Fuzzy Thinking

Fuzzy thinking, even by well-known and respected people is still fuzzy thinking and when the topic is the distance the golf ball goes, fuzzy thinking easily results in a call to “doing something before the game is ruined.”

Respected icons of the game such as Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin have said more than once the problem with golf is the ball goes too far.

Maybe by taking a look at the facts we can sweep away the fuzziness concerning golf ball distance because if we don’t, sure as heck, the fuzzy thinking will eventually prevail.

First, this controversy over technological advancement is not new. It was essentially the same in the nineteen century and rears its head with every major advancement in balls and clubs. If you have some time, look up the evolution of the feathery ball to the gutta percha and then to the rubber-core ball or the story of the Schenectady center-shafted mallet putter being outlawed after Walter Travis used one to win the British Amateur.

The cry was all the fine old courses would be made obsolete because they were too short and no longer challenging or simply improvements in equipment meant the game was becoming too easy. Sound familiar?

Today the distance the golf ball goes is due to vastly improved launch conditions. This began with the introduction of metalwoods and then the development of graphite shafts allowing an increase in size of driver club heads. When titanium heads were introduced makers were able to almost double driver clubhead size again and driver shafts could be made much longer. All of these plus an immense improvement in ball aerodynamics added significant distance with all clubs.

Professionals—the ones fuzzy thinkers believe hit the ball too far—have also benefitted from intensive computer-aided instruction, better physical training and the simple fact a large number of them are taller and bigger than in the past.

Improved equipment and better agronomy have resulted in courses, especially on Tour, playing firmer and faster. Plus we must recognize the desire of operators to have the longest, toughest layout so they can boast of the difficulty for professionals rather than the playability for recreational golfers.

The number of golf courses is steadily decreasing so overall use of the land is not an issue. It is true some “fine old courses” may not have the land to be stretched in order to accommodate the modern professionals but that’s OK. For the average player not every course needs to be like this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills and have the capability to be played to over 8,000 yards.

However, the fact is in 2017 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 291.20 yards, an increase of about one yard in the preceding ten years so there’s been no “distance explosion” in more than a decade.

For recreational players titanium-headed-graphite-shafted drivers and solid-core-low-spinning urethane cover balls have not produced anywhere near the gains in yardage achieved by professionals. Technology has not caused golf handicaps to plummet and the typical male golfer still isn’t hitting the ball over 200 yards–if that.

The rulers of our game don’t seem to understand the problem in terms of the average golfer who occasionally makes a par and buys a celebratory beer when he makes a birdie. Additionally the USGA continues with the idea the ball goes should be reduced while telling weekend warriors to play from a shorter tee set. That’s illogical and a nonstarter.

Of course the culprit most often cited is the Titleist Pro V1 which debuted in the fall 2000 and at once became the most played ball on Tour. Every manufacturer now makes similar balls that are low spinning with urethane covers and solid cores.

The PGA Tour is in the entertainment business and the business model should be what its customers, i.e., golf fans, want. There’s no question we want to see birdies and eagles and drivable par-4s not to mention DJ smoking one 340. In 2007 the scoring average on Tour was 71.34 and this season it is 72.00. In fact going back 20 years the average was 71.77 showing courses aren’t getting easier despite what some would like you to believe.

As Frank Thomas former technical director of the USGA and current golf industry consultant has often said, driving distance has gone as far as it can go because the physics involved are maxed out. Or put another way, you can’t argue with Mother Nature.

Finally, part of the fuzzy thinking can be laid at the doorstep of the media because it’s easy to write that a well-known player, ex-player or some administrator is decrying the state of the game. One headline trumpeted “Great Balls of Fire!” referring to today’s low-spin golf balls. This is a cheap shot displaying a lack of knowledge not to mention an abuse of journalistic standards.

The inescapable conclusion there’s no horrific problem with the distance the golf ball travels. That’s just plain old fuzzy thinking.

And the solution is easy. Do nothing.

The crisis in golf technology or golf ball distance is only in the minds of fuzzy thinkers.

Evaluating Snell’s My Tour Ball

An old friend was on the phone the other day talking about his golf game and asked if I knew anything about the Snell ball. He’s been a scratch player for many years, a loyalist of the ball played by the majority of Tour professionals and had received a sleeve of Snell Golf’s My Tour Ball as a tee gift.

In response to his question I asked if he had played the Snell ball yet and that started a discussion about the MTB in comparison with other premium performance balls, so-called Tour balls. We talked about the construction and the fact Tour balls all have at least three layers and a cast thermoset urethane cover. This type of cover provides excellent control on the shorter scoring shots but is more expensive to manufacture.

The second point we talked about was price, i.e., how much money are you willing to spend relative to the performance you want. Some may decide the out of pocket dollars are the only factor while others may feel purchasing a less expensive ball that doesn’t have the spin characteristics to help scoring is a bad idea. With Tour balls costing from $40 to $48 per dozen the idea a ball that can deliver the same or better performance for $32 is a winner.

Snell Golf’s My Tour Ball fits that description perfectly.

At the PGA Merchandise Show last January company founder Dean Snell told me one of the secrets of the ball business is from the tee all golf balls, i.e., Tour balls or distance balls, go the about the same distance. Manufacturers have figured out how with the longer clubs, specifically the driver, to get soft-cover Tour balls to launch with low spin similar to harder cover distance balls. In contrast to the cast urethane of Tour balls, distance balls have an ionomer or Surlyn cover which is much firmer and spins a lot less which originally gave them added yardage over Tour balls.

Snell also added virtually every ball is at or very close to the limits set by the USGA.

So the difference comes down to how a ball behaves on those short shots around the green. Does it fly high with low spin, hit and roll out or does it come in lower and check? In other words does it act like distance ball or a Tour ball?

We took the opportunity to do a test with a number of average golfers playing Snell’s MTB and reporting back their reactions. Here is a sampling of the unedited comments (except for length) from golfers with handicaps from 2 to 16 after playing the My Tour Ball. They weren’t told up front whether the MTB was a distance ball or Tour ball nor unless they looked it up for themselves, the price.

13 Handicap: “I really liked them they had a great feel and I thought I was hitting a little longer than usual. I am not a great striker but the feel on the club was good. I would buy these balls but again it would depend on cost. If they are a reasonable price I am all in.”

16 Handicap: “I’ve used the Snell balls the last three days. I think they are comparable to the Titleist NXT tour. It’s hard for me to tell about distance, but as for the soft feel in the short game, I thought it was equally as good. If priced right, I would buy them.”

10 Handicap: “It felt the same off the driver, fairway wood as the ball I normally play; Titleist NXT or Top Flite Gamer Tour; Distance off the tee was about the same; I notice no difference when chipping around the green; (Except sometimes I STINK!); I noticed no significant difference with my hybrids or irons.”

14 Handicap: “My observation are that I did hit the Snell ball straighter with less fade than my ball. I found that I experienced less distance with Snell and it did not give me the feeling of popping of the driver head as I am used to. On approach shots I found that Snell did hold the green better than the [Titleist] Velocity. One point of significance is when putting I found that the Snell did not spring off my putter as I am used to with the Velocity. A small point but did notice the difference.”

4 Handicap: “Play Pro V1 or Pro V1x exclusively and could see no difference with driver. Wedges stopped and were easy to control. Will be switching due to price.”

10 Handicap: “Distance seemed to be average, same as NXT Tour which I like to play although the flight path [trajectory] seemed lower. Even though the ball appeared to be solid it felt good off the club and reacted well when hitting the green. Putting, again it felt solid but was very nice to putt with and I sunk several lengthy putts.”

12 Handicap: “Off the tee the Snell was at least 10 yards longer on most drives. Longer carry but roll probably about the same as other balls. I used my GPS to check distances. With the 5 wood and 3 hybrid there was some added distance, but some of that may have been due to a better swing. I did not find any real difference with irons, or my mid length hybrids. With my game, the iron game can be very erratic. Putting would take more study to determine any difference between balls. I do not think my skill level could tell any difference.”

6 Handicap: “The Snell ball is as good as the Pro V1 or Chrome Soft I usually buy.”

2 Handicap: “Have worked through a dozen Snell’s and I’m hitting it higher, therefore longer, with all clubs. 5-10 yards longer off tee and ½ to 1 club longer with irons. It’s a keeper, at least for me.”

So how good is the MTB? Each of us has to decide but I have seen data for pitch shots showing the $32 per dozen MTB has similar spin rates and as flat a trajectory as any of the Tour balls.

Snell has worked in the ball business for almost 30 years, first for Titleist and then for TaylorMade. Snell Golf was started in 2015 as a low budget operation with Snell himself doing the design, overseeing of manufacturing and most of the administrative duties. He shared with me that many times he enlisted family and friends to spend their evenings in his kitchen putting together sample packages of balls. The company has grown exponentially since that modest beginning but it’s still not huge and sells only over the Internet at SnellGolf.com. Snell confided he is working on further refinements of both the MTB and the two-piece Surlyn cover Get Sum ball which sells for $21 per dozen.

Can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Images courtesy of Snell Golf

Another PGA Show in the Books

After covering the PGA Merchandise Show for more than 20 years the variety of products still amazes me and particularly the new items from the latest in tech gadgets to ways to more efficiently attach things to your golf bag.

The 64th industry-only Show concluded last Friday its three day run in the Orange County Convention Center located in suburban Orlando. As always it was preceded by the Demo Day to beat all demo days for PGA Professionals and the media at the Orange County National Golf Center’s immense range.

For the week the event that grabbed the most attention was the announcement by TaylorMade-adidas Golf CEO David Abeles just after Show doors opened the first day of the signing of Tiger Woods to an endorsement contract. It created a buzz overshadowing a later announcement by Callaway Golf that Michelle Wie had become a part of their staff.

Reed Expositions, who run the Show, have not released attendance yet but many old timers felt the numbers may have been down from the last couple of years. However, with 1 million square feet of exhibit space and 10 miles of aisles not counting the dozens of off floor meeting rooms, it’s hard to tell. What is for sure is the number of exhibitors remained approximately the same as the past three years—around 1,000—with 271 first time exhibitors. Reed said the number of PGA Professional in attendance increased three percent to more than 7,500.

This is the largest meeting of the golf industry or as they say, the “Major of the Golf Business” and this is certainly true though some well-known companies were absent, in a couple of cases conspicuously absent. Nike Golf of course was not exhibiting clubs since they have closed their club and ball business to concentrate on golf apparel but Nike apparel was a no show as well. Ben Hogan Golf, after an effort to reinvigorate the iconic brand was not present and this week declared bankruptcy.

Less surprising was the absence of PXG owned by Bob Parsons who has said publicly the buyers and PGA Professionals coming to Orlando are not the target market for his ultra-expensive clubs with a set listing at over $5,000. Also among the missing were Mizuno Golf, Bridgestone, True Temper and Aldila.

Among the major items attracting attention were drivers from Wilson Golf (Triton), Callaway (Great Big Bertha Epic), TaylorMade (M1 and M2), Cobra (King F7 and F7+) and Titleist (917 D2 and D3). New golf balls included the Callaway Chrome Soft X, TaylorMade TP5 and TP5x, Volvik S4 White, Srixon Z-Star/Z-Star XV and Titleist’s latest Pro V1 and Pro V1x.

There were 423 companies in the apparel category, a number that continues to grow along with the size of their displays. Services plus accessories seem to be about the same, perhaps with slight growth, which means the club company portion of the Show is declining since the total number of exhibitors remains the same. However, the club category includes companies from the largest multi-line manufacturers to grip, shaft and ferrule makers and one-of putter producers.

Besides the Woods/TMaG announcement often heard discussed on the floor, in the media center and after hours was the non-sale of TMaG which has been on the block since last May. Parent adidas hasn’t said a word and no buyers have been forthcoming though a rumor that Woods and Michael Jordan were interested was thoroughly discredited. With business a little better and a Tiger in the stable might adidas consider keeping the top metal wood maker?

Another oft heard comment there has been no superhot-must-have product introduced and there are a couple of reasons why. Club companies all use top flight technology already so the spread in club performance has narrowed plus restrictions on allowable performance by the USGA has definitely put a damper on innovation. But probably the biggest reason, and golf club designers have known this for some time, products were reaching both the USGA limits and limits imposed by the laws of physics. Change therefore is more incremental rather than a “breakthrough.”

Individual golfers still will gain the most benefit and better performance for them by using custom fitted clubs.

In the golf business orders are often written before the Show so the purchase cycle is not as dependent on face to face meetings as once was the case with possibly the exception of soft goods. The focus of the Show has changed to placing a major emphasis on the continuing education courses for PGA Professionals.

For most attendees though it is a worldwide and industrywide meet-and-greet with a sprinkling of deal making. Costs of attending are high, booth space is expensive and even large companies must figure how to get the most return from the expense. This is not a negative but something that needs to be continually acknowledged and improved by the PGA and Reed Expositions.

One Less Slice to the Pie

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The golf equipment industry is evaluating the potential effects of Nike Golf announcing Aug. 3 it would getting out of the club, ball and bag business to concentrate on its golf apparel lines including ones under the Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie brand names. Club manufacturers have spent the last several years trying to find ways to increase sales and now the slice of the pie that belonged to Nike is up for grabs.

The question is what the remaining club companies will do to take over Nike’s share of the market and if the strategy involves reduction in the prices of clubs to attract sales the golf consumer could benefit.

Nike is the smallest of the big four by a significant margin with sales of $706 million this past fiscal year trailing Callaway Golf ($844 million sales in 2015), TaylorMade-adidas Golf ($989 million) and Acushnet ($1.5 billion).

However the scrum for the sales that had been going to Nike will take place in a muddy field.

There is uncertainty surrounding the two largest companies. Acushnet, the parent of Titleist and FootJoy, has registered with the Security and Exchange Commission to make an offering of stock to the public. Adidas has put its TaylorMade Golf division with the Adams Golf and Ashworth brands up for sale though details of any potential deal are unknown.

Smaller companies are also making moves that add to the list of possible outcomes such as Srixon’s Cleveland brand changing focus to wedges and putters while Srixon and their upscale XXIO lines market woods and irons. Tour Edge Golf has increased efforts to further penetrate the market for irons with well received new models.

Undecided for now is the fate of Tour players who endorse the Swoosh clubs and the list starts with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie but also includes veteran Paul Casey and rising stars Tony Finau and Bruce Koepka. Woods has said he is actively looking for a new relationship with a club company with the mostly likely candidate could be Acushnet-Titleist since longtime rival Phil Mickelson is the chief spokesman for Callaway and the question marks surrounding the sale of TaylorMade.

Jordan Spieth endorses Titleist clubs and golf balls but is contracted with Under Armour for apparel.

Additionally, money paid to endorse a given club line has been put under close scrutiny by every manufacturer as profits have shrunk. The huge sums Nike has paid in the past for marquee stars are most likely not part of the equation. It has been reported Woods earns $50 million annually from Upper Deck, Rolex and Nike endorsements even though he has not played a single event in the past year. Woods’ Nike deal includes both equipment and apparel.

Three years ago McIlroy signed a 10-year deal for between $200 and $250 million according to published stories including apparel as well as equipment.

Titleist NXT Tour & NXT Tour S

NXT_Tour_TourS_ Pkg_640x445Every golfer knows the Pro V1 and Prov1x are flagships for the Titleist brand. Because of their performance they are number one in sales and at the same time the most expensive ball on the market. But, however dominant the Pro V1 franchise is, Titleist does make other models and stablemates NXT Tour and NXT Tour S should not be overlooked.
NXTs are both less expensive and a different construction than Pro V1s but for average golfers their performance certainly makes them worth a look. We conducted trials of both NXTs with four golfers having a range of handicaps playing under a variety of conditions.
First let’s deal with the price. At my local golf shop a dozen Pro V1 or Pro V1xs are $48. NXT Tour or NXT Tour S are $35. That’s a difference of just over a dollar per ball so, keeping in mind there are some inherent performance differences, should the price differential be important to you the decision is easy.
The next reasonable question is, “what’s the difference between the two NXTs and how is it significant?”
NXT_Tour_TourS_cutawayThe NXT Tour is a three-piece construction with a two layer core and Titleist’s Fusablend cover of 302 dimples in a complex tiled octahedral pattern. Fusablend is their propriety formulation and is softer than the Surlyn used for many other non-Tour category ball covers. The NXT Tour S is a two-piece ball with a somewhat softer Fusablend cover compared to the Tour but with the same dimple design.
Based on the construction the NXT Tour should be longer off the driver because of less spin, have a higher trajectory than the NXT Tour S and run out more on the green.
The results from our average players were interesting. They used both the white and yellow colors in the Tour S but only white in the Tour because it doesn’t come in yellow. Each of the four liked the yellow’s increased visibility even to the point of saying not only was it easier to see but in one case commenting the color gave him some added confidence.
Each player thought the Tour was longer than the Tour S though without actual measurements all agreed the difference wasn’t large. The comparative amount of check or roll out was judged by two of the players (15 and 18 handicaps) to be about the same but the five and 12 handicappers both thought there was discernably more spin on short shots with the Tour S. This seems to make sense due to the softer cover of the Tour S and the fact it even felt softer for most every shot.
The 12 handicapper said of the NXT Tour, “For my particular game this ball was long off the tee, great for my second shot and had tremendous feel around the greens. I particularly noticed that it reacted very well with wedge shots around the green.”
Comparing the two the 15 handicap wrote in an email, “Both the NXT Tour and the NXT Tour S Yellow seem to go about the same distance for me. The rest of the performances seem to be equal and I like both, but prefer the yellow Tour S.”
The conclusion is if the NXT Tour and Tour S are a fit for your wallet there is no question they are quality golf balls with performance that will complement most anyone’s game. As a side benefit, the yellow color for the Tour S may even be a visual aid as well.
Images Courtesy of Titleist

Recycled Golf Balls – Less Expensive Performance?

PickedBalls_1500x844We put recycled 2016 model Titleist Pro V1x golf balls from LostGolfBalls.com head to head with those fresh from Acushnet and can confirm what others have previously reported. There was no measurable difference in distance nor trajectory for every club in the bag from driver through wedges.
So why is that significant?
There’s really two reasons. Golfers play used golf balls because after one hole every ball is “used” to some degree and some golfers even play them exclusively. You know, those “previously loved” ones lost by others often in a watery grave.
Secondly, the question of how much the performance is compromised by spending time in a water hazard appears to be answered. If the ball is relatively a recent water resident most of us will find it still plays just fine. Having said that, if you’re getting ready to tee it up in your first professional major or maybe just the club championship no one would dispute spending the money for new ones.
Also, the reason we tested recycled Titleist Pro V1s is obvious. They are the bestselling new ball and according to Gary Kruegar, CEO of LostGolfBalls.com, Pro V1s and Pro V1xs are the ones most requested by his customers, “By far the most popular. There isn’t even a close second.”
Kruegar also told us that though the number of lost balls in the U.S. is immense, “No one is sure [and] 200 to 300 million seems to be an estimated range.
His company recycles—which means washes, inspects and grades–some 43 million golf balls per year and there is also a thriving business in refurbished golf balls, those that have had the cover treated to remove stains and/or repainted.
Recognizing that the island par-3, number 17 at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla., is the site of a guesstimated 140,000 lost balls per year where does LostGolfBalls.com get its raw product from? Again Gary Kruegar, “Our largest retrieval operation is in California, with Texas and Florida close behind. Bandon Dunes, Hazeltine, TPC Scottsdale, and PGA West, Champions Golf Club are some big names.”
Bottom line, Kruegar sells first quality—meaning virtually no blemishes, no scuffs–2016 model Titleist Pro V1s and Pro V1xs for $26.99 discounted to $21.59 plus shipping which depending on where you live probably takes the cost per dozen to around $30. Order two dozen and the cost per drops to about $26. The local golf shop is selling new ones for $47.99 per dozen. It’s your decision.

10 Rounds with Callaway Chrome Soft

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Back last year when I first heard of Callaway Golf’s Chrome Soft golf ball it didn’t strike me as anything special but as more information became available my interest grew. It really got my attention when Callaway people explained the technology behind the new ball saying this will be a “game-changer for them.”

We are used to thinking low compression golf balls while having a softer feel didn’t go as far as those with a firmer feel. Ladies and seniors played the lower compression models since they couldn’t get the distance benefits of high compression golf balls due to their slower swing speeds. Since the introduction of multi-layer solid core balls like the Titleist ProV1 the spread of performance has widened but everyone acknowledged it would be nice to add the softer feel of low compression golf balls to the distance gains of solid core construction.

Building a ball with a very soft core meant, especially with longer clubs, though the spin rate was lower the core didn’t react fast enough to produce distance.

According to Callaway that was true until now. Hex_Control_2pk_LID_rev_FRENCH-ENG_v3

The 3-piece Chrome Soft is billed to have a soft feel and still produce the distance, high ball speed and low spin with their aptly named “SoftFast Core” and a urethane cover.

During February and March I took them to the course for an extended trial and as it turned out, though my northern friends were envious, played them in four southern states for a total 16 rounds.

The questions everyone immediately asks are, “How long were they? Did they go as far as a Pro V1?”

The answer is the Chrome Softs were long, certainly comparable to every other golf ball model including the Titleist’s Pro V1 we have reviewed and certainly within the variability inherent in my very average swing. Coincidentally, we received unsolicited samples from another manufacturer of a “distance and feel” ball and took them along with the Callaway’s on a trip to Georgia.

No contest, the “distance and feel” ball didn’t have anywhere near the “distance” of the Chrome Soft and the “feel” around the greens was like a rock while the Chrome Soft showed control properties we really appreciated. The comments from friends to whom I gave sample sleeves (usually two sleeves so they would have an extended opportunity to make their evaluation) were positive and two of them said they liked the Chrome Soft so much in comparison to their usual brand they would be switching.

Negatives. On some downwind shots, particularly with a driver, it seemed as though the Chrome Soft though hit well, fell out of the air very quickly. Admittedly this is a subjective impression but it happened on more than one occasion. Unfortunately in each case when that happened circumstances were such it wasn’t possible to hit additional tee shots so this remains an impression only worth mentioning in passing.

Secondly some may object to the price but at $38 dozen the Chrome Soft are $10 less than market leader ProV1 and $7 less than the Bridgestone B330-RX series.

Recommendation. The Callaway Chrome Soft is really worth trying and I believe you will be happy with the results.