The story of the 2020 Callaway Chrome Soft and Chrome Soft X golf balls begins in much the same way as our story on the Callaway Mavrik driver.
2019 was a damned good year for Callaway Golf balls.
The company achieved its highest market share ever – 17% to 25% of all balls sold, depending on whose numbers you like. The popularity of Truvis grew and Callaway’s proprietary Triple Track technology made inroads towards replacing Sharpie lines with actual science.
2019 was a bad year for Callaway Golf balls.
Our ball test revealed that low-compression, i.e., soft, balls are slower and that the notion of soft tour ball might be a fallacy. That was just the beginning. Our #FindItCutIt efforts exposed quality control issues with Callaway balls ranging from inconsistent mixing to grossly off-center cores. The problems we found traced back generations. Golfers, including some Callaway staffers, flooded my inbox with pictures depicting the problems they’d found with their Callaway balls (off-center cores, swirly cores and missing dimples). Said one industry insider as things were blowing up, “Callaway makes good drivers, but they’re poseurs in the golf ball category.”
There’s quite a bit to unpack here so as we move forward with this rundown, there are two things to consider throughout.
A healthy percentage of golfers love the Callaway Chrome Soft. You don’t lay claim to +/-20% of the market with a product consumers hate.
Your affections aside, objectively, Chrome Soft has never been a good golf ball. Nobody making a soft ball has been transparent enough about the performance implications for mid- to high-swing golfers and Callaway’s quality control issues were such that, even if you didn’t notice, it may have cost you some strokes.
A Fresh Start
With all that’s transpired, Callaway faces some unique challenges as it moves forward with its 2020 golf ball lineup. It needs to keep everything that golfers love about Chrome Soft but it has to do better by its customers who now understand that Callaway’s ball quality wasn’t what it should have been.
“People who play this ball love it, and we’ve changed everything,” says Sean Toulon, EVP of Callaway Golf.
This will likely be news to some of you, and some of you won’t believe it, but whichever side of the Chrome Soft core you happen to be on, here’s your takeaway: Callaway is committed to remaking Chrome Soft into the great golf ball that many already think it is.
Callaway is changing the ball that changed the ball…for the better.
Chrome Soft Theory
As we work through how Callaway seeks to make a fundamentally better product, it makes sense to start with the seldom-discussed theory behind the Chrome Soft design. The history begins with an acknowledgment that just a few years ago, Titleist was kicking everyone’s ass in the ball market. It was a beyond-dominant #1 with Bridgestone, TaylorMade, Srixon, and Callaway all relegated to sub-10% also-ran status, trying to steal a percentage point or two from one of the other guys. Titleist was untouchable.
It was already understood that many golfers, particularly slower swing-speed players, preferred soft feel. If Callaway could differentiate itself from Titleist by offering a low-compression (soft) tour ball, it just might be able to separate itself from the pack, position itself as a clear #2 in the marketplace and eventually make a run at Titleist.
Enter Chrome Soft
Bridgestone would argue that this is exactly what it did when it launched the RX line, but there’s no disputing the fact that Callaway’s take on the soft tour ball is the one that resonated with golfers in a way that no other previous soft offering had.
As is the case with everyone else in the ball biz, Callaway understood that a softer ball was inherently a slower ball, but by applying a more holistic strokes-gained approach to ball design, they believed that whatever distance it sacrificed off the tee could be made up for with longer iron shots. Its thinner cover would give more spin in the short game and ultimately you’d shoot lower scores.
Soft feel + performance. That was the goal. Even if they weren’t aware of the theory driving Chrome Soft design, golfers bought into it to the tune of 20%, positioning Callaway as clear #2 with plenty of distance between it and #3.
The other part of the Chrome Soft story that’s seldom told is that it’s exceedingly difficult to make a low-compression dual-core golf ball. The softer material doesn’t want to stay where you need it to be. It’s perhaps a bit of an oversimplification, but try centering a smoldering marshmallow between two graham crackers. Your core-centering processes need to be perfect, and well,…you know.
2020 Chrome Soft
For 2020, Callaway has not only re-engineered Chrome Soft, but it’s also retooled its Chicopee, MA, manufacturing facility with the stated goal of making a better golf ball. This Chrome Soft’s story isn’t just about taking a step forward in performance; it’s about making a giant leap in quality and consistency.
The redesign of the ball itself follows the industry’s standard pattern. Tweak the formula, make one layer thinner, another thicker, re-balance (definitely re-balance) your equations, and hopefully arrive at something quantifiably better than what you had before.
With Chrome Soft, that’s an especially challenging proposition. “We didn’t want to lose the essence and spirit of the product,” says Toulon. Make it better, but not firmer.
The changes begin with an inner core that’s 34% larger in volume. That contributes to higher launch and lower spin, which will be a larger point of differentiation from Chrome Soft X moving forward.
The graphene-infused outer core helps provide short-game spin, while a new high-speed mantle construction works to increase ball speed throughout the bag.
By introducing new materials and altering the relationship between the three inner layers, Callaway gets what it describes as a “jailbreak” effect for the golf ball. More speed, same soft feel.
The last bit of improvement comes by way of enhancements to Callaway’s TPU hex dimple cover. The updated version is 10% thinner with a new dimple pattern designed to prioritize high trajectory with reduced drag for a longer, more consistent flight.
Nobody disputes that there’s more to ball performance than what happens with the driver but Callaway understands that Chrome Soft’s driver speeds will be scrutinized. The ball needs to be more competitive off the tee. To that end, Callaway says the improvements are good for an extra 5 yards with the driver (based on a 100 MPH clubhead speed). It’s notable that Callaway says 20% of the gain can be attributed to process improvements at the factory. More on that in a bit.
From a fitting perspective, 100 MPH is almost certainly close to the upper limit of Chrome Soft’s viability. Much faster, over-compressing the ball and losing distance because of it, is a legitimate concern. The majority of faster swingers will likely be better off with Chrome Soft X.
One of the more unbelievable stats I’ve heard lately (and I’ve heard some doozies) is this: Nearly 70% of Callaway ball sales are for something other than a white ball. It’s the reason why the new ball will be available in White, Red/White Truvis, Yellow/Black Truvis, White Triple Track, and Yellow Triple Track.
2020 Chrome Soft X
While the subtle changes to Chrome Soft’s red box are meant to convey evolution, Chrome Soft X’s new black box speaks to the idea that this ball is entirely different. Shaping differences aside, it conjures memories of TaylorMade’s Lethal. That ball had a stupid name but it was pretty damned good. Callaway hopes that last part will prove true for the new Chrome Soft X as well.
While Chrome Soft X shared many of the same issues as Chrome Soft, perhaps its biggest liability in the market was that it wasn’t different enough from Chrome Soft. In a world of Pro V1x and TP5x and ZStar XV, Chrome Soft X didn’t compete. It has never been what golfers expect an X ball to be. It’s why Toulon says Callaway has under-indexed in sales of Chrome Soft X. That’s industry-speak for we don’t sell as many as we’d like.
The current split in the market place is about 80/20 in favor of the standard ball. Callaway would like to see those numbers shift to 65/35 or maybe even 60/40. For that to happen, Callaway needs an entirely different ball.
Chrome Soft X (not) on Tour
Brands like it when their tour staff play the same ball you and I can buy at retail. It adds validation, credibility…that sort of thing. Before Left Dash hit the market, about 80% of Titleist staffers were playing one of the two retail flavors of Pro V1 balls. Bridgestone and Srixon both claim that 100% of their guys play the retail model – no secret items on either company’s menu. TaylorMade? A story for another day.
For Callaway, however, the number of staffers playing the retail ball has invariably been closer to 0 than 100%. Phil, Xander, Sergio. Nope, nope, nope.
With the 2020 Chrome Soft X, Callaway hopes to change that. While it’s too soon to say and admittedly calling it a complete guess, Callaway’s Dr. Alan Hocknell estimates that 60% of Callaway’s tour staff will play the retail ball. The remaining 40% should split relatively evenly between higher-spinning and lower-spinning variants. That’s reasonable enough.
The key element in play is that, unlike Chrome Soft where Callaway’s stated goal was to maintain compression, with Chrome Soft X, they’ve deliberately made the ball firmer. It’s firmer enough that having “soft” in the name is probably a misnomer, though Chrome Firm doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
With higher compression baked into the design, there’s significantly less of a chance that the ball will over-compress at tour speeds. Don’t take that as a suggestion that Callaway has gone full Pinnacle here. As with Chrome Soft, it’s about tweaking materials and the relationship between the core and CSX’s two mantle layers to create a ball that, compression point for compression point, is faster than competitor offerings, but still feels soft-ish.
“At a given compression, we’ll generate more speed than anyone else,” says Hocknell. That’s a particularly bold statement given how past iterations of Chrome Soft X fared against the other X balls in the market.
117% More Core
CSX’s newfound speed comes from a significantly larger core. It’s not just bigger; it’s 117% bigger. As you can probably guess, there’s a bit of voodoo in that number. Callaway can more than double its core size because the construction of the 2020 Chrome Soft X has fundamentally changed.
Like the standard Chrome Soft, previous X versions were 4-piece, dual-core designs (a little ball inside a bigger ball with two thin layers around it). The 2020 Chrome Soft X is a 4-piece, dual-mantle design (a big ball with three thin layers around it). It’s a distinction that’s likely lost on most golfers but the change affords Callaway the opportunity to differentiate the performance of its two Chrome Soft offerings significantly more than it has in the past.
The massive (and firmer) core is paired with a soft inner mantle that acts as a dampening layer. It’s how Chrome Soft X retains softer feel despite the higher compression. The firmer outer mantle provides the speed while helping to increase spin around the green.
Callaway puts the actual compression number at 100. That’s appreciably higher than the previous version (it’s closer to the Chrome Soft X Triple Track ball that came out last spring), but Callaway says the ball still feels soft. Most average and even better amateurs likely won’t notice that the ball is firmer.
The cover on the 2020 Chrome Soft X is 22% thinner than on both the previous Chrome Soft X and the new Chrome Soft. Callaway believes covers can be thinned to the point of diminishing returns so it’s not necessarily trying to make the thinnest cover in golf. Its cover was already one of the thinnest but reducing thickness creates an opportunity for more greenside spin. Callaway says you can expect Chrome Soft X to spin more throughout the bag.
Like Chrome Soft, the Chrome Soft X features a new dimple pattern. The dimple count is the same for both balls but the designs are fundamentally different. Visually distinct, X’s cover is optimized for the target golfer. It provides a flatter, though not necessarily lower, flight with the ball reaching its peak trajectory farther downrange.
In robot testing at 120 MPH club speed, Callaway found the new ball to be 7 yards longer. As with CS, a portion of that comes from process improvements. “Part of that is that this ball is ready good,” says Toulon, “but part of it is that the ball it replaced wasn’t.”
Callaway says tour player feedback has been universally positive with several of its staffers commenting on improved wind performance in particular.
It’s too soon to say but Callaway may have created its first legitimate tour-level retail ball in quite some time. If the market approves and the split moves closer to 60/40, you may see some special-edition Truvis models in the future.
For now, the 2020 Chrome Soft X will be available in plain White, Yellow, Yellow/Black Truvis, and White Triple Track.
Quality Control and Process Improvements
There’s no point in rehashing it more than we have already. Chrome Soft (and previous balls) suffered from quality-control issues. Callaway has owned up and promised to fix it. In addition to buying more machines to paint patterns and lines on balls, it has made a significant investment in technology to improve the quality and consistency of its balls.
It only gets better from here. At least that’s the plan.
The MyGolfSpy staff has tentative plans to visit the ball plant in March. We’ll have more to say then, just as we’ll certainly have more to say after we’ve had a chance to test (and cut) Callaway’s new and improved offerings.
Until then, here’s a brief rundown of some of what’s being implemented at Callaway’s Chicopee ball plant.
- A new state-of-the-art, four-story-tall mixer has been installed. It’s a crucial piece of equipment that should resolve the swirly core problem and other issues that occur as a result of materials being mixed improperly.
- A new building-wide environmental control system will ensure that when the weather changes, the ball doesn’t.
- New Dual-Core manufacturing cells have been spun-up to resolve core-centering issues while improving the consistency of the baking process. Think of them as industrial ovens filled with the most precise muffin tins imaginable. Robotic arms help move things around more efficiently.
- A collection of new X-ray machines (apparently this one is my fault) has been installed at several places along the production line. Callaway says it will X-ray 100% of the balls at multiple steps in the manufacturing process. The company is leveraging 3D X-ray technology to view the cores across multiple axes. Any balls with off-center cores or other concentricity issues should get plucked out before getting anywhere near a retail box.
- Improvements to Callaway’s painting and finishing processes will ensure an even coating and uncompromised aerodynamic performance.
The Best Ball in Golf?
Two things can be true at once.
Golfers love Chrome Soft. That is not in dispute. It’s also true that Callaway has some work to do if it’s serious about making the best, highest-quality ball in golf.
“We’re not here to finish 2nd,” says Toulon. “If we’re going to be the very best, there are some things we need to fix…and we’re on it.”
Everyone starts somewhere.
Callaway Chrome Soft and Chrome Soft X golf balls will retail for $47.99. Retail availability begins March 12.
For more information, visit Callawaygolf.com.
Correction: The original text of this story suggested that Callaway’s ball share was between 20% and 25%. The story has been updated to include a broader range based on the industry-standard market share numbers.