Titleist recently launched its range of golf balls for 2016 and I caught up with Matt Hogge, R&D Director of Golf Ball Implementation to find out the differences between them and to discuss the process that goes into the design and manufacturing of golf balls.
Hi Matt. With a lot of the golf balls we’ve seen released lately softness seems to be a theme and I see within the 2016 range there is a new soft ball with the DT TruSoft?
What we’ve been doing over a period of years, and we’ll start with DT TruSoft, is our response after working for two and a half to three years to really understand what the DT golfer who is asking for soft is looking for.
It is not just the DT golfer that has been asking for soft feel and in 2012 we introduced the NXT Tour S that was a softer construction, followed that up with the 2013 the Pro V1 and Pro V1x that was a softer construction than in 2011. The 2015 Pro V1 and Pro V1x was softer in the cover, so there has been this progression of other things in the industry from all golfers who have been telling us “hey can you soften it up a bit?”.
So our response and our ability, because we manufacture our own product, has been to put the softest solid core construction we have ever made in the DT TruSoft and combine that with the softest ionomer cover that we have ever produced and put those two things together.
We call it “softer than soft” and you get a great feeling ball that has low spin and long distance because we have flighted the ball down a bit. So if someone is playing DT Solo and they’re looking to see if the TruSoft will work for them then yes is the answer, because we pick all our dimensions and design and construct in house so that we didn’t give up anything on the short game.
That is the challenge with a lot of the constructions that go softer simply by lowering the compression and making no other changes - you will lose spin in the long game but you will lose it in the short game as well. At Titleist it is imperative to us to keep the short game shots as the ones that we think are the most critical.
We sent out 1000’s of sleeves of the prototype for DT TruSoft and it was validated with golfers who picked it saying that it was the ball they wanted to play.
You mentioned flighting the ball down. How did you do that?
One of things that we have at the Acushnet company is the capability to design our own aerodynamic packages. We determine the dimple placement as well as the depth of the dimples so the aerodynamic pattern on the DT TruSoft is a 376 tetrahedral dimple design with a stagger wave parting line and one way to lower ball flight is to make the dimples a little deeper and if you do that in combination with the construction of the ball you get a slightly lower ball flight, which gives longer distance.
We hear a lot that people are asking for soft balls, but is that right thing to be asking for and are players really qualified to ask for that?
Well what we mean when we say people are asking for soft is that feel that is a golfer preference. So when we start talking about soft, yes, it can be the right thing to ask for depending upon what they are specifically looking for. A perfect example of that is our new NXT Tour and NXT Tour S balls.
After we launched the previous models we asked golfers playing these balls what they prioritised in their game and who do you think should play it and why? So regardless of which ball they came back and said they played either the NXT Tour or the NXT Tour S because it helped them shoot lower scores.
We identified NXT Tour players needed and wanted more distance and the golfers who picked NXT Tour S said they were looking for softer feel. So we said OK, we believe we can do that and that is what we have done for the latest models.
For the NXT Tour we have increased the size of the dual core so it is 1.58 inches in diameter and in the prior generation the centre was just under an inch and now it is 1.13 inches, which is a 66% increase by volume.
When you have a dual core you can put a firmer layer over the top and have a softer inside to the core. If you have firm over soft that is a way to reduce spin that in turn gives you longer distance.
We have the same Fusablend cover that we used in the prior generation and kept our aerodynamic package the same so by reducing the spin, which naturally lowers the flight as there is not as much lift, we get longer distance and we see that on our full swing shots and off the tee.
So if you reverse that and have soft over firm does that increase the spin?
Absolutely. Soft over firm will increase the spin.
And if you made the firmer layer larger would that also increase the spin?
Exactly. If you decrease the contribution of the softer centre, where the prior generation had a smaller centre compared to the larger centre in this generation, it would have more spin. So that is the lever that we chose to use. There are lots of levers, there are cover materials, there are dimensions, there are different raw materials and all of those things play into how the golf balls behave.
For NXT Tour S because the players asked for softer feel we decreased the core compression by 10% and simultaneously, because that core compression alone would have taken too much spin out of the ball, we added some softening polymers to our Fusablend cover, which we designed at the Acushnet company and have been using on our NXT products for almost 13 years now, and that softening of the cover gave us the balance that we were looking for.
So we tested golfers with the leading prototype, which they didn’t know at the time, and elements of that became the NXT Tour S and they validated for us the fact that they liked the softer feel.
Is there a trade off between soft feel and performance?
Well we don’t see it as a trade-off. What you are trying to determine is what is important to you. A trade-off implies that you are going to give something up, so if we are going to talk overall distance all Titleist golf balls are within 5 yards of each other.
So it’s not a sliding scale?
It’s fun to think of it that way, but it doesn’t actually work that way in design because you can control all the variables. In the case of Titleist Velocity we just made its engine larger and by making that core larger and thinning out the cover material. So using the same LSX core technology but larger and with a slightly thinner cover we were able to increase distance and still deliver the high launch angle that gives the steep angle of descent and the short game feel in the Velocity’s case.
If you didn’t make other changes it might be a sliding scale, but we are pulling more than one lever at the same time so we don’t have to compromise the performance in any one area in a trade-off scenario.
I’ve heard from Titleist before that if money is no object the Pro V1 would be the best ball for everybody. Obviously that is firmer relative to the balls we have been speaking about, so is that firmer in terms of feel or compression?
Well, compression is a tricky thing so everyone within the industry does not use the same measurement.
Which one do you use? The PGA measure?
PGA is actually a company who made a device for the PGA hence the name rather than an official device. We use an electronic version of the Atti compression gauge and Atti was a Doctor who was asked in the late 1920’s to come up with a way for golf ball equipment manufacturers to determine how tight the windings were on any given ball.
There were two springs in an Atti compression gauge and once you got adequate load on the first and second you were able to determine by how much deflection of the sphere you were able to get a number and it was from 0-200 originally.
What is interesting about Atti’s gauge was that it was very size dependent. It was fixated at 1.68” but if your sphere or whatever your were measuring was not 1.68” you had to alter it to get it to be that size by adding little metal blocks.
For us when talking about compression we want to make sure that people understand that it is a metric that we use as a golf equipment manufacturer to help us make golf balls, but in the grand scheme of things I can give you relative compression but that is not the only thing people use to determine feel.
One of the first things Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and Justin Thomas do is bounce the ball on their wedge and they listen to the sound and then they hit some putts and that helps them determine feel. Well that feedback is mainly from the cover construction that is making their feel decision for them and that has very little to do with the overall construction or compression of the ball.
Hands down Pro V1 and Pro V1x we would say are the best balls for most golfers because that puts performance at a premium and would help you shoot lower scores because of the Thermoset urethane elastomer cover that we have on those balls enables you to get the bite on the shorter shots, get it close to the pin and knock your putts in.
When you step away from Pro V1 and Pro V1x you are beginning to make preferences that are initially not based on performance such as price, feel, colour, play number selection, which are all things that we value and when golfers make those choices we want to make sure there is a Titleist golf ball for them.
With soft balls my understanding, at least historically, was that there was a swing speed above which they didn’t perform as well and the distance started to drop off. So if you’re swinging above that should you be switching into a Pro V1 or Pro V1x?
Well let’s talk about that. A guy who has a swing speed of let’s say 95 mph or so will have a ball speed of close to 150mph so he is hitting it about 250 yards from the tee. If he is able to hit it 250 to 260 off the tee he is going to have a shorter club in his hand on his approach shot assuming that it’s a 400 yard par 4.
His best opportunity is not going to be with a soft golf ball it is going to be with a Pro V1 or a Pro V1x because it has the most ability to control the shot due to the urethane cover that allows him to get the spin characteristics to shape the shot and get it close to the hole without having to worry about too much release and that is all because of the urethane cover technology.
So the softer balls don’t have that urethane cover?
No the softer products, the NXT Tour and NXT Tour S, have a Fusablend cover that we designed in house. The Velocity is an ionomer cover as is DT TruSoft. The cover in DT TruSoft is extremely soft and that is how, for the soft ball, we are able to give spin and control around the green because that cover is so soft relative to the core, which again goes back to that relationship if you put soft over something slightly firmer on the inside then you will get an increase in spin, which is part of that balance that we are looking for.
Has it been improvements in construction capability or is it advances in material technology that has enabled you to make golf balls softer?
It is a little bit of both too be honest. We have an R&D team of over 80 people and their a combination of material scientists, golf ball designers, aerodynamicists, physicists and a variety of other engineering and science backgrounds and when you combine that with some of the best golf ball making technicians, the people who are day in, day out, making the balls in accordance with what the R&D scientists are asking for.
In all cases it is not one individual, it is everybody working as a team so it is taking the newer raw materials that we are screening, it is looking at different dimensions that we are trying to push. For example the core centre size we talked about on the NXT Tour was 8 years in development.
We were looking at different centre size mounds and cavities and trying to figure out what is the right dimension relationship for the outer core to the centre, which lever do we need to pull with our rubber compositions, how much Fusablend should we actually use in this cover material so it is not one thing, at least for us, because we are so built on making sure we are the leader going into the future.
So what would happen if a new material came along during that 8 year cycle of development. Would you need to go back to the beginning?
Well the job of the R&D guys is to firstly engage the golfer and make sure they have a good relationship with what the golfer actually wants and secondly look at the technologies that are available in materials and construction and aerodynamics and then say ok how can be put those together to give these golfers want they want.
As scientists we know that you are going to get it wrong 99% of the time and are used to a high failure rate in the development process. What we are talking about today are our success stories, these are the 1%. Is that failure rate bad? No it’s OK because this year we have the NXT Tour, NXT Tour S, Velocity, DT Trusoft and Pinnacle balls to validate that when we do it right golfers will buy our products, play better golf and be happy and then buy them again.
The way we do it, and we are unsure how the rest of the industry does it, is we engage the golfer, we make prototypes, we test them on our in house equipment, we then get to a stage where we think we have something that may work, we’re constantly look at the surveys we get from golfers, we then go out to them and test the new prototypes extensively with them one on one to understand properly if are getting it right.
We have got it wrong and had to go back from the player testing stage and do it again. In the case of DT TruSoft we had a ball that we thought was correctly answering that market two years ago and we brought it out and did a lot of player testing with it and realised we didn’t have a ball that answered what they were asking for so we go back and we have to do it again.
Does that sort of thing happen a lot?
It has happened in manufacturing where we thought we had our process figured out and we have started to scale up and then realised this isn’t what we intended to make and then we destroy all of those golf balls. We’ve destroyed tens of thousands of dozens to be honest, because that is part of our process to make sure that we get the final product right. That is the benefit of us owning our own equipment and our own manufacturing facility and not being tied to a third party distributor.