July 15, 2020
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Tiger Woods will play the TOUR B XS golf ball this week at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. (Courtesy of Bridgestone)
It was March of 2018 and Tiger Woods, having lost the better part of two years due to back issues, was just a few tournaments into his return to competitive golf. Asked about his improving play after a solid round, Woods offered an explanation, then finished with this thought: “I’ve got my feels back.”
It’s a term, of course, that Tiger has used throughout his legendary career. Feels. It’s his way of describing his reliance on one of his senses to analyze his form. He’s not waiting for TrackMan to deliver launch numbers; he’s not leaning heavily on his yardage book. If his “feels” are working, then he’s comfortable with his game … and his equipment.
But there’s another sense that Tiger uses, especially when he’s testing golf balls for Bridgestone. Hears. He listens to the sound the ball makes as it comes off his club, particularly with his wedges. In a game in which player and equipment are connected by the hands, it’s the ears that perform a vital role for Tiger in determining his golf ball of choice.
“It’s something that’s definitely important to him, listening to the ball,” said Adam Rehberg, Bridgestone’s ball fitting manager. “When he’s juggling the ball on the club, he’s feeling it out obviously, but he’s also listening to the sound of it when he’s chipping it.
“The sound of the ball is so important to him. He’ll turn a ball away just for the fact that it didn’t sound like he wanted it to.”
So what exactly does Tiger want to hear?
“He’s looking for something that’s not as loud, a little bit quieter,” Rehberg said. “I would venture to say that he’s looking for a softer sound. Obviously, he plays a really soft ball and has always traditionally wanted to put a very soft cover on the ball. But we have to be careful with the mantle layer because it influences the sound a lot.”
For the TOUR B XS, Tiger’s current ball of choice that he’ll have in play at this week’s Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, Bridgestone is using its new REACTIV Urethane cover.
Urethane, even in firmed conditions, is traditionally softer compared to Surlyn. Bridgestone developed the REACTIV cover to essentially adapt to the type of shot being struck, reacting differently depending on the force of the impact. It’s a shock absorber for wedge shots, making it a quiet ball for more spin and control.
That’s key for Woods.
“The mantle layer for him is very important,” Rehberg said. “That’s why we go to him with a soft cover because he needs to spin the ball around the greens, which the cover influences a lot. But when he’s hitting a little flighty wedge from 70 or 60 yards and he doesn’t want it to get high, the mantle layer is very important too, because that’s the backboard that pinches the cover against it.”
Tiger doesn’t even have to say anything for Rehberg to know when a ball is too loud, too clicky. Woods will simply turn and squinch his left eye. Then he’ll try a few more just to confirm what his “hears” are telling him. It’s that sound feedback, along with his expectations with trajectory and flight, that determine if he eliminates a ball during testing.
The first time Tiger worked with the Bridgestone folks during testing was about 2-1/2 years ago. Included was Tiger’s current ball, along with five prototypes. The first set of shots were around the greens, just short chips, no longer than 10 feet off the fringe. By the time Woods got to 40 yards away, he had already eliminated a couple of the prototypes – an indication of the importance of the short game.
Three balls were left in that first phase of testing. Woods was particularly fond of one of those. “Man, this one’s really good,” he told Rehberg. But that was before he pulled a 7-iron from his bag. With that club, the ball was a little high in Tiger’s “window” where he expected the ball to go. Outside of that, it checked every box.
Instead of dismissing the ball, Bridgestone kept it in the mix, made some adjustments, created a handful of prototypes in hopes of getting the ball flight down so that it would fall into the window, and then went into phase two of testing with Tiger. The survivors were then kept around for phase three. At that point, the balls were very similar – but not exactly the same.
Tiger could tell the difference.
“We’re talking about minute changes from ball to ball,” Rehberg said. “It’s quite amazing that he can see it. Most people can tell the difference between a range ball and a high-end TOUR ball if they hit them back-to-back. With Tiger, we’re talking about the same specification of ball with deviations of less than 1% or 2% from the one to the other and trying to figure out which one fits his game.
“So we’re really dialed in to a little bit of different compression points on this ball.”
The Bridgestone team knows the differences from the spec sheet. Tiger, however, does not. In fact, he is adamant about not knowing the numbers that appear on paper. This is where his “feels” and “hears” come in.
“I don’t want to know anything about them. I want to hit them,” Woods has repeatedly told Rehberg and the others. “I don’t want to know which one’s softer and what it should do. I want to figure that out.”
In finishing the story, Rehberg added, “I can tell you, man, he’s spot-on.”
The importance of how a ball sounds is so important to Bridgestone that the company has a way to check decibel levels and pitches. It happens in the Research & Development department in the company’s office in Japan, where a tool analyzes the sound of a ball coming off a club. A microphone picks up the sound based on where a player stands in relationship to the ball. That distinction is important.
“You know how it is when you hear somebody else’s driver, right,” Rehberg explained. “You hear it from far away, like 20 feet, and you’re like, ‘Man, that sounded awesome.’ But then the guy who hit the shot says, ‘Oh, I think it sounds weird,’ because they’re on top of it. The sound is totally different at different lengths.
“So with Tiger’s ear distance from the ball, it has to sound a certain way to him. He doesn’t care what it sounds like to the crowd out in the distance.”
Once the sound is gathered, an engineer will work with the Pioneer Corporation, the consumer electronics company that has been in business more than 80 years, to study the decibel sounds from the different balls being tested. Peak metallic sound will be compared to peak low pitch, with the goal of finding a pleasant sound instead of a harsh one. It’s painstaking work.
“You’re talking about a multitude of prototypes they can make for this,” Rehberg said. “They can make balls with low compression cores with firm mantels and soft covers and listen to the sound. Then they could switch those around – soft mantle, firm core and soft cover.
“We are definitely studying the sound the ball makes because we understand that it influences a lot of what people think or feel it should sound like.
“Tiger wants a soft-sounding golf ball that also spins. For our R&D team in Japan, they really set out to find that perfect combination that delivers the feel he wants but then also delivers the sound he wants, in order to give him exactly what he needs.”
Tiger’s found it in the TOUR B XS, a ball designed primarily to spin around the greens and into the green. It’s a ball for golfers who want to control spin; it’s not a bump-and-run ball.
“This is a ball that Tiger looks to control flight,” Rehberg said. “If he wants to dead-hand it and pop-and-stop one, he can. But if he wants to rip one back 30 feet to the flag from 100 yards, this is that ball. This is a ball that a player would like to work and flight.”’
The problem, at least in the past, with spinny balls that perform around the greens is that they’re often not as effective off the tee because of that spin capability. In essence, they overspin. According to TrackMan, the average spin rate for drivers on the PGA TOUR is 2,686 RPM. Tiger wants to stay under 2,700 when he hits a fade off the tee. But when he hits a little draw, “like a whooping draw,” Rehberg said, then the spin rate can’t fall below 2,100 or so.
“There’s a window of spin that he needs to keep the ball in,” Rehberg said.
Thanks to the REACTIV cover, Bridgestone believes they’ve solved the issue of spin balance between drivers and wedges. The TOUR B XS, according to company data, is the most spinny ball on the market between 15-40 yards, and yet is still manageable off the tee. “It’s not nearly the highest spin ball off the tee,” Rehberg said. “It’s still very controllable.”
And on top of everything else, it has Tiger’s seal of approval. Hear, hear.