Outside of the equipment itself, the hot topic so far in 2019 seems to be the price of said equipment (and today we have a story on an actual price drop). Golf ball prices, while steady, also fall into the discussion.

It’s generally accepted, though not universally loved, that mainstream Tour balls cost upwards of $45 a dozen at retail. Snell has thrown that paradigm a curveball with the MTB at $31.99, and Costco threw that paradigm a momentary beanball with the $15 a dozen Kirkland. Both are outside of normal retail channels, however, so $45 a dozen remains the Tour ball standard.

You have waves of balls aimed those of us not blessed with Tour-level talent, ranging from $39.99 (Callaway ERC) all the way down to $29.99 (Srixon Q-STAR Tour), so it’s not like you don’t have options (could most of us really tell the difference?). Anything below $29.99 is usually a two-piece distance ball.

Within that paradigm, you’d think an honest to goodness Tour-level ball at $39.99 a dozen from a major OEM would wreak havoc and have Titleist, Callaway, and Bridgestone running for cover.

That’s been Srixon’s plan for two years now with its flagship Z-STAR/Z-STAR XV selling for $39.99. While Srixon’s market share has picked up some since the company lowered the price in 2017, it still trails the big 4 in the ball market.

Which raises the question: can mainstream consumers wrap their head around the idea that a ball regularly priced 10% lower can perform on the level of more expensive alternatives?

Z-STAR – 2019 Style

Srixon is announcing its 2019 update to the Z-STAR line today. It’s the sixth iteration of the Z-STAR series, and Srixon says this year’s version has a couple of upgrades it feels are revolutionary. Whether those upgrades are truly revolutionary or just evolutionary may just be marketing semantics, but they are worthy of further investigation.

Srixon has some of the longest bombers in the game on its Tour staff. Cameron Champ games Srixons, as does Jamie Sadlowski and Keegan Bradley, who has been top-12 in driving for eight straight years.

“We look at our Tour players and what do they want? They want longer,” says Srixon Product Manager Zack Oakley. “They tell us the spin is great around the green, it performs amazing in the wind, just make it longer.”

Since the USGA Police have the ultimate say in distance, it’s fair to ask what can an OEM do to make a golf ball longer?

“There are different levers we can pull one way or another for distance,” says Oakley. “Some will make spin go up; others make spin go down. Then you start factoring in dimple patterns and aerodynamics, and over five or six generations you get a sense of what’s working and what isn’t. You’re not making huge changes year over year, but you are optimizing from generation to generation.”

The biggest change in the new Z-STAR compared to 2017 is a new core, called FastLayer Core. All premium ball OEMs have a variation on the same theme: a core that’s soft on the inside and gets harder toward the outside, and is achieved through time, temperature and pressure variations during the baking process. Srixon, which is owned by Sumitomo Rubber Industries (the SRI in Srixon), has some serious engineering juice back in Japan that does nothing but find better rubber.

“We have a lot of engineers in Japan working on this,” says Oakley. “We’ve optimized the inner and outer core, and the mantle layer to all work in unison to give you more ball speed and distance, with high launch and low spin while also maintaining a really good feel.”

Both the 3-piece Z STAR and 4-piece Z-STAR XV feature the Fast Layer Core. As you’d expect, the Z-STAR is the higher spin, lower compression model. Srixon has made the core itself slightly larger and the mantle layer slightly harder, levers that lead to more ball speed. Compression is slightly higher than the 2017 model, up from 88 to 90.

The Z-STAR XV features a smaller inner core, a larger outer core and a slightly lower compression (down from 105 to 102) compared to the 2017 model. Oakley says the changes will result in a little less spin off the tee and a little more feel around the green.

This next sentence requires the standard MyGolfSpy disclaimer: the next time an OEM tells us their own testing shows their product underperforms compared to competitors will be the first time. That said, Srixon’s own internal testing shows the new Z-STARs anywhere from 2½ to 3 yards longer than the 2017-2018 Tour models from Titleist, Callaway, and Bridgestone.

Spin Doctors

For 2019 Srixon is combining an overall larger core (for more ball speed) with a thinner urethane cover (for more spin). Srixon says the new Z-STAR covers are more than 40% thinner than those of its competitors, but there are consequences to a thinner cover. Yes, you get more spin, but durability becomes a concern.

For the past three generations, the Z-STARs have featured Srixon’s SpinSkin, a spin enhancing urethane coating bonded to the urethane cover on a molecular level. To that, Srixon is adding something it calls SeRM, or Slide Ring Material, which cross-links those urethane molecules – making them stronger and more flexible at the same time, which enhances both durability and spin.

Cross-linking isn’t new technology. It’s existed for decades and is primarily used in PEX pipe manufacturing, and both Titleist and Bridgestone (and, presumably, Srixon) use cross-linking when making their cores. But Oakley says this is the first time it’s been used on a golf ball cover.

“Essentially you have a network of molecules that are linked,” he says. “Cross-linking makes that network more elastic and resistant to breaking. Force is distributed evenly, and it makes the carbon more durable.”

It also spins a lot. Srixon says the cover can take “unprecedented levels of shearing force” without breaking, which increases friction on iron and wedge shots for more spin and stopping power, something you’ll notice particularly when gaming the lower spinning XV.

“With the older models, you could definitely tell the difference between the Z-STAR and the XV when you’re chipping,” says Oakley. “The XV had ample spin for a Tour player, but you could tell the difference. Now with the Slide Ring Material on the cover, there’s virtually no difference around the green.”

Srixon isn’t making any changes to its 338-Speed Dimple Pattern. “It’s the lowest drag design we’ve ever engineered,” says Oakley. “And it’s still the best for accuracy, still the best for wind resistance and you’re going to get more distance out of it.”

The Pricing Conundrum

Does Srixon have a price advantage at $39.99, compared to Titleist, Callaway, Bridgestone, and TaylorMade all in the $45-$47 range? You’d think so, but Srixon has had two years of this pricing and still reminds behind the herd.

“Last year when we ran promos around the Masters and U.S. Open, our market share when up dramatically, to around 7 or 8 percent,” says Oakley. “That’s the highest we’ve ever seen in a single month. Of course, after the promo, it came down a little bit, but there was a net gain.”

Srixon’s lower pricing is an advantage in that it’s, well, lower. But consumer psychology is an interesting thing: for many, lower pricing and equal to or better than quality and/or performance simply does not compute. People will snap up ProV’s when they go on sale for $39.99 as opposed to flocking to a Tour ball that’s already priced there. The mindset maintains a mainstream ball regularly priced under $40 a dozen simply can’t be as good. Srixon insists its overall value will win out.

“We’re a challenger brand still trying to gain market share,” says Oakley. “That pricing is an advantage for us. We see it in the Tour ball category, but also in other categories. The Q-STAR Tour is priced below other balls in its category, but if you compare it to the AVX, you’ll find they are very similar balls despite the huge price difference. Even the ChromeSoft, there isn’t much difference in terms of construction with the Q-STAR Tour.”

Any manufacturer of anything will tell you there’s both an art and a science to pricing, and messaging is critical. Golfers tend to be very good at complaining about price, but as much as we rage against the marketing machine, we’re not quite as adept at recognizing that lower-priced options may actually be just as good. Snell works because the messaging is logical: no retail middle man means direct-to-consumer pricing and, therefore, equal performance at a lower price (Dean Snell’s street cred helps, too). On the equipment side, Hogan and newcomer Sub70 are trying the same strategy. But like it or not, pricing is a key part of marketing.

“There’s a reason for that,” says Oakley. “Pricing sets boundaries, and if you’re not careful, you can price yourself out of a market on either end of the spectrum, too high or too low. It’s a sensitive subject, but we feel pretty good about where we’re at right now.”

The question to you is, does that message compute?

The new Z-Stars will be available in both Pure WhiteTM and Tour YellowTM and will be priced at $39.99 per dozen. They hit the stores and the internet February 1st.