To understand how far golf equipment has come, it’s important to go back and look at where we started. No, this isn’t a nostalgic look back at featheries and gutties, but rather at the juncture in our game where the biggest distance spike occurred. It was roughly two decades ago that Tiger Woods put the golf world on notice when he first employed a solid-construction, multi-layer Nike Tour Accuracy at the 2000 Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Hamburg.
Woods wasn’t the first to embrace solid construction in the professional ranks, but he was the harbinger of change: a megastar who forced the rest of the Tour to reconsider their ball of choice, which, at that time, was predominantly wound construction featuring either a liquid-filled or solid center. The convergence of Woods’ near-immediate success with Tour Accuracy and introduction of Titleist’s Pro V1 saw solid-construction, multi-layer balls become the norm almost overnight.
At the 2000 Masters, one month before Woods officially put Tour Accuracy in play, 59 of the 95 players in the field were using a wound ball. The following year, all but four players in the field used a solid-core ball.
Combine the meteoric rise of the solid-core ball with groundbreaking technology in the club design space and you have a recipe for astonishing distance gains. Bryson DeChambeau, the Tour’s leader in driving distance, is averaging 323.3 yards off the tee this season. That’s in addition to the 400-yard drives that have become a regular part of his game.
To put those numbers into perspective: DeChambeau’s distance average is 17 yards ahead of where John Daly finished the 2001 season — as the leader in the category.
Daly also happened to be the only player who averaged more than 300 yards for the 2001 season. Compared to the 70 players averaging 300-plus this season on Tour, it’s fair to say we’re living in the age of “bomb and gouge.” Simply tagging a drive 300 yards is no longer impressive. Credit not only advancements in ball technology, but also livelier clubheads; stronger, more athletic golfers; and more favorable course conditions.
With the next phase of the United States Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club’s Distance Insights Project currently delayed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it’s worth assessing just how far ball technology has really come in the last two decades.
To highlight the gains, GOLF.com linked up with Gene Parente, president of Golf Laboratories, Inc., to look at the distance gains with the help of the company’s Golf Laboratories Computer Controlled robot — better known as the robot used by all major equipment manufacturers. Since Parente founded the company in 1990, Golf Laboratories, Inc., has become a golf industry leader in the independent testing arena.
For this particular test, Parente obtained sealed boxes of the same wound, liquid-filled Tour-level balata ball from the 1990s — one of the last major innovations in ball technology before solid-core, multi-layer construction — to compare against a popular multi-layer, solid-construction, urethane ball. All product was hit at varying speeds with the same modern-day equipment delivered at the same impact positions. (Note: the balata balls were in a sealed box, but a 1-2% decrease in distance is possible due to their age.)
Here are the results:
Amateur Driver Speed (92 mph)
Tour-level balata ball: 210.2 yds at 3,346.8 RPMs
Modern urethane ball: 232.4 yds at 2,768.8 RPMs
Difference: 22.2 yards and 578 RPMs | Ball speed decreased by 4.5 mph
Tour Driver Low Spin (113 mph)
Tour-level balata ball: 265.8 yds at 3,343.8 RPMs
Modern urethane ball: 288.3 yds at 2,382.2 RPMs
Difference: 22.5 yards and 961.6 RPMs | Ball speed decreased by 4.3 mph
Tour Driver Mid-High Spin (113 mph)
Tour-level balata ball: 262.5 yds at 3,785.8 RPMs
Modern urethane ball: 294.9 yds at 2,822.2 RPMs
Difference: 32.4 yards and 963.6 RPMs | Ball speed decreased by 4.2 mph
High Speed Tour Driver Mid Spin (132 mph)
Tour-level balata ball: 324 yds at 3,472 RPMs
Modern urethane ball: 356.9 yds at 2,631 RPMs
Difference: 32.9 yards and 841 RPMs | Ball speed decreased by 6 mph
Tour 6-iron (91 mph)
Tour-level balata ball: 186.5 yds at 6,458 RPMs
Modern urethane ball: 197.3 yds at 5,687 RPMs
Difference: 10.8 yards and 771 RPMs | Ball speed decreased by 3.6 mph
Tour 56-degree wedge (83 mph)
Tour-level balata ball: 86.5 yds at 11,861.7 RPMs
Modern urethane ball: 91.1 yds at 9,860.6 RPMs
Difference: 4.7 yards and 2001.1 RPMs
10 takeaways from our testing:
Parente’s testing revealed several interesting findings, with regards to launch and spin:
- The Tour-level balata generated a higher spin rate than the modern-day ball with all types of swings.
- The Tour-level balata produced a lower launch and ball speed than the modern ball.
- The greatest distance loss was at the 132 mph driver speed with a mid spin rate.
- A Tour driver speed with low spin produced the smallest distance delta (20.4 yards).
- If ball spin is utilized to limit distance, this could potentially affect players with different swing styles in different ways. Players with lower spinning shots — for example, an “inside/out” path below 2,400 RPMs spin — will be less affected than a player who plays a power fade — slightly “outside/in” path at 2,600-2,800 RPMs spin — with the same clubhead speed. A universal ball would provide different results based upon its design parameters.
- If you were to combine the modern-day Tour driver with a Tour-level balata at mid or mid-high spin, a distance loss of 40-plus yards is possible.
- Wedge spin is approximately 2000 RPMs higher on the Tour-level balata versus the modern-day solid-construction.
- Driver distance loss varies based upon launch conditions.
- 6-iron distance loss is roughly 1 club shorter when comparing the two balls.
- An increase in wedge spin would cause some players to adjust their swing to adapt to excessive spin produced with the Tour-level balata and modern-day wedge.