Callaway recently launched the 2016 version of its Chrome Soft golf ball and I met Dave Bartels, Senior Director of Golf Ball Research & Development, to learn about how soft golf balls work and the improvements in design and manufacturing that make them possible.
Hi Dave. Do you think golf balls are getting softer and if so why is that?
They are definitely getting softer and a lot of that is due to the materials and the processes of manufacturability of golf balls has got better, so basically the engineering of golf balls has improved over the years.
We’ve seen since we launched the Rule 35 golf ball back in 2000, the red version was about 105 compression and the blue version was about 95, now we are looking at balls that are about 75 compression.
The question we always ask ourselves is why you would play a firm ball? A lot of people would say, well, because I get more distance with a firm ball and I’m willing to sacrifice feel to get more distance.
So we feel like we’ve developed a golf ball, particularly with Chrome Soft, and I think the industry is going in this direction, where you don’t have to sacrifice that type of distance with a soft golf ball. You still get the benefits of the feel and the spin around the green but if you get the distance of a firm ball in a soft compression then why wouldn’t you play a soft golf ball?
Is there a trade-off between the performance of soft against firmer ball and if so, is there a swing speed it comes in at?
Well, what happens is when you have a soft golf ball and you hit it with a club is it deforms and some of that deformation through frictional heat is released so you actually lose energy if the ball deforms more. So we’ve done a lot of work in our materials development to try and develop a core especially, but materials generally, that when they deform they don’t lose as much energy.
When you talk to somebody like a Tour player who swings at 120mph, they will see a slight decrease in ball speed due to a softer construction. You can put it on Trackman and show people that. It is actually fairly marginal and not too bad, but the benefit begins with lower spin from softer balls.
Generally speaking lower spin means more distance and faster ball speed means more distance so with a really high club head speed with a driver you will see a small speed deficit, but you will gain that with the low spin.
What we have found is that through the bag, with you irons in particular, you can swing as hard as you can with your six iron and the soft construction golf ball, because it deforms and springs back to shape, it actually goes faster with irons than with a firmer ball, so you get a double effect there with the speed and the spin benefits.
That is why most people see distance gains with their irons with the softer balls and also they will see distance increases at the slower head speeds with the driver.
So for a professional golfer you are getting the benefit from lower spin from the driver and from lower compression in the irons?
Yes that is simple way to put it for a professional golfer. For someone who swings 90mph or 70mph and lower, the deformation and resilience in the soft compression ball actually helps from a ball speed standpoint.
Do you have a number at where that effect comes into play?
If the average golfer is around 90mph you see the benefit there and the benefit increases as the swing speed decreases from there. I think the reason that the Chrome Soft has been so successful in the market place is that you get such a spin benefit of the soft construction over the firmer construction off the tee.
I sort of feel that around 90-95mph is kind of where it is, so is this why your faster speed amateurs are maybe not playing it?
We have quite a few amateurs with higher head speeds playing the Chrome Soft and we have Tour players playing the ball right now as designed. The Tour player who doesn’t play it right now would be somebody who has fairly low spin already with a high club head speed.
I think with Chrome Soft in trying to design a golf ball that is right for everyone we have done that best job possible, but it is not 100% of golfers who find the right combination.
What specific advances in technology have made this move to lower compression possible?
Part of it is the rubber materials and the core chemistry. Lots of people use rubber, but there are different types of rubber and different advancements in how you combine the various chemicals to create the core recipe.
On top of that one of the advancements we have made over the last few years is our ability to inject a mould in very thin layers, so when you have a really soft core and you are trying to mould a mantle cover over that there is pressure when you are injecting that layer and it has a tendency to squeeze the core so you end up making it thicker to compensate for that.
So the fact that we have been able to engineer better tooling and processes around the construction has really allowed the golf balls to come down in compression because you don’t have as much thickness in the firmer layers of the golf balls.
We sometimes see softer golf balls at the lower price points in ranges, but if money was no object in your range what would be the best ball for golfers?
We feel 100% that Chrome Soft is the best ball for golfers. Last year when we came out with the Chrome Soft it was our second year of the Speed Regime and there are definitely aerodynamic benefits you can build into the ball if you know if the golfer is a low, medium or high speed player.
However, the difficulty we have with that is trying to communicate that to golfers. Golfers have a tough time in the limited time they have shopping for golf balls understanding and matching the best ball for their swing speed.
So we decided to make the best aerodynamic for this type of golf ball and put all of our technology in one construction and launch that because it would be the best performing golf ball for the vast majority of players and that ball was the original Chrome Soft.
That was 2015, so in 2016 we are coming back with a ball that has a Dual SoftFast Core. We have been developing dual core technology for years now and we feel like we that is a higher technology so we ended up deciding to put that all into the ball right now and see if we could do that in a way that we could price them under $40 dollars per dozen in the US because honestly we feel that the Tour balls are overpriced.
Part of the stigma we have is that it is a lower priced ball and players think they should play a ball that is a higher price as they must be better, but that is a total fallacy. We’ve tried to battle that by trying to promote and advertise the Chrome Soft by showing that Tour players and better amateurs play Chrome Soft and win tournaments with Chrome Soft and have great success with a golf ball that is under $40 per dozen. We feel like nobody else is in that space and we think it is a better product.
What is the advantage of having a dual core?
The difficulty with a dual core is it is hard to manufacture and design which is why we didn’t launch it with the original Chrome Soft ball, but the advantage is that it gives us another lever to design the golf ball in terms of how to control the performance of the ball.
The overall core is the same size as the single core, but now we have added an inner core within that. They are both made from rubber type materials but it allows us to make the inner core really soft and the outer core a little firmer so that when you hit it with the driver it compresses more and the inner core plays a bigger role, so you can control lower spin off the driver. When you get to your 8,9 irons and wedges the outer core helps the ball maintain its shape and lets the player generate more spin. It gives you what we call spin separation from tee to green.
So do you design golf balls for drivers or for irons?
Well personally for all the clubs. Golf balls are all about trade-off's so if you have a 3-piece ball what are you going to trade? Do you want low spin with the driver and sacrifice some spin around the green or vice versa? The dual core 4-piece balls like the 2016 Chrome Soft give you another variable to play with to try and minimise any compromises that you have to make.