Golf balls built for distance generally sacrifice some spin and balls built for spin generally sacrifice some distance. That’s been a universal truth since we started the new millennium. It’s also a truth the new 2020 Bridgestone Tour B golf balls with REACTIV Urethane may be sending the way of the wound balata.
The long-standing paradigm with tour-level balls has been for OEMs is to offer two models: the regular and the X. One model is softer, more spinny and a wee bit shorter; the other is firmer, less spinny and a wee bit longer.
Think Pro V1/Pro V1x, TP5/TP5X, Z-STAR/Z-STAR XV and you’ve got it.
Well, after a year’s worth of teasing, Bridgestone is ready to knock that paradigm on its ass. The new Tour B lineup may, in fact, really be the ball that changes the ball.
Innovation vs. Renovation
Quick – name the biggest golf ball innovations over the past five years.
If you said Truvis, Triple Track or whatever the hell TaylorMade is doing, thanks for playing. Those are cosmetic and visual and don’t do anything for ball speed, spin or any other performance metrics. Matte colors? Don’t think so.
Any major changes in golf ball performance over the past half-decade – maybe even longer – are all in specifications. OEMs pull different levers to make a ball softer or firmer to get more ball speed or more spin or softer feel and they can adjust dimple patterns for aerodynamics and ball flight. Those are all important but don’t represent any type of giant leap forward.
Bridgestone, lest we forget, is a $30+billion tire and rubber giant with more than 900 polymer engineers on staff. Last year, this corporate behemoth spent $930 million on research and development into rubber technology. Bridgestone Golf is part of that machine with more than 800 golf ball patents and a satchel-full of innovations including:
- 1994 – The Precept EV Extra Spin, one of the first solid-core balls used on the PGA TOUR and one that made Nick Price a lot of money.
- 2000 – the Nike Tour Accuracy TW Edition, made by Bridgestone for one Eldrick Tont Woods, revolutionized the solid-core, urethane-covered ball. Tiger won his Tiger Slam with that ball, including the U.S. Open by 15 strokes.
- 2009 – the B330 RX, the first low-compression tour-level ball, one that, says Bridgestone, now has a parade of imitator/followers.
So, where do you go for innovation in 2020? Distance is compression and aerodynamics, spin is all about interacting layers, and the soccer-ball look is paint.
“Is there a way we can have a truly long golf ball?” asks Bridgestone Golf Ball Marketing Manager Elliot Mellow. “Not just long from a marketing standpoint, but truly longer from a performance standpoint on one end of the spectrum, and then via spin separation on the other end, can we have more control and feel to it?”
Distance and spin? That’s a conundrum all right and Bridgestone believes it has cracked the code to separate the two to enhance both. It’s called REACTIV Urethane®.
What Is REACTIV?
Unless you’re a chemist, chemical compounds look like a Wheel of Fortune clue badly in need of vowels. REACTIV is, essentially, an enhanced type of urethane that creates a kind of unicorn: a ball that is longer off the tee and has shot-stopping short-game spin, and a ball that spins likes crazy around the green but is still long and straight with the driver.
“This isn’t just rubbing a little pixie dust into the urethane and calling it something new,” says Mellow. “It’s a substantial change to the way the cover is made.”
REACTIV is really two covers in one, with different compression times depending on what club you’re hitting it with.
“When the ball needs to be fast off the driver face, the compression time is quicker, initial velocity is higher and the ball moves faster,” says Mellow. “On the flip side, with an iron or wedge that’s moving more slowly, the compression time is actually longer. That allows the ball to take advantage of the loft and the grooves better.”
In simple terms – the cover reacts like a firm cover when you hit it with a driver and reacts like a soft cover when you hit it with a wedge.
“With traditional urethane, you can make a high-spinning ball by making the cover softer, but there’s a huge degradation in terms of velocity and distance with the driver,” says Mellow. “REACTIV customizes the impact times for each unique shot, each unique club, and each unique swing.”
How unique is the material? In a demonstration video, Bridgestone simulates how REACTIV urethane is different from typical urethane by dropping round pellets made of each material onto a hard flat surface. The drop emulates the impact of a five- to 10-yard shot. The REACTIV urethane pellet hardly bounces. Instead, it deadens on impact and comes to a complete stop on the surface before the standard urethane pellet bounces a second time.
But if you were to drop the balls from a higher level to simulate a driver impact, the pellets would actually switch places, and the REACTIVE would have more bounce. It’s a stark contrast.
Performance Testing: What The…???
Here’s a statement that’s sure to raise an eyebrow or several. We had to confirm with Bridgestone twice to make sure we heard correctly. We did.
Bridgestone confirms that, across the board, with all four balls (the Tour B X, XS, RX, and RXS) and for all types of players, ranging from Tiger, Bryson and Kuchar to you, me and Wally the 23-handicap from down the street, they’ve seen the same performance results for everyone: roughly 1.5 MPH more ball speed with the driver and roughly 350 more RPM on a 15-yard pitch compared to the 2018 Tour B’s.
Bridgestone says its robot testing shows the same thing. This means the cover has the same effect on each ball in the Bridgestone Tour B lineup, regardless of its designed-for compression and spin characteristics and, regardless of who’s hitting it, their swing speed and their handicap.
“That’s what’s been nuts,” says Mellow. “In the past, we’d say the XS spins more and we achieve that by manipulating a softer material. But the fact that all four balls have the exact same performance increase tested under all skill levels speaks about how unique the REACTIV material is.”
Let me write this again so you can read it again: in testing – using robots and real golfers – from 20-cappers off the streets of Atlanta swinging 85 MPH to Tiger and Bryson and their 120+ swing speeds, virtually everyone experienced a 1.5 MPH increase in driver ball speed and roughly 350 RPM more spin on a 15-yard pitch.
Oh yeah, we’re gonna have to test that.
Chances are you or someone you know may have tested it already. Bridgestone has been aggressive in sending out “white box” prototypes to golfers for testing – more than 20,000 so far. Bridgestone says it didn’t direct testers on what to look for other than to say, here’s the ball, go hit it.
“Pretty much everyone we’ve talked with who tested repeats the REACTIV story back to us without realizing that’s what we designed the ball to do,” says Mellow.
Bridgestone Tour B XS – The Tiger Ball
Bridgestone started prototyping REACTIV Urethane nearly four years ago, with Tiger getting involved in the R&D process in early 2018. The XS is Tiger’s ball and in testing vs. the 2018 XS he picked up — wait for it – 1.6 MPH in driver ball speed and 317 more RPMs on the short pitch. He was going to put the new ball in play at the Hero Challenge and again at the Presidents Cup. Ultimately, he didn’t, but Kuchar and Bryson both gamed the new X in Australia, with Kuchar holing the Cup-winning putt with it.
And if you follow social media at all, you know Brendan Steele gamed the XS at the Sony in Hawaii – and damn near won. Three or four other non-contract players also gamed the ball at the Sony. Lexi Thompson scored a Top-1o in her first tournament with the new ball, and Tiger will be putting it in play at Torrey this weekend.
This past weekend, the new RXS ball got some love on the Champions Tour with Fred Couples and Rocco Mediate teeing up yellow versions, with Couples losing in a playoff. And not for nothing, baseball Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz won the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions Celebrity Division last weekend with the RXS.
“Full disclosure – we tried to get Rocco and Freddie into the RX/RXS balls previously,” says Mellow. “But there were issues where maybe the RX was long but didn’t stop or the RXS would stop but it wasn’t long enough. But the new RXS gives them the distance but, at the same time, they’ll be able to stop it on the green.”
And, in case you’re wondering, Bridgestone insists the ball you, me and Wally from down the street can buy at Dick’s, The Golfer’s Warehouse or the PGA TOUR SuperStore is the exact same ball Tiger, Freddie, Rocco, Kooch and Bryson play. There are no secret options on Bridgestone’s menu.
The Market Share Tango
Not all that long ago, Bridgestone was sitting in the #2 position in golf ball market share. Since then, Callaway has zipped past them like a cruise missile with TaylorMade also nosing ahead over the past year-and-a-half. As of right now, Bridgestone, TaylorMade and Srixon are duking it out for the 3-4-5 market-share positions.
Bridgestone CEO Dan Murphy firmly believes REACTIV and the new Tour Bs are a huge step in reclaiming lost business.
“It all starts with product, obviously, but communicating that product is also something we’ll be doing,” says Murphy. “We have new ads, new packaging, new tour activity – particularly with Freddie and the RX. Our intent is to get back to Number Two.”
Looking at it tactically, the firmer Tour B X and XS set up head-to-head against Pro V1/1X, TP5/5X and Z-STAR/Z-STAR XV. The softer RX/RXS match up against the Chrome Soft/Chrome Soft X. Is there a worry that four tour-level balls – your main competitors only have two – might confuse the market?
“Actually, if I were the other guys, I’d be worried that I only had two,” says Mellow. “Yes, there are four, but the reality is for each consumer there’s really only two.”
At that point, it’s a fitting story. If your swing speed is over 105, you look at the X or the XS. If you’re under 105, you look at the RX and RXS. “The four models quickly become two,” says Mellow. “Then it’s a choice between more distance or more spin, just like the others.”
As Murphy says, communicating the REACTIV story is critical going forward. Pending our own verification, it’s a cool story, but from a marketing standpoint, it might be a tricky story to tell simply so golfers will understand it and act on it. You’ll see REACTIV-focused ads and more social media from Bridgestone this year and a few more wins plus another major for Tiger won’t hurt. But as Bridgestone tries to tell the tale of REACTIV, four tour balls, and its fitting story, it may find it has its own Tiger problem: Tiger fans who want Tiger’s ball, even if it’s wrong for them.
“Historically, our consumer has been the technical guy who understands fitting and wants the best ball for his game,” says Mellow. “But, yes, the core Tiger fan is buying Tiger’s ball because Tiger plays it.”
Bridgestone is hoping its newly reinvented fitting program (which includes an innovative slow-mo smartphone video-fitting option) – along with the newly revamped RX and RXS – can redirect the Tiger player into the right ball for them.
Bridgestone Tour B Price, Availability and Final Thoughts
The new Bridgestone REACTIV Urethane Tour B X and XS balls will be available in Classic White (an Optic Yellow XS will be sold in Japan – demand will determine if it’s sold in North America), and the Tour B RX and RXS will be available in both white and yellow.
All four will retail for $44.99/dozen (the same as last year) and we don’t know if it’s an omen or not, but they’ll hit retail this Valentine’s Day, February 14.
When you think about how Bridgestone lost its #2 (and its #3) position in golf balls, you’ll find lots of reasons, but lousy balls isn’t one of them. Bridgestone lost substantial market share to both Callaway and TaylorMade despite consistently producing high-performing, top-quality product.
Ineffective messaging (a.k.a. marketing), the sharp curtailing of ball fitting (since reintroduced), leadership concerns and other issues all conspired against Bridgestone, but it’s no coincidence that selling a lot of golf clubs and selling a lot of golf balls go hand in hand. I know correlation isn’t causation, but of the top five in golf ball market share, only Bridgestone has no real presence in the club market.
Think about that for a minute. Callaway sells a metric crap-ton of golf clubs, so golfers gobble up their balls. If you’re Bridgestone, you see a ball you know isn’t as good as yours zoom past you and take your market share. It’s gotta be like watching the class doofus steal your girlfriend.
That, my friends, is the power of branding.
And that, my friends, is what Bridgestone is up against.
For more information, visit BridgestoneGolf.com.