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The Golf Ball Wars

Can a liquid-centered ball with high-tech design really help your game? If you're good, it just might.

My golf pal Terrance recently called me a golf ball snob, noting that the only balls he ever sees me play are new "high performance," three-piece construction, liquid-centered wonderballs that sell for almost $50 a dozen. He claims my devotion to the Titleist Professional 90 compression ball is largely vanity, that a six-handicapper like myself simply isn't good enough to tell the difference between premium golf ball brands and can't honestly distinguish one "feel" from another.

Terrance, who also happens to play off six, couldn't be less faithful to a particular brand. He'll indiscriminately play any ball he can get his hands on as long as they're reasonably round, almost white, and, ideally, free or found—including balls you'd probably think twice about hitting on the practice range. When I see him hit one of his plastic "rocks," as I like to call them, I enjoy reminding him that he's doing so with a set of custom-made golf clubs that cost him almost two thousand dollars. That's like playing cheap strings on a concert violin.

The truth is, we have a lot of fun haggling about golf balls but beneath it all we're both wanted men in the eyes of an increasingly voracious and competitive golf ball world that's now estimated to be a $1.5 billion retail business worldwide. My kind of brand loyalty makes me a manufacturer's dream customer, while my friend's skepticism makes him the perfect challenge.

Last year the first shots in what some industry analysts have called the Great Golf Ball War were fired when Taylor Made, Callaway, and Nike all aggressively entered a golf ball market long dominated by the Big Three of ball manufacturing: Titleist, Spalding, and Maxfli. They were soon followed by half a dozen other newcomers and perhaps two dozen new golf ball designs from longtime makers Wilson, Bridgestone Corporation (Precept), and Slazenger, accompanied by an unprecedented media blitz touting a boggling array of scientific technologies, materials and construction techniques.

Even more dramatic and unconventional was Callaway's unveiling of its new line of premium-market "Rule 35" golf balls, after months of Pentagon-like secrecy, at the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida. Instead of explaining the science behind the ball's creation and function—tedious engineerspeak of esoteric core materials and two- or three-piece constructions, advanced winding materials and so forth—Callaway playfully invented its own Rule 35 (there are only 34 rules in the official USGA rule book) to introduce two simplified versions of its new ball, the blue-logoed Softfeel and red-logoed Firmfeel.

Some found Callaway's approach refreshing, particularly the TV ads, which wittily depicted average golfers who claimed to be in the know about the mysterious science involved, attributing Rule 35's high performance to everything from "moon dust" to "lizard DNA." (For what it's worth, industry analysts quickly determined Rule 35's composition to be a polybutadiene core, Surlyn inner cover, and thin polyurethane outer cover.)

Many wondered how even a corporate leviathan like Callaway could dare try to crack Titleist's estimated 50 percent market share when maybe 20 different golf ball manufacturers were vying for less than 30 percent of the pie. Indeed, Wall Street's target projection of $50 million for Callaway's first-year sales seemed awfully ambitious for a company whose stock had been in the doldrums (along with the rest of the industry) for almost 18 months.

A few days after the show I caught up with Callaway president Chuck Yash at the company's new, bristling, state-of-the-art 225,000-square-foot glass-and-steel ball factory in Carlsbad, California, which Callaway built for an estimated $100 million. In the 1980sYash, a Naval Academy graduate, had transformed Spalding's Top-Flight distance ball into an industry bestseller. Later he moved on to develop the "Burner Bubble" technology that turned around Taylor Made's fortunes in the '90s.

"Does the golf world really need another premium golf ball?" I asked him.

"Golf is in a constant state of evolution," Yash replied. "As courses get better, equipment should get better, too. Given our excellent research and development program, we felt that it made sense to produce our own ball."

True, Callaway has a proven record in innovation. In terms of size, the golf ball business today is approximately where the equipment market was when Ely Callaway introduced the Big Bertha driver ten years ago—roughly $1.4 billion. There were plenty of people who questioned the introduction of Big Bertha, but it went on to become the best-selling club in history and stimulated tremendous growth in club innovation. As a result, the golf club market has since grown by 50 percent.

For many years, Yash conceded, Callaway considered buying another top golf ball company with an established reputation—the names Maxfli and even Spalding came up most often—but ultimately decided to sink $170 million into bringing its own ball to the market. "We decided it was better to start fresh with the best technology and a chance to make a real impact in a business dominated by only a few names," Yash says, adding that Rule 35 was a concerted effort to create the "most complete" performance ball ever brought to the market, aimed primarily at the average golfer.

"There's been so much techno-babble in the industry about golf balls, especially about design, layers and construction," Yash explains. "Let's face it, you'd have to be an engineer to properly understand it all. Interestingly, our research shows that most players, regardless of skill level, don't care very much about the details of construction. What they do care about is simple results—whether the ball feels better and performs better than the one they're using. Some balls are designed for spin, others distance. Some fly at a higher trajectory, some lower. The reason we don't discuss our ball's technical features is that, frankly, we didn't want our ball to be pigeonholed. The truth is, we feel this ball has more groundbreaking science in it than any golf ball in history—a cover, for example, that is remarkably durable but easily the thinnest ever put on a golf ball, a dimple pattern for improved aerodynamics and straighter flight that covers an unheard-of eighty-six percent of the ball."

When Callaway began rolling out the new Rule 35 ball earlier this year, they were careful not to ask Tour players to try it, since most pros were already under contract with other golf ball manufacturers. But many players tried it anyway—and liked what they saw. "Now, more than eighty pros are playing with it on tour," Yash declares proudly. "We think that's a bonus because the ball was really designed to fit almost anyone's game the way Big Bertha did."

Why is it that you see lots of "real player" club tests of new equipment but never a similar test of the newest premium golf balls on the market? The answer, of course, is that there is no more subjective piece of equipment than a golf ball. If a golf swing is like a fingerprint—unique to the owner—every player has his or her own set of strengths and needs, peculiar swing characteristics, and personal preferences in a ball. After all, the golf ball is our closest connection with the hole and, as such, its performance is subject not only to the laws of physics but to any number of personal eccentricities. For example, I grew up hitting balata-covered Titleist golf balls I had fished from the creeks of my father's club in North Carolina. In those days finding a perfect-skinned, unscuffed, soft-covered Titleist golf ball was tantamount to discovering a piece of white gold.

I loved the soft feel and distinctly muted click of those old balata balls. I loved the way they spun and landed softly. I even took an odd comfort in the classy and dignified "Titleist" logo, which leaned slightly as if written by the hand of some mythical great player. I loved the physical fragility—a poor swing could easily put a hideous "smile" on a ball or cut into its delicate skin. That promoted the importance of making a good swing. Titleist seemed to be a ball I could grow into. Did these balls actually make me play better golf? Beats me. I just loved playing and collecting them.

Titleist currently offers nine different models of its high-performance golf balls, plus six Pinnacle-brand distance models, and recently introduced a Web site program (www.titleist.com) that allows customers to log on and walk through an easy golf-ball-fitting exercise. "It's not our view that one kind of ball fits all," says Titleist's George Sine, who is vice president of marketing and strategic planning.

Most industry insiders say Callaway's target isn't Titleist's premium ball customers but, more realistically, all the other golf ball manufacturers who make up the remaining 50 percent or so of market share. Ball makers clearly in Callaway's sights are Spalding's best-selling Strata line, Maxfli, Bridgestone Corporation (Precept), Wilson, Taylor Made, Nike, and Slazenger.

Taylor Made, content to tout the superiority of its own fine new InerGel ball, mocked Callaway's hefty investment in ball technology by comparing Rule 35 to range balls. "Three years. $170 million in development. A barrage of promotional hype. Where did it get Callaway's new ball? Well, almost five yards behind us . . ."

"Oh, about those Rule 35s?" the ad cheekily concludes. "We're sure our friends at Callaway will still sell plenty. It just may have to be by the bucket."

Like every company flogging a supposedly better ball, Taylor Made is armed with distance and spin data from its own trials that proves its InerGel ball flies farther and plays truer than any competitor. With that in mind, I went straight to a golf shop and loaded up on the newest premium top-brand golf balls. I was surprised by the superior quality of the balls that I tested (reviewed at right) and am pleased to say there appears to be no such thing as a poor "high performance" premium golf ball out there. It really boils down to personal tastes.


Hot New High-Performance Balls: Picks and Pans

Callaway Rule 35
The annoying logo—which turns out to be a ball rolling into the cup—was about all I didn't like about the Everyman Rule 35s. Both the Firmfeel and Softfeel were surprisingly long off the tee and provided terrific feel around greens. I was really impressed by the way they kept their shape and didn't scuff on mishits. The blue-logoed Firmfeel turned out to be a superior wind ball, and the red-logoed Softfeel was softer than I imagined it would be. A true "people's ball." Price: $44 per 10-ball pack.
www.callawaygolf.com.

Maxfli Elite
Three-piece wound construction, a proprietary thread over a liquid center, and a soft urethane cover, the company claims, combine to make this ball softer and longer than the Titleist Professional. I played it head-to-head with the Professional and found them very close in quality and overall performance. Supposedly Jack Nicklaus had a hand in designing this ultimate performance ball. I liked almost everything about it—the elegant look, the incredibly soft feel, the way it bore through the wind and landed like a butterfly. Reminded me, nostalgically, of the old Japanese-made HT balatas . . . only maybe even better. Price: $52 per dozen.
www.maxfli.com.

Precept Mc Tour Advantage
This complex Bridgestone Corporation ball features something called a "muscle-fiber" core, an Ionomer inner cover, and a Surlyn outer skin that supposedly maintains its enhanced soft feel without sacrificing distance. I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped to be by this high-performance ball, although Tom Watson is apparently yodeling the praises of Precept, and Bridgestone is believed to be a strong riser in the ball industry. It reminds me of Top-Flite's best-selling Strata Tour Professional ball. Price: $40 per dozen.
www.preceptgolf.com.

Srixon Metal Mix Tour
Although it sounds like the title of a heavy-metal band's upcoming summer tour, this perimeter-weighted three-piece ball, aimed at lower-handicap players, performed better than I expected. It features a new dimple pattern that supposedly promotes a flatter trajectory. The ball spins very well, providing excellent control around greens. On the downside, it felt and sounded far too hard for my tastes on putts. Price: $42 per dozen.
www.srixon.com.

Nike Precision Tour Accuracy
Frankly, with a name like this you'd better hit a lot of greens in regulation, right? This multilayer ball with an oversized, nonwound, "high-energy" core and double cover is certainly packed with plenty of science. It sounds good and flies well. Price: $45 per dozen.
www.nikegolfclub.com

Taylor Made Inergel Tour
Anyone who dares to put gel inside a golf ball shouldn't make fun of a major competitor who's using "lizard DNA," don't you agree? What kind of gel is it, anyway? ("An exclusive copolymer," says the company, "that's both soft and super-resilient at the same time.") Mighty Taylor Made was the first to innovate sealed, factory-fresh golf balls, featuring proprietary moisture-block sleeves, and you do see more and more of these balls actually turning up on Tour. I hate the graphics but like the ball; I'd probably try playing it if I didn't have to look at it. Price: $48 per dozen.
www.taylormadegolf.com.

Wilson Staff Smart-Core Balata Distance
Billed to be "the most serious players' distance ball ever conceived—the longest balata ball ever." First off, folks who still play balata balls—a rapidly thinning herd—don't particularly need to worry about distance, which makes the claim something of a moot point. Still, it's a pretty solid, hard-to-cut, all-purpose ball which could give Callaway a run for the title of a "people's ball." Price: $44 per dozen.
www.wilsonsports.com.

James Dodson covered California's 25 most challenging golf courses for Departures' October issue.

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