The Golf Ball War Heats Up

By Larry Crum

January 26, 1999
SCOTTSDALE, Az - Wake up, golfers! The bugle call is sounding for the new season and the industry majors will be leading their charges with many new ball introductions! New ammo from Spalding/Top-Flite... Titleist... Wilson... Maxfli... Bridgestone... and a whole battalion of private brands manufactured under private label agreements with independent manufacturers. Rumor has it that we will also see new, first-time ball introductions from the likes of Taylor Made, Cobra and Nike, and possibly even Callaway as well.

You should expect to see the marketing campaigns for the new "white pills" start soon. Some will promise new cures for hooks and slices, others will tout longer shots, a few will concentrate on improved feel and control, and many will be just "brand" extensions intended to play on that elusive quality called "brand loyalty". So, what's up? Why now? What's changed? Are the new balls really better? Will you, the average avid golfer, really improve your scores and shot-making ability with them? Read on.

Although technology is involved in most of the new products, many are the result of new marketing strategies forced by declining business levels in their other product areas (golf clubs, shoes, apparel, etc.). The golf companies have finally realized that they need to rebuild their relationships with golfers. Call it a return to the "grass roots", right there where the divots fly, the ducks dive and the squirrels duck, and what better way to do that than through golf balls. Without them, there is no game. After all, it's no fun when you're just shooting blanks.

For the most part, more powerful computer simulation systems, hi-tech test facilities, materials research and improved manufacturing technologies are providing the wherewithal to get new products to market faster than ever before. And, because the club market is flat and glutted, the companies are highly motivated to demonstrate market leadership using the new ball products in 1999 to gain (or regain) golfer loyalty. Although the technology investments are expensive, the marketing costs will dwarf them and you will see higher prices for the new products. Will they be worth it?

In the American market, we won't see anything really wild. Ball construction will stay in the 2-, 3- and 4-piece (double cover) arena, and the new designs focus on improved ball flight and control. In Japan, by contrast, rumor has it that they are already seeing 5-, 6- and even 7-piece ball designs. . The new designs feature new cover designs (affecting spin and aerodynamic characteristics); new material compositions (affecting feel, energy transmission and durability); and new constructions (affecting all of the above).

In the "super high performance" segment, Spalding/ Top-Flite will formally re-enter it with a new 3-piece, wound ball to be marketed under the grand old "Dot Plus" label. Titleist will counter with a new premium "Tour" ball (3-piece, wound) that supposedly combines the best characteristics of their Tour Balata and Professional balls. Maxfli will continue to improve availability of the "Revolution". No word as yet on what Callaway, Taylor Made or Bridgestone will do in this segment, but count on them to be here.

In the "high performance" segment, Wilson is launching a strong bid with three new Titanium-based balls: the Balata, the Spin and the Straight Distance. Expect to see new introductions from Taylor Made, Cobra, Maxfli and Nike here, too. Tough to isolate the key characteristics of this segment because, for some golfers, distance is more important than control, while for others it's the opposite. So, the segment will include offerings targeted at one or the other. Most of the marketing dollars will be concentrated on products here.

Everything else falls into "the rest of the market" which roles on volume, price, distribution, availability and brand strength. Most of the private brand balls will fall in here regardless of how they are priced.

I believe that golfers will try them all and still return to the brand/label of preference for tournament play and rounds that really count. Something superstitious about ball choice. It may sound like heresy, but great equipment will not make up for a lousy swing. That's a job for your PGA professional, and the sign of a serious golfer is not the equipment he plays, but the counsel he seeks when his swing goes south!

Enjoy the game and have a ball this season! You will have lots of new choices to spice it up.