As featured on page 130-131 of the latest issue of bunkered, we spoke at length to Bill Morgan, Titleist’s Vice President of Golf Ball Research and Development about the process behind the making of the No.1 ball in golf. Although it would be impossible for us to fit it all into the magazine, it would be unfair of us to keep such an interesting interview to ourselves, so we have decided to publish the full transcript online for you all to read and get a real look into the inner workings at Titleist.
Titleist has long been creating golf balls using innovative technology and Bill Morgan kindly walked us through the process of getting a golf ball from research and development to a completed product.
Is the success of the Pro V1 something you envisioned when you first introduced it in 2000?
When we originally introduced Pro V1 way back in 2000, we had a lot of different golf balls at the time. A number of them were very successful back then and we introduced Pro V1 believing it would be a successful golf ball.
Within a couple of years we realised it was going to replace a number of products in our range and allow us to substantially simplify the range of products that we offer. Did we envision that at the time? I’d have to say no we really didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it became. Now a few years into it, did we then believe Pro V1 was going to be a large and long lasting success for us? We kind of got that feeling.
With the new range released on 1st March you were obviously pleased with the reaction on Tour and in tests with the model.
Very much. I’ll be honest with you, if we weren’t pleased with the test results then you wouldn’t have seen them. Our testing includes the lab test, the various longevity and durability tests, the player test, which refers to both tour and amateur players at our test sites and where they play their own golf. There is always lots and lots of testing behind the scenes that most of the world doesn’t see.
Was this year’s model the first time you had included Team Titleist for testing en masse?
No, we’ve used Team Titleist for testing for a number of years, they’ve not always known what they’re testing, and I’m not going to make any promises for the future either because we test everything from placebos to dimple patterns, new materials, manufacturing process changes and sometimes we just drop the new product on them. Being part of Team Titleist has got to be exciting because you get to use so many things, just unfortunately you don’t know what they are.
In terms of making a golf ball, how long does the process take from labs to getting a ball on Tour?
That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many different elements involved when we change a model of golf ball. We have cover changes, we have paint changes, construction changes and we have different teams that work on different parts of the ball simultaneously and not all of these product changes are the same length.
We didn’t sit down at some point and say, the new product changes are going to be this and then assign various different pieces of it for people to finish. We have ongoing R&D activities that we can see coming to fruition and then begin to plan for in future generations of product. I’ll tell you that the main system work, some of that goes back years, the cover work goes back even longer. There isn’t a clear beginning for these products, there’s a very obvious end point but exactly when all of the elements began is difficult to pinpoint and there are always so many changes along the way.
Buzz: An electric current is passed through the core
When it comes to testing golf balls, how many prototypes do you normally make? How long does it take from having an idea to getting a prototype in your hand?
We can get from idea to prototype in less than a week, but when we say idea, what we envision isn’t the finished prototype but a range of experimentation. The idea is, let’s try and say something, so what we’ll do is make a range of prototypes that have variations in particular properties, compositions or attributes that will change the performance characteristics of the ball. Within a week, we can have made experimental balls, they certainly won’t be the finished product but they’ll be something that will demonstrate to us what the opportunities are by making these different variations.
There’s a lot of talk in the world today about things like rapid prototyping and this 3D printing, you know, very Star-Trek like push the buttons and this machine is going to print miraculously a 3D product. That technology is nowhere near precise enough for golf ball dimples yet, or for the tooling we use to make golf balls, what I describe as the ‘build ‘em and bust ‘em’ phase. When we build prototypes, we make the prototypes and we hit the prototypes. You play golf on a golf course; you don’t play it on a computer so you’ve got to test them on the golf course.
It takes about a week to make a round of prototypes, it takes about a month to test them and there will be multiple stages of prototype testing, some of the things we do will involve significant manufacturing changes and you have simply got to make large numbers of golf balls to confirm the manufacturing changes that you’re attempting will reliably do what you want and with the degree of product consistency that you need from a Titleist golf ball.
It’s thousands and thousands and thousands of dozens of golf balls used in testing. We literally have machines that chop golf balls into the tiniest pieces, we just have to have that just because of the sheer amount of experimental products we make that you can’t let them out in the world, they’re not the finished product, there’s a lot of them so we chop them to smithereens. There’s a significant cost associated with product and process development, cost is labour and golf balls that you make.
Hit some balls: Millions of Titleist prototype golf balls are tested and then destroyed each year
Titleist obviously prides itself on being the No.1 ball in golf, but with more brands making the move into the premium golf ball market, how tough is it to stay the no. 1 ball in golf? Is it something you’re aware of? Is it something you pay much attention to?
I can give you a smug answer and say if it was easy then everyone would be the number one ball in golf, but we have the largest manufacturing base of any golf ball manufacturer, we have, own and operate all of our own factories with all of our own associates, all of our balls are made to our performance specifications with our material and process specifications, we have our quality specifications, we make all of our golf balls, we don’t make any golf balls for anybody else. Now, how many other golf ball sellers can say that? It’s not a large number; it may be a very small number, perhaps the smallest.
Now, with that degree of control over what we do, we can make sure we can do exactly what we want to do, we can use whatever process we want, we can use whatever material we want, for the purpose of making the best golf balls we possibly can. We’re not trying to make the cheapest golf balls, we’re not even trying to make the longest golf balls, this system is important and all the Titleist golf balls are long but what we’re really trying to do is make golf balls that help golfers shoot lower scores and improve their experience of playing golf.
All of our golf balls are long, we’re trying to help you shoot lower scores because golfers like playing golf when they shoot lower scores, and we offer things like softer feel, yellow colour, different numbering systems etc because golfers have preferences for things like that, it adds to their experience of the game. We’re the number one ball in golf because we’ve been able to fulfil the needs of golfers better than anyone else.
We can say we have more tour players, more tour wins, more tour money and sure that’s all true but the fact of the matter is when you step away from the highly compensated tour golf and move to the equally as competitive but non-compensated golf, you go to club championships or college golf in the USA, the actual Titleist usage rates go up when players aren’t paid for using particular golf balls. It’s golfers that have, in a sense, declared us to be the number one ball in golf and that is very gratifying for us because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, make golf balls that help golfers shoot lower scores and enjoy the game more.
Titleist branding: The famous Titleist script is applied
How much time and effort do you spend researching other brands and golf balls?
As with most things, how much time and how much money we spend are confidential, the accounts and lawyers don’t want me to reveal that, but I will tell you this, I have several members of staff whose full time job is to analyse competitive products and not just the stuff that’s played on tour but all tiers of golf balls that exist in the world. Everything from tour played balls to recycled pond balls, we buy them all, we test them all, we check everything, we have a fairly good sense of where all the balls come from, who makes what, what factories are involved, who has what quality standards, who attains what degree of performance, and that really forms our benchmark where our product stands versus the competitive field.
If we’re going to walk around saying we’re the number one ball in golf then we ought to know, and we do know, and that analysis is part of what helps us understand what we need to do to make sure we continue to be the number one ball in golf.
How do the various stages of bringing a Pro V1 to life break down?
The way the process begins is that we have a planning system that we use for our product process, which we call a 3-generation plan, where we’re not talking about current models but we’re talking abut future models of golf balls and our product management and marketing team has done lots of research with golfers and the market place to try and project what types of products we’ll need and at what intervals of time we’ll need to introduce them. We set up this matrix of what I call ‘Now is the product we’re working on just now, Next is the product that will follow the Now and then of course Future, which follows the next’. We’ll have less specificity regarding what each of those models needs to be within the plan, but we’ll have some idea about who the product is intended for, what performance characteristics are going to be required, what its position in the market place will be, so forth and so on. That’s kind of a framework of where we’d like to go.
At the same time, within our research team with our R&D group, we have teams that work relatively independently of each other on different components of the golf ball. There’s an aerodynamics group that’s working on dimple patterns and the tooling that we use to mould our golf balls because that’s the step in the process where we form the dimples, so we have the aerodynamics team. We have a team that works on the urethane materials, we have another team that works on surlyn and ionomer thermoplastic type materials that in some cases are covers and in some cases are intermediate layers of golf balls.
We have a team that works on the rubber compositions, we have a team that works on putting all of the parts and pieces together to make variations on construction where they do experimentations with thicknesses of layers and sizes of cores and 3-piece versus 4-piece versus whatever number of pieces you think, there’s a group honestly that kind of tries wacky stuff. I can’t tell you what they’re working on but I can tell you that they’re not allowed to work on anything we’re already doing. They have to try something completely new.
Compression: The moulding is compressed for the casing
So I have all these groups that are working like this, and a group of us looks at the progress that they’re having, we have regular reports on methodology then we have to predict what of their efforts will be available for use at what point in the future. Then we sit there and say, ok, this is our shopping cart worth of stuff that could be used in the next generation of products, where do we think it might fit, what golfer needs will it match with, if there’s something that golfers want that we don’t satisfy with all this stuff, do we need to redirect our research efforts, so we’ll take that interplay of what we’re working on, what we’re thinking of and what we’re projecting we might need and try to put together a plan for specific models of golf balls.
It sounds particularly complicated, there are some that fall into place very easily, it’s just obvious what we should do and there are others that we need to talk about and bring golfers into the dialogue. With Team Titleist we have done survey work where we need to refine our understanding of what their interests are. We’ll literally ask them, what do you think of this, what do you think of that and sometimes we’ll build prototype balls, for example, we might say to ourselves, golfers want softer golf balls, well how much softer of a golf ball can they really tell. So we’ll make golf balls of 2 or 3 degrees of different hardness and softness and send them to them, not marked, and ask them which they like the best and what differences they noticed and they’ll get back to us and tell us what they thought. That way we refine our understanding of what differences golfers can appreciate in golf balls, because it would be very easy for us to make lots of little changes and say we did this or we did that, but golfers can’t tell. Well that’s not really the way you want to conduct yourself.
We then take that understanding of what we can do, blend it with what we’re working on and what we think the market place needs are, balance that against our three-generation plan and try to slot projects that will fulfil the project introduction scheme.
You mentioned a number of groups involved, but how many people are there involved in the process?
Again, it’s a fuzzy thing because the entire product development, product delivery process can’t happen just in R&D alone, there are members of our product management and product marketing team that are involved, there’s members of our quality groups that are involved, there’s manufacturing/engineering that are involved and the folks at the plant are also involved. I’m not going to give you a number that includes all of them, but all of them are involved in the product development and delivery process, within golf ball R&D we’re in the region of 75 people.
With that number of people discussing golf ball R&D, do you continue to have opposing opinions on how Titleist should move forward?
There has never been a point in time where we didn’t have opposing opinions. The debate is the cauldron of invention; if you don’t have that then you don’t have any ideas. Absolutely necessary.
For information on all Titleist products, visit www.titleist.co.uk
Originally published on bunkered on May 8, 2013.