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Equipment game changers: Multilayer golf balls

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It used to be that golf ball consumers had two choices: a wound ball that created a lot of spin (which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the proficiency of the player), or a solid, rubber-core ball that was great for distance but produced little spin.

You could have distance or spin, but not both.

Until the mid-1990s.

By the end of the 1980s, the world of golf was swiftly changing as new club designs and materials were introduced. The advent of the metal driver contributed to an avalanche of new ideas. One of them was the Titleist Professional ball, introduced in 1994.

“It was a urethane cover over a wound ball,” said Michael Mahoney, vice president of golf ball marketing for Titleist. “The performance was great, but probably the most important part was that it led us to the Pro V1, which we believe was the most important equipment innovation.”

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The Pro V1 was introduced to the Tour in 2000 and to the public in 2001.  It was, Mahoney said, “a two-piece core distance ball covered with urethane.  The result was great distance and low spin on your long clubs and high spin and control on your higher-lofted clubs.”

Although the Pro V1 was not the first ball of its kind (Mark O’Meara won the 1998 Masters using a solid-core Strata ball made by Top-Flite, and Tiger Woods switched from a wound Titleist ball to a solid-core Nike ball shortly before he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots), Titleist was the unquestioned leader in ball counts on the pro tours as well as retail sales to the public. Between the Pro V1 and its cousin, the Pro V1x, other multilayer balls and increasingly hot-faced drivers, distance statistics on the PGA Tour exploded.

John Daly led the Tour in driving distance in 2000 at 301.4 yards and was the only player to top a 300-yard average. Ten years later Robert Garrigus topped the standings at 315.5 yards, and 12 players averaged 300 yards or more. For the 2015-16 season, 20 players were at or above 300 yards, led by J.B. Holmes at 314.5.

When Titleist introduced its first liquid-center, wound ball some 80 years ago, “our focus was on the golf ball construction with very limited understanding of aerodynamics,” Mahoney said. “Our goal was to distinguish ourselves with consistency from one ball to the next.  Our technological goals were quality and consistency.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Titleist introduced its first R&D department, which quickly led to significant performance improvements.

“Our focus was on improvements in aerodynamics,” Mahoney said. “We did testing in wind tunnels to understand all of the dynamics.”

Aerodynamic improvements came via dimple design. Dimples on a golf ball are like wings on an airplane. Ball-flight characteristics can be changed by varying the number of dimples, their shape and pattern.

In the 1970s, Mahoney said, “We introduced both a low-trajectory and a pro-trajectory ball. Golfers used to use one ball or the other depending upon what kind of wind they faced on the tee. This is the reason the USGA instituted the One Ball Rule.”

The introduction of the Pro V1 changed all that, and the reverberations are still felt today.