PROCESS, PEOPLE LEAD TITLEIST TO THE TOP OF THE GOLF BALL MARKET
At golf courses across the globe, countless golfers of all ages and ability levels will arrive at the first tee, reach into their bag, and pull out a Titleist golf ball.
From there, they’ll let it rip, with a myriad of shot shapes and results to follow. And in some cases, a return trip to the bag for another Titleist will be the most unfortunate of outcomes should a provisional ball be required.
All the while, however, the vast majority of those players will strike the day’s first shot using the ball they trust having no idea about Titleist’s extensive history in the golf ball market.
And it’s a story worth telling.
A HISTORY LESSON
It all began in 1932 with a scenario that will ring oh-so familiar for many golfers.
Phil Young was out for a friendly weekend match at New Bedford Country Club in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where bragging rights and just maybe a few dollars were on the line.
On the 18th hole, Young had a putt to win the match, and he made what he thought was a perfect stroke. He missed, however.
“Like every golfer in the world, (Young) was convinced it was the product,”continued Titleist Vice President of Golf Ball Marketing Michael Mahoney with a chuckle. “It couldn’t possibly have been him.”
While having a few drinks in the 19th hole after the round, Young told his playing competitor that he knew there was something wrong with that ball, and given that his playing competitor was the Head of Radiation at a local hospital, they decided to go find out.
“It turned out he was actually right,” added Mahoney.
At the hospital, they X-rayed the golf ball and found that the center of the ball was not round. They subsequently did the same with several other golf balls from the New Bedford Country Club pro shop and found significant inconsistencies from ball to ball.
Young, an MIT alumnus, was the founder of the Acushnet Process Company, which produced latex and rubber, and he decided that while he might not know much about golf balls that he knew enough about manufacturing to make a better golf ball than what was currently available on the market.
Fast forward three years to 1935 and the first Titleist golf ball was released.
Titleist has been going strong ever since and now sits alone as the undisputed leader of the golf market. Additionally, to this day, Titleist golf balls are X-rayed before they are sent to market, which is only fitting given how this story began.
In terms of what has helped Titleist sustain its success for so many years, it believes that a commitment to what has worked so well since 1935 has been the driving force.
“If you talk to us about what we do, you’ll hear us talk a lot about process because we really believe going back eighty years that a commitment to that process, be it through research, be it through golfer connection, be it through manufacturing, that ultimately we’ll end up with the better product for golfers,” Mahoney said.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
What Titleist does today on a daily basis from a golf ball standpoint is truly staggering.
For starters, it still manufactures all of its balls from start to finish in its own facilities, three of which are still located in the New Bedford area and one that was built in Thailand several years ago to help distribute product to a rapidly growing Asian market.
In all, on average, Titleist produces 1 million golf balls per production day in those four facilities combined, with 80 percent of those balls made in the United States.
Even more impressively, of all those golf balls being produced on a daily basis, only one ball in 10 million gets returned citing a defect of some sort.
Although, given the stringent quality control that’s built into the manufacturing process at Titleist, those incredible numbers start to make a little bit more sense.
For example, during production, Pro V1 golf balls undergo 90 quality checks and Pro V1x golf balls undergo 120 quality checks, the extra 30 being directly related to the fact that the Pro V1x is a four-piece golf ball as compared to the three-piece Pro V1.
While Titleist certainly has made manufacturing an art form, it is also delivering industry-leading intellectual property in the space. In fact, of the roughly 4,000 golf ball patents that have been issued, Titleist holds 40 percent.
But where Titleist believes the real magic lies when it comes to its long run of success is through the efforts of its proud and dedicated workforce.
“We really believe that the three things that we try to focus on that are key to our success is certainly our process, our product, but it’s really also our people,” Mahoney said. “In Ball Plant III, where we make Pro V1 and Pro V1x, there’s 460 associates who work in that facility. The average tenure of one of the associates on the floor making golf balls for us is over 20 years, which is just remarkable.”
“While there’s a lot of science and the commitment to that process that goes into making us successful, the art part of it is that expertise and that really is a testament to our people.”
While in Massachusetts recently for a visit with Titleist, TGW was able to tour Ball Plant III, and we were able to see firsthand the pride with which those employees approached their respective jobs.
And it wasn’t just an act.
“Each associate in the plant that you ran across today likely had an average tenure of nearly 20 years, so they come to work every day living that mission of quality and consistency in our golf balls,” said Frederick Waddell, Senior Manager of Titleist Golf Ball Product Management. “What you saw today is not quality that’s inspected but (quality that’s) built into the process.”
In all, across its four ball plants, Titleist employs 1,500 associates and combined they have more than 23,000 years of service to the company.
Of course, those men and women need a product to manufacture, and that responsibility lies with Titleist’s talented Research & Development team.
THE DRAWING BOARD
Also as part of TGW’s trip to Massachusetts was a tour of Titleist’s R&D offices and meetings with product engineers, and not surprisingly we found the same level of pride and commitment that we encountered in the ball plant.
For the most part, Titleist releases updated versions of its various golf ball lines on a two-year product cycle.
“We like that because it gives us room to develop and make real significant improvements and changes to these golf balls when we do launch new ones, like we did in January at the PGA Show (with the new Pro V1 and Pro V1x),” Waddell said.
There might be some who believe that a new version of a ball like the Pro V1 or Pro V1x might entail nothing more than a few minor tweaks to the existing product. But that’s not the case at all.
Most typically, there are specific aspects of a ball that are being improved, but those improvements require modifications to the entire ball.
For example, while one of the main goals with the new Pro V1 and Pro V1x was to improve their aerodynamics, Titleist couldn’t just alter the dimple pattern. Any changes to the dimple pattern also required the construction of the core and cover to be revisited as well.
Additionally, the amount of testing that is done with various prototypes before bringing a new golf ball to market is truly eye-opening.
“We built six different double blind tests, four for Pro V1, two for Pro V1x, and those prototypes we took to the PGA Tour, we tested with PGA Tour players, LPGA Tour players, and we also sent about 12,000 golfers a sleeve of each of those and gathered their feedback,” Waddell said. “So the inputs from a prototyping standpoint were vast, and we got great qualitative and quantitative feedback on these prototypes and they had direct influence on the final design of the new Pro V1, Pro V1x.”
Those numbers, however, are only a small part of the story, as engineers created significantly more versions in the lab, many of which never made it out of those doors.
“I was fortunate enough to be part of the team that worked on the last generation of Pro V1, the 2017 model that was just introduced, and I would say that we probably made upwards of 200 prototypes from scratch to finish in the development of that product,” said Titleist Product Development Engineer Doug Jones.
The other component when it comes to designing a golf ball that has to be taken into consideration, something that the recreational player might never consider, is whether or not the ball can be mass produced.
“In the lab, we could make one great ball, but if we can’t make a million of them every day at the plant, it’s not something that we can bring to the marketplace,” Jones added.
Of course, for Jones and the other engineers on the team, one of the competitive advantages they enjoy is having their manufacturing plants in the area.
“Everything is local here in Massachusetts,” Jones said. “While this may be my playground here in the rooms within R&D, I spend probably a good thirty percent of my time at the manufacturing facility.”
“Many of the trials that we have to run have to be larger scale, so we have to get out on the manufacturing floor. It works to both development of the product and the development of the process to bring it to marketplace.”
ONWARD AND UPWARD
While all of Titleist’s golf balls, most notably Pro V1 and Pro V1x, have had tremendous success in recent years, there’s little time for those who design them to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
After all, there are new products to create, new materials to test, new technologies to experiment with, and new requests from golfers in terms of what they’re looking for from a performance standpoint.
“It doesn’t end; it’s a continual process, and in some sense we don’t know exactly where we’re going to go next,” Jones said. “We’re always in the mode of discovery. We have people within R&D whose sole focus is new materials, new processes. We don’t know exactly what the golfer is going to want next generation (or) two generations out from there.”
Titleist also understands that its competitors are desperate to somehow close the gap in terms of golf ball market share, which is another motivating force.
But most of all, these are creative, curious people who live for the chance to create something new and special that helps golfers play better and have more fun.
It’s that pursuit that brings them the most joy.
“We have to be continually improving from where we are, as well as looking beyond where we are to what might be,” Jones said. “And then trying to be able to deliver that is probably the challenge that puts the smile on the face as much as anything else.”