NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- In the mid-1990s, as the Golf Ball Wars heated up among equipment manufacturers, Titleist began experimenting with multilayer designs. This was no act of desperation.
Titleist, after all, had been producing some of golf's most popular balls for more than 60 years. The company's performance balls, such as the Professional and Tour Balata with its wound-ball construction and liquid-filled core, had been embraced by pros; its distance balls, the ones with solid cores, kept the weekend hackers happy.
As legacy ball companies such as Top-Flite, Wilson and Dunlop began giving way to new-guard Callaway, Nike and TaylorMade, Titleist stood tall. It had the No. 1 ball in competitive golf.
But Titleist knew it could not rest on its laurels. In a move that at the time seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary, the engineers sought to combine its two types of balls. For the next five years, they went through countless prototypes.
As robot testing took place at Titleist's Manchester Lane test facility in Acushnet, Mass., where the company's main headquarters are located, one prototype kept drawing their attention -- a solid core (taken from the distance balls), surrounded by the surlyn casing (taken from the performance balls), with a 392-dimple icosahedral design homegrown urethane cover that gave the ball a veneer look and helped transmit a softer sensation to the hands while providing more spin.
"We didn't have a clue what we really had at the time," Bill Morgan, Titleist's senior vice president of golf ball research and development, recalled during a recent tour of Titleist's ball plant facility.
They just knew that it was an improvement.
The next step, of course, was to give the best players in the world a chance to offer their feedback. In June of 2000, "The 100 Man March" took place, with more than 100 Titleist players on the PGA TOUR sampling the new ball. The company's R&D folks worked the driving range and walked the fairways and greens during practice rounds, gathering input on this new ball.
The pros loved it. They began gravitating away from the Professional wound ball and clamoring for this new multi-component ball.
"There was a sound difference," Brad Faxon told GolfWeek magazine. "The 'click' was different, and Titleist was wondering if players would switch to that. Once the players saw, hey, this could give us a huge jump in distance, and we’ll still have control around the greens, it was a no-brainer.”
But now Titleist had another issue on its hands. What would they call the ball?
Numerous names were tossed around during brainstorming sessions. It was, in some ways, more challenging than trying to create the ball itself.
"We had a Professional ball. We had a Tour ball. Then there was the Prestige ball. Needless to say, we had a lot of different balls on the market," Morgan said. "We really didn't know what to call it and came up with all kinds of crazy names, and as we got closer to bringing the ball out, we knew we needed a name for the USGA's Conforming Ball list.
"Back then the USGA list came out every six months, so you had to commit to a name for at least that long. There was a lot of discussion in-house and we still couldn't come up a name, so we defaulted to a lab name, which I made up -- although I thought it would only be a temporary measure. The 'Pro' comes from Professional, the 'V' is for veneer, which was the layer of Urethane, and '1' because it was the first.
"We gave it to the pros and told them it was just a lab name and that we were going to change it, but they said they liked it, so we kept it for that year. We discussed changing it again, but by that point players loved Pro V1."
The name stuck. Shortly thereafter, Titleist's first Pro V1 was introduced on TOUR in mid-October of 2000 at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas, Nev., with 47 players immediately putting it in play the very first week, making it the largest pluralistic shift of equipment at one event in golf history.
One of those players was Billy Andrade. He won the tournament, finishing at 28 under over five rounds to beat Phil Mickelson by one stroke. Going into the event, Andrade had struggled all year and ranked 159th on the TOUR's money list. In fact, he had resigned himself to having to go back to Q-school; in fact, he had already sent in his application and check.
But he thrived with the new ball, as did others on the leaderboard. Of the top 11 finishers that week, six played with the Pro V1 -- Andrade, Mickelson, Jonathan Kaye, Chris DiMarco, Tom Byrum and Joe Durant.
No wonder Morgan called it the "eureka" moment.
Due to the incredible momentum Pro V1 experienced in the first few months on TOUR, Titleist had to accelerate the market launch of the new ball from March 2001 to December 2000.
"Did we expect Pro V1 to be this successful? You always hope," Morgan said. "Anytime you're working on a product, you always hope this is going to be the product that replaces all the ones before it.
"For whatever reason, the particular design we came up with really resonated with TOUR players. It was finally the one that did move the needle, so to speak.
"We knew we had something big, but we didn't know it would be this big."
Since Andrade's maiden win with Pro V1, both models, Pro V1, a three-piece multilayer ball, and Pro V1x, a four-piece multilayer ball that was introduced alongside the second-generation Pro V1 in 2003, have combined for a staggering 1,999 wins across the worldwide professional tours.
Approximately two-thirds of every TOUR pro plays a Pro V1 or Pro V1x.
"When we first introduced Pro V1, there was never a plan in place to build a second version," Morgan said. "Through player feedback and testing, we decided the TOUR needed a second ball -- Pro V1x."
Options are important when it comes to the best players in the world. Titleist has even gone so far as to design a TOUR-only Pro V1x+ ball that has a slightly different trajectory than its Pro V1x counterpart.
"Titleist listens to its players," said Billy Horschel, who currently plays the Pro V1x+ and took a tour of the Titleist ball plant two days before this year's Deutsche Bank Championship in nearby Norton, Mass. "We're constantly giving them feedback on the ball and they do a great job of coming up with something that works for us. I think that's a big reason why the ball is so popular.
"I've been playing it for years and there's a trust factor with the ball. I put my trust in the ball every time I play, and it does exactly what I want when I hit a great shot. You're always looking for that in every club in your bag, including your ball."
The ball has grown in popularity over the years to the point that Pro V1 and Pro V1x are now constructed from start to finish in Titleist's Ball Plant 3 — a cavernous 225,000 sq. ft. facility in New Bedford that opened in 2000 and has 586 employees that churn out 300,000 Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls per day, as well as the dual-cores of the NXT Tour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Between the three ball plants, including Ball Plant 4 in Thailand that also makes the Pro V1 line, Titleist produces one million balls per day.
"Making the Pro V1 is a very complex and technological event," said Morgan. "It ranges in technologies from rubber chemistry to polymer science, and various forms of molding technology."
There's an exact science that goes into making a Pro V1, and it starts with the core materials — a mixture of Polybutadiene, a synthetic rubber that produces a high-energy return and can be altered to a number of desired characteristics, cross-linking agents that increase resiliency and speed when cured, peroxides, and fillers to adjust weight.
The materials are then mixed and turned into a slab of uncured rubber that's heated at more than 300 degrees, pressed and rolled into sheets. Each sheet is cooled for at least two hours before going through the extrusion process, where the ball goes from a "Prep" -- a long, cylindrical piece of rubber material -- to a machine that shapes each "Prep" into a core.
From there, each core is pre-treated by abrading the surface so it will accept the casing layer that's molded over the top. The cover is then attached to the core in two pieces -- top half first -- and then welded together for cover molding. The core and shell are then placed in a mold that features the dimple design.
Once the ball has been molded together, a unique Urethane cover is added before it's buffed and sprayed with a latex primer and finishing coat of paint. Vision Technology is then used to locate within the dimple pattern the correct placement of the Titleist logo, number and side stamp.
From there, balls are X-rayed and hand checked by a Titleist employee for imperfections.
Yes, you read that right. That balls are X-rayed. That's something Titleist has done from the beginning when Phil W. Young, an avid golfer and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was playing a round of golf in the early 1930s when he missed a well-stroked putt in the match. Thinking there was something wrong with his ball, Young had his dentist friend X-ray the ball and found its core was off-center.
Convinced the he could make a high-quality ball that boasted superior precision and performance, he partnered with three other men to found the Acushnet Process Company.
Three years later, in 1935, Titleist introduced its first golf ball. Sixty years after that, experiments began on the Pro V1. The X-rays still continue to this day.
"I honestly can't believe you X-ray every ball," Horschel said during his tour of the plant. "I knew the process was precise, but this takes it to another level."
Of course, things have changed since then.
New technology and a more streamlined ball-making process has been a game-changer for Titleist, so much so that it only takes five days to go from mixing to shipping a ball out the door. It used to take 30 days to make and ship the Tour Balata.
While it's all rather complex, seeing the ball-making process first hand give golfers an appreciation for what goes into making the most popular ball in golf.
"Seeing the plant process is going to make me appreciate the ball a little bit more." Horschel said. "I'll be more appreciative of that golf ball.
"It may not be thrown in the water as much."