Process, people lead Titleist to the top of the golf ball market
This weekend, 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
Titleist Golf Ball History and Tour of the Factory
Golf ball inconsistencies in the 1930s was how Titleist was born.
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
Titleist's east coast headquarters in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
The daily production of Titleist golf balls results in staggering 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
Titleist Golf Ball R&D Part 1
Pro V1 and Pro V1x undergo 90 and 120 quality checks, respectively.
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.
Roughly 400,000 Pro V1 and Pro V1x golf balls are produced each production day in Titleist's Ball Plant III alone.
“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
Titleist Golf Ball R&D Part 2
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.”
Titleist believes the importance of ball fitting should not be underestimated
Titleist Golf Ball Fitting
Based on the shots you hit, a golf ball fitting should start at the green.
There are many golfers who when they hear the term ‘fitting’ think solely about golf clubs.
That said, ask most industry experts where the biggest technological advances in golf have come over the course of the last two decades and it’s the golf ball that would likely garner the most votes.
Wouldn’t it only follow then that being fit for a golf ball is equally important to being fit for clubs?
Titleist certainly believes that to be the case, and it has spent significant time and resources in developing an extensive, worldwide golf ball fitting program.
“The reason why we place such an emphasis on golf ball fitting is because we care about golfers’ games,” explained Titleist Golf Ball Fitting and Education Manager Michael Rich when asked about his company’s commitment to golf ball fitting. “We want them to be able to play their best and shoot their lowest scores, and making sure they’re in the golf ball that’s going to give them the best performance plays a big role in that.”
Rich helps oversee a large team of trained professionals who conduct golf ball fittings at a wide variety of locations around the world every year. And given the meticulous approach that Titleist takes in manufacturing its golf balls, it’s no surprise that the company is equally detailed when it comes to golf ball fitting.
For the players who go through a Titleist golf ball fitting, that process will start with a discussion about what they’re looking for in terms of performance from a golf ball and then move into the process of hitting shots around the green, 50-yard pitch shots, full 7-irons, and drivers.
With so many golfers chasing distance these days, why does a Titleist ball fitting start with the shorter shots?
“When we’re out there fitting golfers, we want to do it from the green back to the tee,” Rich explained. “Golfers are only going to hit a maximum of fourteen drivers in a round. The vast majority of their shots are going to be into and around the green, so making sure that we are getting them into a golf ball that’s going to maximize their performance on those shots is really important to us.”
The Titleist fitters will observe what’s happening with each type of shot and also use launch monitors to gather data relating to spin rate, launch angle, and descent angle. Upon completing their assessment, they will offer players a golf ball recommendation and an alternative choice.
That is not, however, where the process ends. And from that point it’s on the golfer to do some on-course testing to find out which ball is the best for his or her game.
“At Titleist, we really believe that golf ball fitting needs to take place on the golf course under the same conditions that that golfer is going to play in on a regular basis,” Rich said. “It’s great to go through an assessment on the driving range, but where that golfer needs to make the ultimate decision about which golf ball is best for their game is going to be on the golf course.”
Certainly, there might be those who doubt whether or not a ball fitting offers much in the way of value when it comes to on-course performance.
Two players who might have previously fallen under that category were TGW customers Jon and Allen, who recently joined TGW staff members at Titleist’s renowned Manchester Lane testing facility in Acushnet, Massachusetts.
TGW Customer Ball Fitting with Titleist Pro V1 and Pro V1x Golf Balls
Titleist conducts ball fitting events across the country every year.
Neither player had been through a ball testing before, and the experience proved to be eye-opening for both.
Allen, a 3-handicapper, was fit into the Pro V1x, a golf ball he hadn’t played before. Not only did he pick up 10 yards on full shots thanks to improved spin numbers, but the ball also offered him the firmer feel that he prefers.
"It's interesting to see all the technology,” said Allen after going through the fitting and testing process with Rich. “It was telling in regards to how important a golf ball is to you, which up until today I, quite frankly, took for granted."
As for Jon, who plays to a 10-handicap, he has always struggled with a launch angle that’s too high. But he saw a significant drop in that metric with no losses in distance with the Pro V1, and he still was able to get the soft feel that he was looking for in a golf ball.
And the dramatic results, just by making a ball change, came as quite a surprise.
"I would not think that a golf ball would be something that was as important as (the) swing and clubs,” he said. “But I learned that the golf ball was much more important than I ever appreciated."
Of course, there will be many golfers who won’t have the opportunity to go through a fitting with a trained Titleist professional.
That being the case, we asked Rich what advice he would have for players who are self-fitting for the perfect ball for their game.
“Comparing golf balls side by side is really the best way to see differences in terms of flight, feel, and spin, which are really the things that we try to key on,” he said. “Start at the green and work your way back to the tee hitting two different models.”
We also asked Rich if he and his staff see some common issues with recreational players when it comes to picking a ball, and he was quick to answer.
“We run into a lot of golfers that think their swing speed is important, and they want to know what golf ball is best for their swing speed,” Rich said. “When a golfer comes to us and they’re talking about swing speed, typically they’re referencing their driver swing speed and their biggest concern there is distance.”
Rich, however, was quick to point out that distance shouldn’t be the focus for players when it comes to looking for the perfect golf ball.
“All of our golf balls throughout our product line are long,” he said. “When we test them under all different conditions, they all measure within about five yards of each other, so there’s no significant distance advantage. There are significant advantages in terms of which model you’re playing on shots into and around the green.”
Rich also had some additional words of wisdom for players who think that their driver swing speed should be a determining factor in making a golf ball choice.
“Golfers have a variety of swing speeds,” he explained. “Your driver swing speed is different than your 5-iron, different than your 9-iron, different than any half wedge you’re going to hit, and the golf ball needs to perform on all those different shots at all those different swing speeds.”
Rich also left us with some final words of advice for golfers when it comes to the golf ball they choose to play.
“Once you find a golf ball that you know performs well for you, it’s important to stick with that golf ball and play it consistently,” he said. “All golf ball models are designed to perform differently. When a golfer hits a shot well, they want to get the result that they deserve. The best way to ensure that’s going to be the case is by playing one golf ball model consistently.”
And Rich’s comments were echoed by PGA teaching professional and TGW contributing writer Tyrus York, who added, “My biggest pet peeve is when a self-proclaimed serious golfer tells me that they don’t care what kind of ball they play. If you are truly serious about your game, decide on a ball and stick with it."
“When you change the type of ball you play on a frequent basis, you are constantly having to readjust to a new feel, which is not good for achieving consistent results. And it can be especially detrimental to your short game and putting.”