipment has made the game so much better,” Pai says. “I look at my mom and dad. They’re in their 70s. They love the game. … My mom will call me up and say, ‘You’ll never guess what, I hit the third hole in two.’ And she’s so excited. How is that bad for the game? All that does is make her want to come back and play more.”
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