Peter Kostis: Today’s ‘hot’ golf balls

February 19, 2007

Will everybody please stop picking on the golf ball?

For several years, we’ve heard plenty of “authorities” claim that the modern ball is making classic courses obsolete and ruining the game. I’m here to tell you it’s not so. According to Titleist’s own data, today’s Titleist Pro V1x travels only seven yards longer on average off the driver than the Pinnacle two-piece distance ball of 1982:

INITIAL VELOCITY 252 ft/sec 254.1 ft/sec
BALL SPEED 233.5 mph 235.1 mph
LAUNCH ANGLE 9.9 degrees 9.9 degrees
SPIN RATE 2,664 rpm 2,700 rpm
CARRY DISTANCE 255.1 yards 263.5 yards
CARRY PLUS ROLL 281.5 yards 288.6 yards

Surprised? Here’s the rub: In 1982, PGA Tour players no longer used the Pinnacle in competition. The leading ball on Tour was the Titleist Pro Trajectory, which had a much higher spin rate (4,100 rpm) and lower launch angle (8 degrees) than either of the balls above. Its carry plus roll was 270 yards (252 carry, 18 roll).

Why weren’t Tour players using the longest ball? Because the USGA’s one-ball rule of 1979 decreed that players must use the same brand and model ball throughout a round. Before 1979, Tour pros would use distance balls such as the Pinnacle or Top-Flite XL for tee shots (especially into the wind) and long par 3s, then replace it with a softer-cover ball on the greens. With the one-ball rule in place, Tour players dumped distance balls in favor of balata balls, which provided the soft feel needed for chips and putts.

Today’s technology allows manufacturers to combine the performance of a distance ball with the feel of balata. So Tour players no longer have to sacrifice one to get the other. But even with these advancements, how can we explain the 46 yards separating 1982 Tour distance leader Bill Calfee (275.3 yards) and Hank Kuehne in 2003 (321.4 yards)? Easy.

Those who blame only the ball ignore the “perfect storm” that really drives today’s distance: stronger, well-taught players; lightweight drivers with larger sweetspots; and courses with firm, fast fairways. During the last few Colonial tournaments, my CBS colleagues and I joked that the greens were running 11 on the Stimpmeter, and the fairways about 10.5! Such factors add as much distance as the ball, if not more.

We’ll keep hearing the tired argument that a ball-driven distance explosion is damaging the game. It’s ludicrous. What we will see are 300-yard-plus tee shots long—very long—into the future. And it’s a good thing, because I can’t remember the last time fans went to a Tour event to see the world’s best putter.

Contributing writer Peter Kostis is one of GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 Teachers.