2003: Perfection takes time for clubs, balls
By John Steinbreder
Few golfers appreciate the time, money and technical know-how that goes into making a golf product.
The average hacker purchasing something as commonplace as a sleeve of golf balls is getting a fairly priced, thoroughly modern product designed by teams that sometimes include aerospace engineers and molecular physicists, tested by PGA Tour professionals and produced in vast factories that cost tens of millions of dollars to build and operate.
“Even a lot of the pros are unaware,” says Mike Nicolette, a PGA Tour veteran who won the 1983 Bay Hill Classic and now works as a research specialist at Ping. “To most people, it’s hard to conceive of all that goes into the design or building of a club or ball.”
Consider, for example, that it takes 130 man-hours to make one iron at Ping’s facilities in Phoenix. Or that there are more than 160 different steps in that manufacturing process. Or that workers use approximately 40 tools to make one of the company’s newest putters. Or that Ping created more than 150 prototypes for a wedge that was introduced last fall.
The ball manufacturing process is similar at Acushnet, the Fairhaven, Mass., business that makes Titleist and Pinnacle products. It has invested more than $100 million for manufacturing capacity expansion, process automation and new technology during the past five years, and its annual investment in golf ball research and development exceeds $10 million. All told, Acushnet employs more than 1,500 people in golf ball research and operations, many of whom have been making those products for years. Plus, it has two science vans constantly touring the country; manned by Acushnet technicians, the vehicles visit courses to test as many as 7,500 players annually for their launch conditions and to gather reams of data that will be used in the development of future balls.
While these numbers give a strong sense of what goes into the club- and ball-making process, the specifics are even more impressive. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at what was required for Ping and Titleist each to develop a single product:
Ping: ‘A natural progression’
It was summer 1999, and Ping was in the process of launching the i3 iron, which would become one of the best-selling, most-talked-about products the following year. Even then, the company was looking far beyond to its next launch. Research and development was under way on what would become the i3+ iron, which was introduced last summer.
“We got started almost as soon as we drew the line on the i3,” says chief executive John A. Solheim. “Actually, that’s the way it is with all our clubs. It’s a natural progression that doesn’t really have a start or finish. You continually do development work, and at some point you decide enough is enough and set a time frame to get that product out. Then you immediately begin looking at ways to improve it.”
According to Solheim’s 28-year-old son, John K., who serves as vice president of engineering, the company had 12 employees actively involved on a daily basis in the development of the i3+, working on everything from club design and the building of manufacturing tools to performance and durability testing of the prototypes.
“Essentially, this was a case where we knew what we wanted to do because we had done a lot of testing with the original i3s,” he says. “So we didn’t have to spend as much time on it as we otherwise might have. All told, we had less than five design iterations before we settled on a final version.”
Ping invests an immense amount of time and money in the development of its new clubs, starting with its engineering group, which currently has 60 people. It culls opinions on prototypes from its worldwide staff of 70 touring professionals as well as the 3,500 club professionals who sell – and fit – Ping irons.
The company also will consult with Ping Man, the company’s patented $1 million ball-hitting robot. In 1976, Ping founder Karsten Solheim commissioned the original Ping Man because he thought the famed “Iron Byron” used by competitors and the U.S. Golf Association did not adequately mimic the golf swing. There have been four Ping robots built since the original, each of which had the same sweet swing and lofty price tag.
And since 1998, the Ping Wrx (pronounced Works) has served as a boutique design center. Modeled after similar units in the sports car industry, Wrx has the express purpose of developing new products and manufacturing processes in a faster, freer-thinking way.
What Ping came up with after those months of laboring on the i3+ was a club that featured improved bounce angles, a redesigned leading edge, a slimmer profile, an advanced custom “tuning port” (the black oval piece in the back of the iron) and an ultralight, proprietary steel shaft the company had designed.
Once those elements were set, the manufacturing process began. Unlike other American clubmakers that hire low-cost, offshore contractors to cast clubheads, Ping does it all from scratch, first making the i3+ clubheads in its own foundry, also in Phoenix, then assembling the finished products in another locale. The process, while costly, allows Ping to oversee quality control and make technological advances more readily down the road.
The process Ping uses to make its clubheads is known as investment casting, and it starts with the injection of wax into two-piece molds and ends with a series of grindings and tumblings that smooth and finish. Workers then attach the shafts and grips and do their loft and lie calibrations.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of that operation is watching the actual casting, in which groups of workers wearing white jackets, bulky silver-colored aprons and helmets with protective visors pour the molten metal (17-4 ph stainless steel at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) into the molds. The workers move quickly and silently, raking sand into the bottoms of long trays that hold the molds, then carrying the pieces with pitchfork-like tools, as if they’re taking part in some sort of industrial ballet.
Ping’s i3+ irons are custom-built, as the company produces each set to a specific order from golfers who have been fitted by a staff professional on one of the company’s 3,500 demo carts throughout the country. (All of the pros who maintain these carts have been personally trained in custom fitting by Ping.) Within 48 hours of receiving an order, Ping is ready to ship clubs with precisely fitted lies, lofts, lengths, shafts and grips.
It is an endless process; while the i3+ only recently began reaching stores, development of its successor is well under way.
“We have to be quicker with our product cycles, and we have to drive the technology and spend money on research and development like never before,” says the elder Solheim. “The marketplace is demanding it, and we have to react by getting better and better.”
Titleist: ‘A sequel to Pro V1’
Titleist’s launch of the Pro V1 ball began in December 2000 with shipments to selected Sun Belt markets. Less than a year later, the company already was testing a low-spin ball for an entirely different price point and golfing audience. By the first quarter of 2002, it was selling the NXT Tour and NXT Distance products throughout the country.
“The idea was to create a sequel to Pro V1, but to a different target audience and with a two-piece ball,” says Bill Morgan, senior vice president for golf ball research and development at Acushnet. “We began by looking for a construction that would create the launch condition we wanted when struck by the kind of player we thought would use that ball, which is more of an aspirational golfer. After settling on that, we went to the aerodynamic features, including dimple patterns and style, and then coating systems. What we were looking to do was pick the best aerodynamic package for that construction we had already selected.”
Titleist moved quickly on NXT, going from the testing phase - which includes having PGA Tour pros, R&D people and Titleist staff professionals from some of the company’s 10,000 U.S. accounts play the ball - to full-fledged introduction, which officially came at the 2002 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., in a matter of months. By the time the new product was out, the company already had its 120 sales representatives peddling the balls to pro shops, golf specialty stores and sporting goods outlets across the country.
One year later, Titleist is bringing out the next generation of NXT – a ball that has been in the works for more than a year. Two new NXT models will begin shipping this quarter, the New NXT and the New NXT Tour.
Said George Sine, vice president of golf ball marketing and strategic planning for Acushnet: “Even though NXT was our most successful microbrand introduction ever, even though we posted worldwide sales in that franchise of nearly 5 million dozen since its introduction and took over more than 20 percent of Acushnet’s two-piece ball manufacturing capacity, we were already moving forward."