TaylorMade's 2016 golf ball line-up saw its three premium balls getting softer. I caught up with Eric Loper, TaylorMade Director of Golf Ball R&D, to find out why that is and if there is a performance benefit in softer golf balls.
Hi Eric. It seems that everybody is talking about getting softer. Are they?
Yes, I think everyone is getting softer. I would say it has been a trend that’s been happening in the last couple of years, but it really started back in the early 2000’s with the Maxfli Noodle and the Precept MC Lady. This is when we first saw 2-piece golf balls move into the softer state and people buying those golf balls got used to buying those lower and lower compression golf balls and I think what is happening in the last two years is companies are trying to bring their higher performing products and make those softer.
So the Callaway Chrome Soft that launched last year was 65 to 70 compression and they are trying to bridge that gap and we are trying to do the same with the Project (a), where we have retained the same great greenside control that the amateur player needs but we are making it a lot softer. So with the Project (a) we are dropping the compression down from 88 to 70 and we are doing so through the core and it’s going to feel a lot softer - dropping the compression of the core immediately translates into softer feel.
The challenge is doing it in a way where you can still give players performance. When you look at the marketplace as a whole you have golf balls that are in the 30 compression range and they are going to be 2-piece golf balls and they are certainly going to feel soft, but they are not necessarily going to perform, they are not going to give you Tour calibre greenside spin.
So that is the sacrifice and they are also in the low $20 per dozen range, so you get what you pay for when you look at the marketplace. The more you spend typically the better control you are going to get into the green and around the green. Really with the Project (a) since we have used that soft cast urethane cover and with the lower core compression we are giving the players a softer feel while still maintaining that great greenside control and it is going to be long off the tee.
You mentioned price there. Is this a trade-off between materials in some of the softer balls and price, as it seems that a lot of the softer balls are the cheaper ones?
I think the reason some of the softer balls are cheaper is because the ones at that end of the market are 2-piece designs and 2-piece golf balls are going to be cheaper than a 3-piece ball. All the extremely soft balls, like the Wilson Duo and the Callaway Super Soft, the balls that are less than 50 compression, those balls in the lower price point are 2-piece.
The Project (a) is a 3-piece cast urethane covered golf ball and it has the potential to be used on Tour as it has the same cover used on our Tour Preferred balls and you are going to have to pay for it. When you look at the marketplace the more you pay the more control you get.
Is there a trade-off between soft feel and performance especially in relation to swing speed because it seems to me in the past that above say 90-95 mph there was a drop off in performance. Is that right?
What we have done on our Tour Preferred line is we have kept the Tour Preferred X at 87 compression whilst giving the golfer great greenside control through the softer cover. In the Tour Preferred however we have dropped the compression of the golf ball and we did so through the use of a new material in the speed mantle which makes it much more flexible.
That translates into the lower compression and the softer feel but the material rebound of both the new and the old mantle are the same so we are able to drop the compression of the golf ball without losing any speed off the tee. So on our Tour Preferred line though there is the standard 4-piece ball and a 5-piece X ball. Both of those golf balls are good for anyone, but especially if you are a higher swing speed player.
With the Project (a) because it is a 70 compression if you are a high swing speed player you are going to lose some speed off the tee compared to using one of the Tour Preferred balls. With higher swing speeds, and I am talking 105 mph and up which is pretty fast, you are going to compress the softer golf ball too much and the more deformation the more energy loss there is so you do lose speed and that is why players on Tour don’t play a low compression golf ball because they typically have higher swing speeds.
Is the speed loss a question of how much it compresses or how quickly it reforms?
It’s both. The more it compresses the slower it is going to reform. I often get asked the question if I have a slower swing speed do I benefit from using a lower compression ball and the technical answer is no. However you do get a softer feel and players value feel almost more than distance and/or control around the greens, so the sound of the golf ball is extremely important to the consumer and that is why we are lowering the compression of our golf balls because that is what the customer wants.
Especially if you are in that $20 per dozen category and you are playing a ball that is a 40 compression it is hard to go up to a ball that is 90 compression. That is a big gap there and that ball is going to feel hard, so to have a golf ball in the 70 range is good for that type of amateur player.
You mentioned the slower swinging players. Why wouldn’t they want a slightly firmer ball than that?
They could. If you have a swing speed less than 105 mph you could play our Tour Preferred X, the Tour Preferred or the Project (a), it just depends what type of feel you are looking for. Do you want something soft or do you like the feedback? There are reasons people like forged irons versus cavity back, but if your handicap is higher and you typically like cavity backs because they are a little more forgiving and similarly a softer feeling golf ball may give a perception of being more forgiving.
So for everybody in that swing speed range from about 90 to 105 mph all of the balls will be as good as each other on a performance basis and it is really down to feel and how much you want to spend?
Yes that is right and the differences between the Tour Preferred balls and the Project (a) are also to do with iron spin. The softer our golf ball is, the Project (a) for example, it is going to spin more. So it also comes down to what sort of iron performance you are looking for.
If you are a lower swing speed player and you do spin the ball, which is definitely possible, then the Tour Preferred X could be a better ball for you. It really comes down to what you prefer - do you want softer feel or do you value iron control more?
It’s been said to us you should fit the ball to the irons and then fit the driver to the ball. Do you agree with that?
Yes definitely. Generally all golf balls are going to relatively equal off the tee. All golf balls have measurable distance gains over the competition, but we don’t recommend fitting to that as the distances are all within 5-7 yards, which you shouldn't give up, but you shouldn't pick a ball based on that 7 yards. For example if you pick a 2 piece distance ball it might give you that 7 yards from the tee, but it is not going to give you any control into and around the green so it really depends what you are looking for.
Have there been any specific advances in materials or construction technology that have allowed you to make the balls softer?
It is a combination of developing new materials and figuring out where they should be used. So on our new spin mantle, which is more flexible but still resilient, it is a case of where do we use it and with the Tour Preferred we ended up using it on that layer just outside the core. With the Project (a) we developed a new React core formulation to give us good rebound characteristics at the lower compression.
How are you measuring compression?
We are measuring compression using the Atti/PGA scale that has been the industry standard for many years. Internally we also measure deformation under a load which is a little more accurate, but we like to use the PGA because that is the number people usually use when you say compression.
Where do you see this going from here – can you see a time when your Tour Preferred X is as soft as the Project (a) is now or is that not really ever going to happen?
We have the capability of doing that on the Tour Preferred X, but the majority of our Tour players don’t want a ball that is a 70 compression.
Does that go back to the feel side of it or because it won’t suit them performance wise?
Everything. They perceive a ball that compresses too much is going to be one that is slow off the tee and one that is going to spin too much with their irons. Even though it may not be true they have that perception.
So when I look at the Tour players they value the performance of the golf ball coming off the club face, meaning around the green low launch and high spin and they would take that over something that may feel softer but doesn't check up.
They are much more performance orientated whereas the consumer isn't as always consistent on these types of shots so for them feel becomes more dominant.
For our Project (a) we could definitely go so softer and softer, but we didn’t want to go too soft and take the Project (a) players who liked the ball last year and give them something that was so different and the 18 point drop to 70 is already significantly different.
Is it a difference of say 10-15 in compression where players start to notice?
That really depends on the player. The new Tour Preferred X went from 88 to 87 and to me there is no difference there and with all our mechanical testing no difference in feel, but the Tour players are saying that it is much softer. They are much more sensitive to feel than what we can actually measure.
On the Project (a) we dropped compression by 18 points which is significant. It is going to be more appealing to that customer base and we are evaluating going even softer, but we don’t want to do so and have the customer lose any distance off the tee or lose any of the performance benefits that we have been able to give them up to this point.
So if you decide you do want to make it softer how are you going to maintain the performance?
We would definitely use the cast urethane cover and then look for softer materials for the other part of the ball which maintain performance levels.
So it is really reliant on new materials?
It is definitely going to be material based and then how we do we construct the ball with those new materials.
How do you get those new materials? Do you manufacture them yourself or are people coming to you saying this is what we can offer?
We work with outside material suppliers like every other company but we do everything custom for our own application. So like everybody we will work with DuPont who will give us a menu of materials and we will blend them so we can get the benefits we are looking for and then from a urethane perspective there are four companies in the market who we can work with.
The benefit of a cast urethane is we can continue to go softer and softer to give players more and more spin and still retain the surface durability, whereas with an ionomer type material the softer you go it is typically going to cut which the customer doesn't usually want. So a combination of materials and engineering construction of those materials.
It sounds like a cook in a kitchen!
It’s fun. We have our own lab and we are fully capable of making the golf ball from start to finish. We can change sizes, materials, we have a materials group that develops new materials with our suppliers so it is a lot of fun. You have an idea in the office and then some people like to talk about it for weeks, but in my group we talk about it briefly and then just go and do it and see if it really works and we have the capability to do that and we usually get the result a lot faster than just by talking about it.
So it seems that people talk about soft but really it is about the materials and then which part is softer, is it the core, the mantle or the cover and how do those components impact overall performance?
Definitely. With the Project (a) we are using the soft urethane cover and you can really feel the difference between that and the ionomer plastic covers and since that is on the cover that is going to translate to added performance around the green.
What I am really excited about this year is we have a range of golf balls with a range of compressions so if you are a player who likes something softer we have that available now whilst still maintaining the performance attributes around the greens whereas last year everything was 88 compression so players now have options.
I’ve noticed on the Tour Preferred balls the dimple pattern seems to have made the ball more stable compared to previous generations. Is that due to minimising the gaps between the dimples?
With the dimple design you want to maximise coverage and that is the benefit of having the seamless design because it means you are able to utilise that real estate for dimples and allows you to lower drag.
So how do you make a seamless ball?
All golf balls have a seam. When you have a cavity that has to separate then there has to be a seam there so it is just a case of how well you hide it. The process that we use for making the cover in the dimples is the casting process where you have a cavity and you inject materials into the bottom of it and then you insert the mantle and that material goes from a liquid to a solid state within 50 seconds and then you do the other second half and then you close it and let it cure and separate the mould and pull the ball out probably 9 minutes later. But the value in the cast urethane over a TPU material is it gives us more options for the future.
I also like the fact you put the seam in the same place in relative to the number every time.
That’s important. The Tour players asked for that. People ask why do you stamp on the seam because it makes me see the seam more, but we do that so you have a consistency in pattern so when you put the ball down you get a consistency of look every time which is what the Tour Players wanted.
From a stability into the wind perspective the Tour players really like the Tour Preferred X as they have a tendency to generate a lot of iron spin and the Tour Preferred X helps to pull some of that spin out so it is not just all about dimples it is also about spin generation.
The more spin you have the more lift you create so if you are a player with high spin you are going to see that ballooning trajectory so what you are going to see into the wind it is going to get held up so the Tour Preferred X gives those players more control into the wind.