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Great Balls of Fire
John Garrity
April 16, 2001
The record-low cut at the Masters was only the latest example of how a hot trend in equipment his affected the Tour
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April 16, 2001

Great Balls Of Fire

The record-low cut at the Masters was only the latest example of how a hot trend in equipment his affected the Tour

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The Revolution

In a year, the wound ball (left) has gone from being the ball of choice to near extinction on Tour. Here is the percentage of pros who played with a wound and a nonwound ball (below, right) at the last two Players Championships.

 

WOUND

NONWOUND

2000

68%

32%

2001

9%

91%

The Players

Six companies dominate the ball count on Tour. Here's the percentage of pros who played each manufacturer's ball in tournaments through the Players Championship in 2000 and in 2001.

 

2000

2001

Titleist

63.5%

56.6%

Nike

5.2%

14.9%

Bridgestone

6.9%

7.5%

Spalding

8.1%

5.9%

Maxfli

9.3%

5.6%

Callaway

3.0%

5.3%

Others

4.0%

4.2%

The Leader

This year on Tour, the players who use a Titleist ball have won 60% of the tournaments. Here's Titleist's winning percentage over the last four years.

 

WINS/EVENTS

WINNING%

1998

30 of 44

68.2%

1999

40 of 46

86.9%

2000*

26 of 42

61.9%

2000?

4 of 6

66.7%

2001

9 of 15

60.0%

*Before introduction of Pro V1
?After introduction of Pro V1

The Man

Here are Tiger Woods's Tour stats for the first four months of 2000, when he used a wound Titleist, and for the rest of the season, when he used a nonwound Nike model.

 

TITLEIST

NIKE

Driving Distance

288.9

305.4

Greens in Regulation

73.6%

76.4%

Putts per GIR

1.748

1.692

Scrambling

64.5%

69.4%

Wins

3

5

The grounds at Augusta National looked the same as usual last week—azaleas, dogwoods and rich green grass—but there were subtle signs that the landscape of golf had changed. The fence on the driving range had been raised 10 feet to keep bombers such as Justin Leonard and Mark Brooks from hitting balls onto Washington Road. The Masters chairman, Hootie Johnson, announced plans to lengthen some of the par-4s so caddies raking greenside bunkers will be safe when Tiger Woods tees off behind them. Someone even suggested putting out warning fliers for spectators: GOLFERS ON TEE ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

To see what was behind these changes, you had to have either a discerning eye or a copy of the Darrell Survey, the weekly tally of the equipment used by touring pros. At the 2000 Masters 59 of 95 players used wound golf balls, which have a core, a layer of tightly wound rubber bands and soft covers—the professional's ball of choice for decades. This year, though, only four players used wound balls, and those who did couldn't have looked more pass� if they had teed up acorns. Twenty-four of the top 25 finishers (the only holdout was Kirk Triplett), including the winner, Tiger Woods, played solid-core balls.

"The wound ball is dead," crowed Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf and one of the suspected assassins. "This is a big technological story. This is deep."

"It's clearly a watershed," agreed Callaway Golf vice president Richard Helmstetter, who called the new balls-especially his company's Rule 35 and the Titleist Pro V1—"shockingly better."

At times the year-old ball wars have been shockingly bitter. Nike, a newcomer to the ball business, captured the high ground last spring when Woods switched from a Titleist wound ball to the solid-core Nike Tour Accuracy and promptly won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight. Competitors huffed that the Tour Accuracy, manufactured for Nike by Bridgestone Sports of Japan, was only a variation of the Bridgestone Precept, a solid-core ball that has been on the market since 1988.

Titleist, the dominant manufacturer of wound balls and the maker of the most-played balls on the Tour, did more than huff and puff. Titleist launched a fall counteroffensive, introducing its Prov1on Tour last October and signing big-money endorsement contracts with Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III. Those signings miffed Titleist top gun David Duval, who went AWOL and cut a deal with Nike. More recently, television golf analyst Johnny Miller—who endorses the Rule 35, a ball similar to the Prov1but developed independently—dismissed the Tour Accuracy as "a dinosaur." That infuriated Nike Golf's president, as did Titleist's claim that the Pro V1 was in the pipeline before Nike ever thought about getting into balls. At a party in Augusta last week, Wood said, "You have all these Titleist players raving about the Pro V1, but that's because they had been playing a piece of s—-, and you can print that."

To the Titleist claim that it tried to sell its players on solid-core balls long before Woods and Duval defected, Wood shot back, "Tiger never hit the Pro V1. Who was Titleist saving it for? Find the guys who tried that ball [before Tiger left] and show them to me. I respect the hell out of Titleist, but when you own the plant and equipment and 60% of your profit comes from wound balls, why change?"

The only thing the ball warriors agree on is this: The new solid-core balls, whatever name is printed on them, fly farther and straighter than any other in the game's history. Mickelson raised eyebrows last fall when he used a Pro V1 to outdrive Fred Couples by about 40 yards a hole in a televised exhibition match. Woods raised warning flags at the British Open when he played four rounds without splashing his Tour Accuracy in one of the Old Course's fabled fairway bunkers. ("That was an absolute joke," Jack Nicklaus said at Augusta. "That golf course withstood the test of time for hundreds of years, and all of a sudden not a bunker was in play, not only for Tiger but also for dozens of other guys.") In February, at the Phoenix Open, Tour veteran Andrew Magee aced a 332-yard par-4—a hole he had never reached from the tee before switching to the Pro V1.

There is statistical evidence to support the anecdotal. Jeff Sluman switched from wound to solid and saw his driving average jump from 265 yards to 278.9. Joe Durant, a two-time winner this year, made the change and went from 272.1 to 281.1. As a group, Tour players are averaging 274.7 off the tee this year. In 2000 they averaged 273.2. As driving distances have gone up, scores have come down. Brad Faxon won the Sony Open with a tournament-record-tying 20 under par. Mark Calcavecchia made 32 birdies at the Phoenix Open and shot the lowest 72-hole total in Tour history. Love shot a final-round 63, the lowest finishing score in tournament history, to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Annika Sorenstam, playing the Rule 35 in Phoenix, shot the first 59 in the history of women's golf and set LPGA scoring records for 36, 54 and 72 holes.

There is testimony. Mickelson says the Prov1is "the best ball that's ever been created" and compares its introduction to that of steel shafts in the '30s. Says Jim Furyk, who plays the Spalding Strata Tour Ultimate, "I've taken it over some doglegs this year that I couldn't in the past." This is obviously the language of commerce-virtually all Tour players have incentive contracts with ball companies—but the hyperbole doesn't seem as forced as usual.

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