At certain times, in certain fields, top performers keep using old technology while the rest of the world adopts a high-tech alternative. Some best-selling novelists stuck with their Underwood manual typewriters while everyone else switched to computers; some renowned photographers continue shooting on film in an age of digital images. And until recently, some professional golfers willingly stuck with 1930s technology—golf balls with a wound core—while weekend players tapped into the added distance afforded by solid-core balls.
The controversy began in 1971 when Spalding’s research-and-development chief, Robert Molitor, invented a ball with a solid polymer core and a durable synthetic cover. It was called the Top-Flite and it flew farther than anything else on the market. It became a huge seller, especially to golfers with a keen interest in outdriving their buddies. But better players shunned it, since the ball made it hard to apply spin and other delicate tricks that are beyond the capabilities of duffers.
Over time, other solid-core brands appeared, many of them touted as less hot and harsh, more conducive to the subtle shotmaking on which top golfers rely. Slowly but surely, low-handicap players at the better clubs began experimenting with solid-core balls. Even Titleist, which would defend the wound-core concept for decades, came up with its Pinnacle brand to compete in what it called the “non-wound” segment of the market. But Titleist remained committed to the awkward factory-floor process of thread-winding golf balls, and most professional golfers stayed loyal.
The evolution of golf balls began in medieval days, when they were carved from wood. Later came the “feathery,” a stitched leather cover stuffed with feathers. In the mid-1840s a Scottish clergyman developed the “guttie,” a lively one-piece ball made from a rubberlike material called gutta-percha. Next came the Haskell ball, with a gutta-percha cover (soon replaced with balata) protecting a core made of rubber thread wrapped around a marble-sized inner sphere. And there the technology rested until the 1960s and 1970s, when molded polybutadiene cores and synthetic Surlyn resin (later urethane) covers emerged.
Spalding challenged Titleist’s dominance among professionals with its Tour Edition solid-core brand, which had appreciable softness and loads of spin (too much, many claimed). This was the first two-piece ball used to win a major championship—Greg Norman’s 1986 British Open victory. Spalding developed another brand for skilled players called Strata, which Mark O’Meara used to win the 1998 Masters. Titleist still doggedly promoted the thread-wound ball, but by this point its advantages for shotmaking had diminished greatly. Only the Titleist name and the company’s marketing skill were keeping the wound-core ball alive.
Then Tiger Woods, golf’s dominant player, jumped ship. In May of 2000 Woods switched from a wound Titleist to a solid-core Nike ball and maintained his winning ways. Within two years Titleist mothballed what surely were the world’s last thread-winding machines. The company had worked for years toward this moment and was more than ready for the transition. It had developed the soon-to-be-dominant Pro V1, and it never looked back.
Unfortunately, the game may not be able to absorb all this progress. The swift embrace of the Pro V1 led to an increase of 5 to 10 yards in driving distance on the PGA Tour, and when golf balls fly farther, classic courses like Augusta National, home of the Masters, have to be altered and stretched to keep them from getting too easy. For average players, the change means that fewer foursomes will fit on a golf course. With the new balls, some players drive far enough on par-5 holes that there’s a chance they could reach the green with their second shots. That means they have to wait for the green to clear before hitting there, which delays those playing behind them.
The United States Golf Association, which regulates equipment, asked manufacturers in April 2005 to submit prototypes of a golf ball that would fly 5 to 8 percent shorter than current models. The ideas that R&D teams grudgingly put forth may include reformulating the cores to make them less springy, hardening the urethane covers, or using shallower dimples to increase aerodynamic drag. Whatever solution is adopted, it won’t be the final skirmish in the never-ending struggle to make golf balls better—but not too much better.