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Feedback From USGA's Prototype Ball Testing Event

Lost in the PGA Championship hoopla was Monday's USGA-hosted competition for select Canadian Tour invitees to play modified balls as part of the organization's ongoing golf ball testing.

Prior to the competition, played August 16th at Greystone Golf Club in Milton, Ontario, the event was comprised of a small field organized by tour deputy Dan Halldorson, who you may recall, refused comment a few weeks back when it was revealed the USGA might be conducting tests in Ontario. The field of lucky rollback-ball testers played 18-holes with a small competition and purse featuring something in the neighborhood of $1500 for first place (reportedly it was a 67), coupled with an appearance fee in the $200-300 range.

Before the event, I called the USGA's Dick Rugge to find out more about the testing, but he kindly refused to even acknowledge whether it was taking place to protect the testing process. Naturally, I did not place a follow-up call to confirm the details below since many are subjective views and, well, how can one comment on an event that may or may not be taking place?

But thankfully, there's Facebook.

Your devoted blogger messaged as many players from the field as he could find on the social networking site to ask if they were invited to play in the event and if so, if they would talk about their experiences. But because the USGA had the players sign a non-disclosure agreement specifically mentioning the lowly media, I was (nicely) declined by several.

However, they did talk to their fellow players and friends! (And don't bother USGA, I did not Friend any of these poor souls just in case the Far Hills Police were inspired by their peers in Palo Alto).

Below is a summary based on two sources, with the each noted in describing what their friends experienced. One conversation was with a young Canadian Tour player who spoke to three peers that played in the event, including one present in his car as I interviewed the informant! 

The other source played golf with a tester this week, who offered several details which were shared with me in several exchanges. I know the second player's name, but in order for him to cash his check and not face a lifetime wondering if his U.S. Open entry will be intercepted by the USGA testing department, his name will be withheld. 

Miscellaneous anecdotes from the day:

  • Testing began during the Clublink Jane Rogers Championship, with several Trackman and ShotLink-style devices set up to document play with today's equipment, followed by Monday's event with the shorter ball and further testing.
  • The unmarked ball, described by both sources as having a shallow, odd dimple pattern with "a lot of flat surfacing," typically went about 20 yards shorter with the best hit drives.
  • The ball did not spin much and flew unusually straight, as well as on a lower trajectory according to both sources. The younger Canadian Tour player whose friends also are under-25 types, said his buds described their experience as unenjoyable because the ball did not curve at all and played like a limited flight range ball. One of his peers also said the feel around the greens was "just awful."
  • My other source, on the other hand, reported distinctly different views. An early 30's player of accomplishment, called the experience "unreal." He loved the shotmaking emphasis, the longer irons hit into greens, the overall emphasis on skill despite his misgivings about the straighter flight of the prototype. He also reported that his fellow playing partners were enthusiastic despite some concerns about the ball seemingly wiping away a distance advantage of one longer player in the group while not impacting others as much.
  • The players who enjoyed their experience said their irons flew about one club shorter, which, combined with the distance off the tee lost, meant 2-3 clubs more into greens.He also reported loving shots around the green more and found that he could play all types of shots, both with backspin or of the bump-and-run variety.  "Way better, so fun," was the feedback.
  • There was a tub of the balls for the players to chip and putt with prior to the round, closely guarded by an official. The player whose friend contacted me wanted to take some with him, but was told no by an official. Each group had an observer of some kind and this player was only allowed one ball at a time. However, the player in question snuck one out and a photograph may be forthcoming.
  • One player reported that the ball was made by Bridgestone.
  • Greystone was setup up exactly as it was in the Jane Rogers tournament. The Canadian Tour player who did not compete in the Monday event but played in the Rogers reported that the course is one of the toughest they play on the tour, with greens running 13 feet on the Stimpmeter and a cut this year of five over. He described the design as "very modern-looking" and thought it was an odd selection because of its architecture.
  • The younger player who spoke to his peers said one reported that if he had to play such a ball he'd "probably quit golf."
  • The friend of the older player who contacted me had the chance to hit a few putts with the ball and said it reminded me of the old Titleist Professional. His Canadian Tour player friend concurred. Though the player said the ball "sort of self corrected in flight," saying "it would start to curve one way and then kinda stop. We have often said the same thing about the Pro V."
  • Both sources reported that their friends were repeatedly assured that a ball rollback would not happen anytime soon. The players were told in no uncertain terms that the USGA and R&A were happy with the ball where it is now and there are no plans whatsoever to change ball rules.

  • The older player was said to be "pretty suspicious" of this stance because he thought the amount of effort that went into the testing suggested otherwise. His conclusion, which was shared in a survey of some form that I'm trying to learn more about, was that the idea was "great," that he had "a lot of fun," and while he felt it restored a premium on ball striking, he was not convinced this was the right short ball to use in any form of rollback scenario.

You can also read more player feedback from Ian Andrew here.

I'm going to sit on this for a few hours before I react, but I know you'll have comments!

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Reader Comments (28)

Distance Rollback = Good
Self-correcting ball flight? = They'd better work on that one.
08.19.2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
Hopefully the picture of the ball won't lead to a USGA black helicopter intercept:
08.19.2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin
Great work Geoff-really interesting.2 OR 3 clubs more into the green sounds fair enough but they would definately need to find a ball that moved about more to really bring back shotmaking.
A good start though.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered Commenterchico
Why are they so paranoid about one of these rolled back balls getting out? Are they worried people might like it? Why not let the public get their hands on some?

It sounds like the manufacturers tried to make them a crappy ball that no one would like.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterOB
I'm not surprised they let players know they were happy with the status quo. It's been obvious to everyone following the ball issue. It's alsos why the USGA and R&A have no credibility.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavidC
No credibility! No credibility? But the director's just gave themselves a 30% pay raise. How can that happen if you have no credibility?
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim in Hoylake
I remember loving the Titleist Professional when it came out. It would be interesting to see tournaments won by that ball and the players that won them.
It's a start. We'll just have to wait and see.............why don't they just play with a 50-compression ball?
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Morris
I remember that chico and I had a minor disagreement about the Professional, but I thought it was a great ball, too. Almost like the synthetic balata that it replaced but much more durable (more so than the ProV1, that's for sure). I could actually curve that ball, on purpose, and it went plenty far enough. But you know that the manufacturing equipment required to produce a wound ball has been destroyed in some sort of reverse-Luddite frenzy...I bet Tiger won the 1997 Masters with a Professional, S&T. IIRC that was a "win for the ages!"
Somewhat good news. The big problem I see is the lack of spin from the ball.

Back in the stone ages when I played competitive golf, there were guys who could really bomb the ball. BUT, they all had to dial back their swings b/c the ball spun so much that they had trouble controlling direction. If they didn't hit it dead square, it would spin off into the trees and they would be dead.

The problem with today's bombers is that they don't have to pay any accuracy price for swinging for the fences.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Ford
Ky.... the Professional was a great ball and yes thats the ball Tiger used to "win for the ages" in Augusta circa April 1997. The urethane cover on that ball was quite durable. Still have a few of those balls in the garage in an old sack of practice balls. I'm sure the windings are totally shot by now.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterOWGR Fan
I spoke with one of the players on the Monday night after the testing. He said they were looking at 10% difference in overall distance. A 200 yard club would fly 180, 300 yard drive would go 270. He found the testing pretty eye opening and obviously difficult to adjust to on the spot.

His friend made an interesting point though - why are people worried that golfers are hitting it farther? There is progress in every sport through new training and new equipment just as their is progress in us as humans as we continue to learn new things. Maybe we should just embrace it all?
Terrific exercise in journalism Geoff, thanks. Sounds like the priority was to get a ball that really limited distance; I suspect the thinking is that once that aspect of the standard is defined the mfgs can go to work on tweaking spin and feel. Heartened by the generally positive reactions.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterF. X. Flinn
I would have thought they would have 36 holes of play, to establish a larger database, but so it goes.

*Sinister investigative reporting :awesome.....perhaps a new cable summer series....young touring pro with great looking squeeze bounds thru the country from tourney to tourney trying to get hand on a sleeve of the German Uboat marked balls rumored to have been used in Canada .

Weekly series self contained story, but the dangling link is the quest for the ball, and another clue as to where it can be found, revealed in the last minute every week, serial style.... with the hero playing a casual round and his golf cart starting to run off a cliff, damsel watching in horror.....

Each new show revealing the cart landing below the bluff in what may or may not be a bunker, depending upon alien placed blue dots, with sperical object flying off in the distance, strangely with German uboat markings on the side. Could it be? Is the ball actually an alien spacecraft, able to self correct in flight? What are the ROG governing occupied balls? 2 stroke penalty? DQ? Extra sprnkles on ice cream?

Official nails our hero walking off the 18th, arm on shoulders. Black Suburbans with men in dark suits and sunglasses are talking to their wrists.

The possibilities are endless, and if the story line is (this) bad, then at least the good looking girlfriend will warrent watching.

Tuesdays at 9 pm.

Has to be better than Haney.

great repoting, G.


*did they really thinh the word would not get out, or was this an unplanned planned leak?
08.20.2010 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
Tour golf will wither and then die, if they continue this tinkering.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrim Reaper
Greystone is an odd place to conduct tests - there are huge elevation changes and it is mostly target-type strategy. In addition, the greens are massive and it is very common to line up a few inches outside the hole on three foot putts. Gets a little exhausting in that regard.
One would think they would do testing on a more traditional course.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarky Mark
Thanks for digging into the story. I'd like to think this testing is more than a "see, we looked into it and everything's just fine the way it is now" exercise, but I'm not hopeful.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike T.
Possible threadjac/stupid question or both:

I think many or most of us would like to see a return to shotmaking - working the ball, flighting the ball etc. In terms of television viewing, how much would more shotmaking enhance the experience? We would know they are carving the ball, but we would never see it wihtout shottracker.

I realize that there is more involved here than just viewing and ratings, I 'm just curious about this aspect of it.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterTighthead
Man you guys must be good players if you liked the Titleist Professional. Though the cover was certainly more durable that the balatas of old, one off-center hit with the driver and my ball would end up almost oblong (or, at least, unable to fit through the ball-sized ring that I had on my bag to measure when balls went out of round). This is, of course, no longer necessary with the advent of the Top Flites with soft covers we can now play with.

I would give the powers that be a lot more credit for this event if they had done it five years ago, but maybe better late than never??
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterSmolmania
They have obviously altered the balls aero properties to make it go shorter but I bet they also knew that would make it go low and straight-not enough spin.
I'm all for a lighter ball(which incidentially is available now)-it goes shorter and is more likely to be affected by sidespin-cost of change versus changing drivers and courses-almost nil.
Yes Ky I wasnt a fan of the professional-but only because I couldnt play it as well as the balata-like most people my opinions can be a bit selfish!
08.20.2010 | Unregistered Commenterchico
Wait till whamo comes out with flubber filled ball. now THAT will be a real game changer.

FWIW, I love to see shotmaking. It is bad enough that TV spends too much air time on boring putting, few irons and tee shots, but they roll along on someone playing well, and then rarely show the trouble hole, or the great 30 yard slice recovery, you know unless it's what's his name ,ot your know, the contender.

08.20.2010 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
With some new information, I've started to change my thinking on who or what is behind the reluctance to change the golf ball. I've heard directly from manufacturers that hey have no problem with the idea of a tournament ball and they have more than enough data to prove that people will continue to buy the balls simply because they love to play what the pros play. They say they have not been the ones to hold back any changes to the ball, or a "tournament ball". Does this mean it has been the ruling bodies who have been scared of losing viewers because they think people tune in to see a pro hit it 350 yards over all the trouble?
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterPress Agent
As usual, the USGA did things backwards... going after aero instead of spin... what is more required is to create VARIANCE in distance and direction, which is spin related, make the ball spin more, it flies crooked and its distance will be inconsistent, which will make scores rise, and put a premium on controlled swings
08.20.2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug
Smols is absolutely right about an off-center or thin hit. I generally lost one or two Professionals per dozen to that. Some of the resultant bulges didn't even need the out-of-round ring to detect and made interesting conversation pieces. But the same hit with a wedge would just about cut the previous low-trajectory "balata" 380-something in half, so before the Professional I generally used a DT. They were better than the solid balls available back in the dark ages, but not by much. Plus, chico has an advantage over me: He can play the game, so cutting wound balls open probably wasn't a problem for him. Nor did he give trees Surlyn poisoning, while I probably killed more than a few that way.
So Great Now I look forward to hitting a ball so crappy that it flies into the woods. FUN! That will bring out the masses to play golf.

Change the ball for the Tour. Good bye Tour. If you got a 18 yr old kid who flies it 310 off the tee and then all of a sudden he's forced to play a ball that goes 270 and feels goofy around the green--what are the chances he says good bye to trying to get a Tour card. Maybe he says screw it or maybe not. Whatever it seems counter productive to roll back the ball at this point to make a few courses relevant and a Very Few of the worlds best hit it shorter. Put the brakes on the ball. OK. Anyone under the age of 25 want A roll back? Doubt it.
08.20.2010 | Unregistered Commentervwgolfer
One of your all-time great posts, Geoff. And some great comments, too.

Let's summarize some of the common complaints about golf balls, and the status quo. I'm not subscribing to any/all of these theorems, just saying they are representative...

~Modern balls go too far, at least for elite players.
~Modern balls are too effective at reducing spin with driver while still providing spin with short irons. This gets boiled down to, "Modern balls should be made to spin more, to emphasize shotmaking."
~Modern balls are extremely advantageous for longer hitters and elites; they have done little for average players. A gulf has been widened between classes of players.
~Modern balls have assisted elite players in obsoleting classic championship courses, on a distance basis.

If we look into the anecdotal evidence from the recent Canadian Tour experiment, it would appear that the experiment went in the direction of rolling back distance, without adding spinniness to the balls (and, with more spin, forcing players to throttle back). For some observers, this seems like the wrong way to go. I'm not sure I agree. We all recognized that the technology problem is one for elite players, not recreational players. Recreational players, by and large, don't have distance problems, insofar as they can always move up a tee or two. Recreational players DO have problems with slices and hooks. And a greatly-increased spin-rate ball regulation might just drive those players crazy.

But what about a low-spin ball with rolled back distance? The advantgage there, goes to the stronger and fitter player. It is more of Wally Uihlein's "power game" paradigm. Should that be instinctively opposed by devoted acolytes of Geoff Shackelford like me? I don't think so. If golf becomes a game where the equipment is scaled back to fit the existing courses (as I'd strongly argue SHOULD happen), but at the same time, emphasizes fitness and strength in hitting low-spin balls, is that wrong? I don't think so.
08.21.2010 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
btw: Credit to whomever created this experiment. And shame on whomever decided that it would be cloaked in secrecy, with no questions asked and NDA's all around.

It may be that it is the same group of people that I am simultaneously congratulating and condemning...
08.21.2010 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
Huh I don't think manufacturers create just not to be liked... evolution is the answer... innovative balls like Titleist Pro V1 Balls made each game a blast!

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