Looking back: MacGregor’s golf balls
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Editor's note: The following is an exclusive feature that accompanies a story about MacGregor Golf in the Nov. 28 issue of Golfweek magazine.
• • •
Jack Nicklaus won in spite of it. Jimmy Demaret swapped it out after his first hole. Ben Hogan just flat-out refused to use it. Unlike MacGregor’s beloved woods and irons, its golf ball was an object of contempt.
MacGregor began selling a golf ball under its name, but produced by a third-party prior to World War II. After the war, MacGregor adapted a machine devised to automatically wind baseballs to begin manufacturing its own golf ball.
The decision backfired.
According to the company’s unpublished history, “MacGregor: The First 100 Years,” the first plant manager in the new ball department happened to be a heavy drinker, and “mistakes were made with the first batch to market.” MacGregor never recovered from this poor first impression, though the company continued making balls into the late 1980s.
“They sold a better ball at Woolworth’s (discount retail stores),” said Jack Wullkotte, a 20-year veteran clubmaker with MacGregor and Nicklaus’ longtime personal repairman. He said several staff players – including Demaret, Mike Souchak and Bob Toski – resorted to trickery to avoid using the ball. In order to pass muster with the Darrell Survey report, which tracks equipment usage at professional events, and fulfill their contractual obligation, they teed off with a MacGregor Tourney ball and switched to another brand’s model after they finished the first hole. (The one-ball rule wasn’t in effect in that era.)
Hogan wouldn’t stoop to using the MacGregor ball even that long. The company gave him permission to play another ball until MacGregor felt that its ball was at least equal to the competition, according to Bob Rickey, MacGregor’s vice president of marketing and a company employee from 1946 until 1974, in his manuscript “History of MacGregor.”
Improvements were made. Fellow MacGregor staff pro Jack Burke Jr. won the 1952 Vardon Trophy with the ball.
“It went in the hole just fine for me,” Burke Jr. said recently.
So with a residue of hope, company officials tried yet again to switch Hogan into their ball. They invited Hogan to MacGregor’s Cincinnati headquarters in early June 1953 before the U.S. Open. He spent three days there. During his visit, MacGregor offered to sign Hogan to a lifetime deal. There was one caveat: He had to play its ball.
Hogan wasn’t easily swayed. He cooperated and observed a variety of tests. A mechanical driving machine called “Iron Byron” blasted shots with the top-of-the-line MacGregor Tourney as well as Hogan’s preferred Titleist model. On the last day, MacGregor’s president pressed Hogan for an answer and asked if the driving machine had persuaded him that the Tourney was suitable for his use in tournament play.
“Up to this time, Ben had uttered nothing more than a grunt the entire three days,” Rickey wrote.
What happened next is part of Hogan lore. Tom Weiskopf, who signed with MacGregor in 1964 and played the same set of its irons for 17 years, picks up the story recorded by Rickey: “Hogan took his time as he often did. He puffed on his cigarette. Then he replied, ‘If you think that driving machine can hit a ball straighter than me, I suggest you enter it in the U.S. Open.’ ”
Hogan walked off and never renewed with MacGregor. He won the U.S. Open that year, using a Titleist Acushnet DT ball No. 4, and followed with a victory at the British Open to complete the Hogan Slam. After playing out the final year of his MacGregor contract, he resigned rather than play a ball unfit to his exacting standards. One year later, Hogan started his own golf equipment company.
Hogan wasn’t the lone staffer who considered the MacGregor ball to be inferior. According to Rickey, Demaret, Doug Ford and Dow Finsterwald all resigned from MacGregor on the eve of the 1957 Masters rather than accept an ultimatum to “play the Tourney or else.” That week, Ford slipped on the Green Jacket after using a Dunlop Maxfli.
In the years that followed, MacGregor leaned heavily on Nicklaus’ success to persuade golfers that the Tourney was a superior ball. For a dozen years, the company sold Nicklaus golf balls in bulk to Firestone Tire for it to use in a variety of promotions. MacGregor ran its own contests as well, giving consumers and club pros the chance to win new cars or trips to the Masters. It provided handsome bonuses for its salesmen. But try as it might, MacGregor couldn’t sustain sales success with its ball.
“It appears more dollars and effort were spent with less return on the golf ball in the Sixties than any other (MacGregor) product at any time,” Rickey wrote.
For all its shortcomings, a MacGregor ball was used by Nicklaus for his 18 major victories. But that didn’t mean he, too, didn’t voice his displeasure with the ball at times. Wullkotte recounted the story of the time Nicklaus returned from competing in the 1975 Hawaiian Open and met with the MacGregror ball staff to approve an upcoming ball line. Before they could get started, Nicklaus interrupted and assigned them a more urgent task, according to Wullkotte. Nicklaus told MacGregor’s staff that he was dumbfounded when Tom Shaw and Art Wall Jr., two notorious short hitters on Tour, outhit hit him by 15 yards during a practice round. When Nicklaus hit one of Shaw’s Titleist balls, he regained his edge.
Nicklaus, according to Wullkotte, threatened: “If you don’t have a better ball for me to play by the Masters I’m going to play the Titleist.”
The MacGregor R&D team hopped on the task and reconfigured the ball ahead of Nicklaus’ deadline. Shortly before the Masters, Nicklaus was paired with fellow long bomber Jim Dent. Nicklaus outdrove him all day.
Wullkotte chuckled, recalling Dent’s punchline: “Looks like they got that mother fixed, huh Jack?”
Perhaps the most damning evidence of the MacGregor golf ball’s inferiority comes from Frank Thomas, who for 26 years directed testing of all golf balls used in competition as the USGA’s technical director. To make sure the balls used on Tour were the same as those originally submitted for the conforming ball list, Thomas collected sleeves of balls from Nicklaus and Weiskopf for testing at the 1977 U.S. Open at Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club.
When Thomas put the Tourney through its paces on “Iron Byron” at the USGA’s test center in New Jersey, he said the MacGregor ball veered 2-3 yards to the left; the next one turned a little more; and some moved as much as 15 yards off target. Having never before seen such an inconsistent ball flight, Thomas stopped the test.
“I thought something must be wrong with ‘Iron Byron,’ ” Thomas said recently in a telephone interview.
But the machine operated properly, and the results of MacGregor’s re-test were identical.
At the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, following Thomas’ retirement, he revealed to Nicklaus the startling results of the ’77 test. Nicklaus told him he wasn’t surprised.
“He knew it wasn’t a very good golf ball,” Thomas said. “It just shows how good he really was. I truly believe he would’ve won several more majors if he had played a better ball.”