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Too good not to be true

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


No sooner had Tiger Woods won his first tournament of the year at the Bay Hill Invitational last month than the Nike publicity machine was at work.

Woods barely completed his post-tournament round of interviews when a Nike e-mail was distributed, reminding all that Woods had switched to the Nike Tour Accuracy golf ball last year, that he had gained 16.4 yards in average driving distance and won six out of 11 tournaments, including three majors.

The response was apparent: Titleist's Pro V1 golf ball was winning a slew of tournaments on the PGA Tour, and the golf ball war was on. Woods, of course, has gone on to win his last two events, including the Masters, putting the Titleist talk to rest, for at least a while.

But there is no denying the impact the new ball has had on the professional game, and at the amateur level as well.

It has become so popular that golf stores cannot keep the Titleist ball on their shelves. Titleist cannot make or ship them fast enough. And that's despite a price tag of some $50 per dozen.

"It's the perfect ball for me," said Phil Mickelson, one of the high-profile players being paid to use it. Nonetheless, Mickelson raves. "I don't know how they did it. But they've come up with a ball that spins more with a softer swing and less when you hit it with the driver. It's like they tailor-made a ball for my swing."

The Titleist Pro V1 is called a two-piece ball, as opposed to a wound ball. Two-piece balls have long been popular with recreational players because of their hard cover. It allows them to hit the ball hard -- without damaging the cover -- while getting extra distance.

These solid-core balls, however, were often dismissed by pros because they were harder to control. Although they appreciated the distance, they were willing to sacrifice it -- after all, pros hit the ball plenty far anyway -- in order to have more control and feel around the greens.

Now, however, Titleist -- the No. 1 golf ball manufacturer in the world -- came up with a way to incorporate both qualities. And now non-wound balls of every variety are being used by 90 percent of PGA Tour players.

"There are actually two or three Titleist golf balls that are longer, they just don't offer the same combination of spin and distance," said Steve McGee, the general manager at the Edwin Watts golf store in Palm Harbor, which cannot keep the Pro V1 in stock. "I get them in, and they last a day," McGee said. "We get calls about it all the time.

"It's a really good golf ball that gives the average guy a lot of both worlds. Pretty good distance and a pretty good feel and spin. Titleist makes longer golf balls, but because everyone is talking about the Pro V1, that lends itself to folks wanting it. People want to play what people play on tour."

Billy Andrade won the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas last October, using the Pro V1 the first week it was available. Mark Calcavecchia shot 256 and set the all-time PGA Tour scoring record at the Phoenix Open earlier this year using the ball. Joe Durant's 36-under-par score in the five-round Bob Hope Classic came with the Titleist ball, and he followed up two weeks later with a victory at Doral.

"I don't think it's a coincidence," Durant said. "This ball has made that much difference in my game. I've picked up enough yardage that I'm hitting 11/2 shorter irons into the greens, and I'm reaching some par-5s in two. That's a huge difference right there. To me, the fact that it is longer off the tee but still spins around the greens makes it a huge asset."

Durant's driving distance has increased to 281.1 yards this year, up from his average of 272.1 a year ago. Perhaps the biggest eye-opening difference has come from Jeff Sluman, long considered a short hitter. He averaged 265 yards per drive to rank 167th last year. This year, he is averaging 278.9 yards and has been in the top 50. Even Davis Love, always a long hitter, has gone from 288 yards to more than 293 this year.

Not everyone has benefited, however. Some players who compliment the ball have actually seen their stats decrease.

"I think people give it too much credit," said Barney Adams, founder of the Adams Golf Co., which does not produce a golf ball. "I think what's really different about golf balls today is you now buy balls that are congruent with your game. Low spin, high spin, etc. Before, you didn't. The ability to match the spin rate to the ability of the player is more the dynamics of the golf ball than just the ball itself.

"If you're playing the wrong ball, I can pick you up 10 yards just like that. The ball hasn't changed. But it's changed from the standpoint that it's available in more categories."

In essence, there are four types of golf ball construction: A liquid-center, wound ball, which includes the Titleist Professional, Titleist Tour Distance and Slazenger Pro Preferred.; a solid-core wound, which includes the Titleist DT Spin and the Maxfli Revolution; a multilayered non-wound, which includes the Titleist Pro V1, the Nike Tour Accuracy (which Woods plays), the Wilson iWound, Callaway 35, Precept Tour Premium and TaylorMade Intergel; and the standard two-piece, which includes the Titleist DT and Pinnacle.

Mickelson switched to the Titleist Pro V1 last fall and has been a convert ever since. He insists it is the biggest technological advancement since players went from wooden to steel shafts.

That, of course, has many in the game concerned. Arnold Palmer reminisced about the days when the performance of golf balls was so inconsistent that players were never sure if the ball was completely round.

"I learned a little trick from Cary Middlecoff," Palmer said. "He carried a stainless steel ring (in the 1950s), and he never put a ball in play without checking it to see if it was perfectly round. He would do it on every golf ball, 360 degrees around that golf ball on every angle to make sure that it was perfectly round. And in a box of a dozen balls, he would find three or four that were not perfectly round. That led me to do the same thing."

Palmer has long been concerned about the golf ball. So has Jack Nicklaus, who has advocated a controlled tour ball to be played by everyone so golf courses would not have to be changed. He brought up his argument again at the Masters, after officials announced that they would be strengthening several holes at Augusta National in time for next year's tournament.

"I think if you are going to continue to let the golf ball do what it's doing, you've got to keep lengthening the golf course," Nicklaus said. "Pretty soon we'll be teeing off from downtown somewhere. It's absurd. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to allow the golf ball to do what it's doing."

Nicklaus said he experimented with six different balls this year. His choice for the Masters? The Titleist Pro V1.

"You can't give up that yardage," he said. "I mean, if everybody else is going to do it, you've got to do it, too, if you want to compete."

Beware: a Titleist Pro V2 is on the way.

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