Inside Tiger Woods' ball-testing process
Tiger Woods is one of the most exacting players on tour at testing golf equipment. That’s especially true for balls, where his process is lengthy, his feedback specific and his wants on performance clearly communicated. Woods will begin playing Bridgestone’s 2020 Tour B XS ball early in the new year [Editor’s Note: As Woods is now playing in the Presidents Cup, he opted against putting it in play at the Hero World Challenge as originally planned], and when he tees it up, it will mark the culmination of nearly two years of testing.
I was fortunate enough to have exclusive access to one of the earliest sessions, in February 2019, at Woods’ home course at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla. Having attended a similar testing session with Woods and Nike in 2003, I was eager to see if his approach had changed. As it turned out, it had remained pretty much intact, with an emphasis on short-game performance, flight windows and spin rates.
Five white boxes of prototype balls were presented to Woods. All of them without Bridgestone’s branding except for assorted Sharpie marks so Bridgestone’s staff, including Andrew Troutner, the company’s R&D test-site manager, could tell which ball was which. According to Elliot Mellow, Bridgestone’s marketing manager, each of the balls Woods was testing had a variation of the company’s urethane cover material, meaning there should be noticeable differences in feel and performance.
Woods started with short chips and pitch shots. He immediately noticed one ball came off much hotter with more roll out. He then moved to a longer pitch shot of about 40 yards, where he holed his third attempt. “OK, we’re good,” he joked. Woods continued to hit shots—all within a cluster of six or seven feet from the hole. Though the results were similar, he spotted differences. There were two in a row that he noticed flew higher. “I wouldn’t mind that with the driver,” he said. “That might get me more carry distance. But on short shots, it just feels hotter with less spin.” On another ball, Woods said, “It felt like it was sticking to my clubface a bit.”
After the short-game testing was done, he asked, “OK, how close was I?” Unknown to him, very close. The Bridgestone folks, not wanting to tip him off, remained mum, but they confided later that what Woods experienced was consistent with each type of ball he was testing. “He’s incredibly perceptive,” Troutner said. “Some players have a difficult time discerning slight differences. Not Tiger.”
Next came putts of varying lengths. On one ball, Woods said he thought it would feel “clickier” given the feel on chips and pitches, but it didn’t. Another felt “soft, dead on the face. But I like that.” Another ball seemed to get his approval. “I feel like I can hit it without the ball coming off the face too quick.”
After Woods eliminated one of the balls from consideration, he went back to pitch shots. He tried applying more spin with the four remaining balls and was able to. Woods wiped the face of his club clean after each shot so debris didn’t collect in the grooves. One ball showed an increase of 400 revolutions per minute of spin on the short shots compared to an increase of 300 for the others.
“With such little differences now, it puts more emphasis on my hands and feel,” Woods said. “In my early days testing golf balls, they were so different it wasn’t difficult to distinguish differences. You could have a bunch of golf balls and easily be able to say, ‘This one is different for this specific reason.’ Now those differences are smaller.”
Woods said he wanted to see what the balls would do into the wind on full shots and suggested heading to the 456-yard, par-4 ninth hole at Medalist because it normally plays into a stiff breeze. With that, a brigade of golf carts set out for the hole.
“I know my feel at impact, and I know where the ball needs to be in my window.”
As Woods stopped in the fairway, he asked, “Anyone got a laser?” Indeed, one was available, and the yardage was 254 yards. When asked if he wanted to start with a 7-iron, he jokingly shot back: “Um, I don’t have a 254-yard 7-iron. Not in my game.” Woods did start with the 7-iron, picking out a target in the fairway. With a slight breeze in his face, he hit numerous shots, producing crisp, dollar-bill like divots, keeping an eye on the flight throughout and offering feedback. One ball was a touch firm, another went higher. “That’s not me,” he said. “That ball is kicking up in the air like a wedge. It feels hotter—almost like it has less spin even though it’s going higher.” Another ball also went high. “Let me go back to my baseline real quick,” Woods suggested. After he hit a few shots with his current ball, the TrackMan data confirmed all he was experiencing. It showed he hit his current ball five to six feet lower than the ones he felt were too high.
Woods embraces launch-monitor data, but he isn’t beholden to it. “I’m able to communicate feels, and they’re able to take what I feel and calibrate it into numbers,” he said. “I understand the data enough, but I try not to go too far down that road. My main thing with the guys at Bridgestone is, I know my feel at impact, and I know where the ball needs to be in my window, and if it’s not there, I can tell them where it should be, and they’re going to be able to tell me the reasons it’s not and how to address it.”
Moving on to the 4-iron, he hit shots with a more sweeping motion, barely taking any grass, and the ball leaving with a noticeable hissing sound. Woods said two of the balls felt “heavier” and was about to offer more feedback when he noticed a group of four Medalist members on the tee box. “OK, guys, we need to let them hit,” said Woods, dutifully waving the group up as all stepped to the side. After the foursome all struck good tee shots— talk about pressure!—the group moved on to their next shots while Woods spent the downtime talking about Fred Couples’ frequent success at the Masters and Jason Day’s love of practice putting.
Into the wind, Woods’ 4-irons carried 230 to 237 yards with about 4,200 rpms of spin. “Ideally, I’d get a fraction more spin on long-iron shots,” he said.
Moving to an adjacent hole to work with the driver, Woods talked about his driver setup with the movable weights in the back to help him launch the ball higher. After hitting about 20 tee shots, he asked if his swing speed had dropped. (It hadn’t.) The results were impressive: More than 300 yards of carry, with total distance in the 320s and spin 2,300 to 2,400 rpm. His clubhead speed was consistently 118 miles per hour with a launch angle of about 12 degrees—all outstanding numbers. His smash factor—ball speed divided by swing speed— was an impressive 1.49.
One of the balls grabbed his attention. “This one feels so close to my gamer. It feels really hot.” Another felt like it stayed on the face longer, which Woods was OK with. “I’d rather have that than a feel of it sliding on the face. It’s a feel of control with the driver.
“The balls launch higher now,” Woods said. “The older balls were more lower launch and high spin. Now balls are designed to provide as much launch with as low spin as possible. Our windows have changed over the years. I’m trying to launch it higher and get more distance. But in a tournament, I’m often trying to bring the ball down. And what I worry about is that when I’m trying to bring it down, and it doesn’t spin enough as it is, I get these runners that go out to the right. I’ve always had the ability to take off spin. And so, come game time and under pressure, my spin rates all come down, so I’ve always preferred a spinnier ball.”
As Woods whittled down the balls, he gravitated toward his current Tour B XS (unknown to him) and another ball that Troutner said was close to it but should maintain its spin longer on the long and middle irons, something Woods wants. Other requests were more greenside spin and more stability in crosswinds.
“After proving that the new technology provided the performance and launch-monitor numbers Tiger wanted, we then enhanced the aerodynamic package of the ball, assuring it’s in his window,” Troutner said. “This new cover material allowed for greater construction freedom in other areas, including a reformulated layer within the ball. What we’re seeing with the final spec is that this ball has a much more stable ball flight. It doesn’t sacrifice velocity, and it increases wedge spin on greenside shots.”
Woods’ testing for the day was done, but he knew there was more work to do before settling on a ball for competition. “I have to play holes,” he said. “That’s playing a lot of holes here at Medalist and playing in wind—thankfully it’s always windy here in Florida, so I can test in all sorts of winds and see what it does. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned over the years—testing into the wind and crosswinds. I don’t need any surprises out there during tournament time. I want to know exactly how a ball is going to behave. I know my swing speed increases during tournaments. As I get closer to putting a ball in play, I’ll start jacking myself up mentally and physically trying to feel adrenaline and simulate more speed so I can hit the type of shots I would in a tournament.”
Afterward, in the club’s parking lot, Woods talked about equipment testing in general— a topic he seems to enjoy. He said the results can get a little squirrelly if his swing is off, but that wasn’t the case on this day. “You got me on a good day,” he said. “On good days, testing is fun for me.”
Even if it’s part of a two-year-long process.