Double Covers

Could this be a trend? Mark O'Meara wins twice on the PGA Tour with two different golf balls. O'Meara plays a wound, three-piece Titleist Tour Balata to win the season-opening Mercedes Championship and 16 weeks later wins the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic using Top-Flite's new Strata Tour, a three-piece, solid-core ball made with what the company calls "multi-layer technology."

The Multi Layer Ball High spinning accuracy  near the green is also a feature of this design

Corey Pavin won the 1995 U.S. Open with a Titleist Tour Balata and then added a victory several months later at the Nedbank Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa playing Titleist's new two-piece ball, the HP2 Tour.

What gives here? Are golf balls so similar that the top players in the world can win from week to week using different models?

"You had huge trade-offs between balls before," says Hank Rojas, the president of Bridgestone, one of the game's major ball manufacturers. "Now the trade-offs are not quite as big."

Two-piece construction

Two-piece balls have come a long way since their debut in 1968

The various balls played by 1996 PGA Tour winners emphasize this broadening of the marketplace. As of the Memorial Tournament (21 events), three types of wound, three-piece balls accounted for 15 victories. Four types of high-spin two-piece balls accounted for four wins and the remaining two victories came via new entries--Bridgestone's four-piece ball and Top-Flite's Strata Tour. That's four different construction methods but nine different models. That kind of variety was unthinkable just a decade ago.

"Each ball out here has its own great characteristic," says Lee Janzen, who has played Top-Flite, Titleist and Bridgestone balls during his career. "It's really up to the individual player as to what he's looking for in a ball. Someone who hits a low ball wants a ball with a lot of spin while somebody like Greg Norman, who hits it very high, doesn't want a ball that spins a lot. Most balls have certain little things that make each of them different from the next."

The new Bridgestone and Top-Flite balls are the latest entries in the market that attempt to perfect the feel, distance and durability equation.

Bridgestone's new Precept Tour, which will be available this fall, is a wound, four-piece ball that Nick Faldo used to win the Masters this spring. The ball is similar to a traditional wound, three-piece ball (core, windings, cover) except that Bridgestone has added a smooth, inner cover, or mantle, under the outside cover. Call it double-cover technology.

Traditional three-pieceBalata, lithium and Surlyn covers have allowed wound balls to be played by those looking for both distance and high spin
 wound ball

"The wound part of the ball is not quite as big as that of a traditional three-piece balata ball," says Rojas. "It's designed to feel like a balata ball but give you the distance and consistency of a two-piece." Comparing the Precept Tour with another Bridgestone high-performance ball, the two-piece Precept EV Extra Spin, Rojas says the four-piece ball is "softer and spins a little more but may be a little shorter. Its roundness holds up a little better, and it is more consistent over a longer period." 

Top-Flite's three-piece Strata Tour is similar to a two-piece ball (core and cover) but differs in that it, too, includes an inner cover, or mantle. Top-Flite calls this process "multi-layering," which is similar to the way Wilson manufactures its Ultra 500 series of balls. The Strata Tour was designed specifically for low-handicap players and for high performance from 50 yards and in, according to Mike Sullivan, senior director of research for Spalding.

"The relative hardness between the layers enables you to tailor the spin characteristics of the ball," says Ralph Peterson, manager of research and development at Wilson. "You can make it a high-spinning ball or a low-spinning ball, and using technology you can modify things such as spin, durability and cut resistance."

Some background information might help. A ball hit with a driver has a higher-impact velocity (it leaves the face faster) than one hit with a wedge. There are two reasons for this: greater swing speed and less loft. As you go through your bag from driver to wedge, the compression on the ball at impact decreases with each club. The harder the hit, the deeper the compression of the ball. The deeper the compression, the more the core and inner layer come into play.

According to the manufacturers of these new balls, the inner cover reduces the compression at impact so that the ball jumps off the face faster and with less spin when hit by a driver. Conversely, when the ball is hit by a wedge, the compression is not nearly as severe and that allows the softer, outer cover to pinch against the clubface and give the ball more spin.

Four-piece double cover construction

The intention of the additional cover?

low spin rates off the driver and high spin rates an short-iron shots, plus added durability

"Multi-cover technology is intriguing, no question about it," says Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Titleist and Foot-Joy Worldwide. "We'll be looking at it to see if it brings to the market any added value where the value previously did not exist."

Golf balls continue the trend toward custom fitting for every kind of golfer imaginable. The beneficiary of all this competition and innovation is the consumer, but only if he or she can keep the various models straight and know what ball best suits his or her game.

Titleist, for example, features six models of two- and three-piece balls in addition to five more in its two-piece Pinnacle line. Top-Flite features seven different models including the Strata Tour. Bridgestone has four balls in its EV line in addition to the Precept Tour. Maxfli has five varieties, Wilson and HPG (Hansberger) have eight, Slazenger has four and Hogan features three models in its line.

For those of you scoring at home, that's 51 different models of golf balls. And don't forget that both Callaway and Cobra will soon become players in the ball market.

"There are not too many horizons to explore in terms of aerodynamics with golf balls, but there are when it comes to the interfacing between golf ball and clubhead," says Rick Watson, director of golf-ball marketing for Top-Flite.

So what does the future hold for golf ball design? Will we see five- and six-piece balls?

"I think the future is a one-piece ball," says Rojas, "but that's a long way off."