Pro V1 evolution: Titleist guides its top ball forward

Bill Morgan, Titleist Pro V1

Pro V1 evolution: Titleist guides its top ball forward

Equipment

Pro V1 evolution: Titleist guides its top ball forward

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FAIRHAVEN, Mass. – Titleist has just released the latest version of the Pro V1 and Pro V1x golf balls, the company’s crown jewels, but it would be a mistake to call those little white orbs “new.”

There really hasn’t been a genuinely new Pro V1 since 2000, when the ball arrived on the PGA Tour at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas. Nearly 50 pros put the ball in play, including eventual winner Billy Andrade, and the rest is history.

It’s true that the balls packed in sleeves of three and boxes of 12 at the recent 2015 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., have never been available to the public, but Titleist did not start with a blank sheet.

“Starting from scratch would mean taking brand new people, putting them in a room, and challenging them to make golf balls in a brand new way,” said Bill Morgan, Titleist’s senior vice president of golf ball research and development. “That doesn’t happen very often. You take the best of what you have already done and you make it better.”

Another reason not to start from scratch: the Pro V1 and Pro V1x are the most-played balls on the PGA Tour. Consider these numbers from the 2013-14 wraparound season:

  • The Titleist Pro V1 and Pro V1x combined for 26 PGA Tour victories. The closest competitor: 7.
  • A Pro V1 or a Pro V1x was played by a competitor 3,355 times. The next most-played ball was used 707 times.
  • 93 golfers used a Pro V1 or Pro V1x at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The closest competitor: 20.

With that level of usage by the game’s elite players, making radical changes would be a big gamble.

During a phone conversation in December 2013, Morgan revealed that parts of the 2013 Pro V1 golf ball’s cover were in development before the 2011 version of the ball was released. Similarly, there are technologies and design elements in the latest ball, the 2015 Pro V1, that were in development before the release of the 2013 ball.

The reality: The 2015 Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls represent a moment in time, marking where Titleist is in the evolution of one of the game’s most iconic products.

Here’s how the balls came to be.

• • •

Titleist traditionally has released new Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls every two years. In the days after releasing the last version of the balls at the 2013 PGA Merchandise Show, formal meetings were held at the company’s headquarters to discuss what the company would do with the next version.

At least once per quarter, members of the Titleist R&D department gather to discuss not only the balls that are available, but also trends and what various researchers and designers have learned from ongoing tests and experiments. Informally, meetings and discussions spark up regularly in hallways, the cafeteria, the parking lot and on golf courses.

“There is a dialogue within my group, and with other members of the company, about what we are going to try next all the time,” Morgan said. “Less formally . . . they take place before the introduction, too. We have had conversations already about what we might do in 2017 and beyond.”

The foundation for what the company does with the next Pro V1 is based on what it has learned from testing. Titleist is continuously conducting laboratory tests in Fairhaven to learn things such as chemical reactions when different materials are blended. Pallets of balls have been put on the building’s roof to study the effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays on the cove’rs white paint. They’re also tested by pros at PGA Tour events and amateur players.

According to Fordie Pitts, Titleist’s PGA Tour rep for golf balls, the first player tests conducted in 2014 that featured technologies that wound up in the recently released Pro V1 occurred in Palm Springs, Calif., before the start of the Humana Challenge. Separate player tests using prototype Pro V1x balls were conducted at TPC Sawgrass before The Players Championship in May.

“A lot of times, depending on where we are, we don’t know what we are testing,” Pitts said. “Those first few months it was completely double-blind: the players didn’t know (what Titleist was testing), and I didn’t know. We had no idea. We did all of our reports, sent all of our feedback, and we still didn’t know. Four months of testing, and I didn’t find out about it until a month after it was done.”

Using blind testing (when a player is not told the difference between two prototype balls), and in some cases double-blind testing (when neither the player nor the test’s conductor knows the differences), ensures the results are not swayed or biased by preconceptions and guesses.

Though Morgan concedes Titleist is not above dropping a placebo into a prototype test (giving a player his own ball to test and telling him it’s a prototype), he said that it is done rarely. He knows the pros are insightful and perceptive, and he’s not in the business of trying to stump them.

Brendan Steele

Brendan Steele testing golf balls at Congressional Country Club. (David Dusek/Golfweek)

The test that Pitts conducted with Brendan Steele at Congressional Country Club before the start of the Quicken Loans National in June was typical.

“In that go ’round, we had very specific instructions,” Pitts said. “We were told to start at the green and work our way back; we did not want the first shot the players hit to be with the driver or with a full iron. We wanted them to create the first impression with a greenside club, and that included putting.”

Using his Pro V1x ball, Steele played the first two holes of his practice round with Keegan Bradley. After Steele hit his approach shot to the par-4 third hole, Pitts gave him three prototype balls from a white, unmarked sleeve. Steele dropped them into the greenside rough and proceeded to hit some chips and pitch shots.

“I’ve tried all the versions of the Pro V1, going all the way back,” Steele said. “I always notice a little difference. But as I’ve told Fordie, I always defer to, ‘I didn’t notice a difference,’ unless it’s blatant and I really notice it.”

After chipping and pitching, Steele reported he didn’t notice any major difference between his 2013 Pro V1x and the prototype balls. He then used one of the prototypes to tee off on the fourth hole. After Steele hooked his drive into the left rough, Pitts searched for the prototype for about 10 minutes before a marshal found it. Titleist does not want prototype balls left unaccounted in public.

Meanwhile, Morgan and Titleist’s engineers had conducted tests using the company’s online community, Team Titleist.

“We send out balls with TEST side-stamps, or symbols on the balls, and ask our Team Titleist players to evaluate them. We want them to tell us what they have observed or not observed,” Morgan said. “We’ve done all kinds of testing, and sometimes we’re testing golf balls and some-times we’re testing the golfers.

“We need to know what they are capable of discerning in terms of distance, in flight, in feel. I mean, we may be asking them to tell the difference between a golf ball with a compression of 90 and a ball that has a compression of 85. If they can’t tell, then there’s no difference between a 90 and an 85 at all, is there?”

Titleist says more than 45,000 golfers around the world have received prototypes and provided feedback to the company. One test, conducted with 6,000 Team Titleist members, was instrumental to the R&D team defining the final specifications for the 2015 Pro V1x.

By mid-July 2014, with the feedback from material testing, comparative testing, robotic testing, tour pros and amateur players having been analyzed, the final specifications for the 2015 Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls were established.

The company won’t break out individual product production volume, but across all of its offerings Titleist manufacturers about 25 million dozen balls every year. That translates to 300 million balls every year being made in Titleist’s factories in Massachusetts and Thailand, and the company will confirm that the Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls are the largest by volume.

Titleist needs plenty of lead time before the release of a new Pro V1 and Pro V1x. Because updated versions of the balls often feature different formulations in core or cover composition, the company works with its suppliers to ensure it has access to all of the materials – synthetic rubber, chemical compounds, paint – that it needs. Factories keep only one day’s worth of materials onsite, with additional inventories stored in nearby warehouses. If a different dimple pattern has been created, a new set of metal tools must be precisely crafted to cast the urethane covers.

Once Morgan returns to his windowless office in the research-and-development area at Titleist’s headquarters after this year’s PGA Merchandise Show, the formal discussions about the 2017 Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls will begin.

The process will be repeated: Experiments will be conducted, pros will be asked to try various prototypes and tests will be administered to recreational players. Some materials and designs will show promise, while others will fizzle. Some things will work on the computer but not on the course, so more research will be needed.

Going on 15 years since the Pro V1 arrived, the process continues.

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