In 1993, Bernhard Langer won the Masters, one of golf’s four major tournaments, using a driver made of persimmon, rather than one of the new generation of metal “woods” that had been slowly infiltrating the game. He would be the last player to win a major with an actual wooden wood -- by 1997, Davis Love III retired his persimmon driver and old school woods left the tour for good. Meanwhile, metal drivers were becoming better and better, leading to that steady improvement.
And then things got a little nuts. The next year, 2001, average driving distance leapt six yards in a single season. There was a very clear reason for that huge jump -- the introduction of what might be the single most influential product in the history of any sport: the Titleist Pro V1 golf ball. For decades, top golfers had all played with balls constructed in the same way: A liquid-filled rubber core was wound with thin rubber thread, building the ball up to the correct diameter as if it was a ball of yarn. This was covered with balata, a type of rubber harvested from a tropical tree called the bully tree. The balls were sometimes inconsistent, but they offered the best level of spin and distance for strong players. Other types of balls, made for high handicappers, emphasized distance over control and used solid rubber cores, but low-handicap golfers viewed them with disdain.
Early in 2000, Nike introduced a solid-core ball aimed at tour- level golfers, which its star endorser Tiger Woods began to use. Titleist, the largest maker of golf balls, had its own solid-core model under development, which combined a large rubber core with a harder mantle layer. The outside cover was made of urethane, a soft plastic. The ball yielded the distance of solid-core balls with the control of the balata models. It was like nothing the sport had ever seen. Balata balls were very inconsistent -- some seemed to fly better than others, and players would struggle to adapt to a different performance every time they’d break out a new ball. And over time, the balls would start to break down, getting out of round or cut by the club during a shot.
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Solid-core balls like the Pro V1 were much more consistent and reliable. The durability was better. The solid core allowed engineers to tune the ball to react differently in different situations. When smashed with a driver, the ball would spin less than a balata ball, keeping it from hooking or slicing. When hit with a wedge, it would spin more quickly, giving the player more control to stop the ball on the green. And in every situation, it flew significantly farther than a balata ball when hit with the same force.
The first week the new Pro V1 model ball was available for tournament play, in October 2000, forty-seven players switched from their previous ball. That sort of wholesale equipment change was unprecedented in the history of golf. How fast was the transition across the sport? At the 2000 Masters, fifty-nine of the ninety- five players used a wound golf ball. One year later, only four players used one. By the end of 2001, not a single tournament champion on any of the world’s major professional tours had won using a wound ball; the rout was so comprehensive that Titleist stopped making them at all.
Today, the seventh generation of the Pro V1 and its brother model, the Pro V1x, are made at Titleist’s ball plant 3, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Walking the factory floor, you’re surrounded by balls in various states of manufacture, from the raw rubber to the cork-shaped billets that are then molded into spheres. There are bins and bins of centers, of balls with the covers molded on that haven’t been polished, of polished and painted balls waiting to be packaged. They make three hundred thousand Pro V1s here each day, balls destined to win major titles or to find the bottom of a lake after a duffer’s bad drive.
The invention of the Pro V1 started out as a little bit of an accident. The company’s engineers were just trying to combine some of the technologies in their balls for amateur golfers with the ones in their pro models, and they stumbled upon the construction of the Pro V1. From that point, its refinement became a process that involved five years of prototypes and endless testing at the company’s facility in Massachusetts. “We didn’t have a clue what we really had at the time,” recalled Bill Morgan, the company’s head of golf ball development, in a 2013 interview. It took a day in which a hundred of the company’s sponsored pros used the prototype ball -- and gave it rave reviews -- for the company to fast-track it into production.From Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes--and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright ©Mark McClusky, 2014.