The legendary 4-piece Kirkland Signature golf ball is back!
That would be your entire headline, except for that fact that it’s gone. The entire inventory of $30 double-dozen boxes sold out. Again – seemingly in an instant. That part is pretty much par for the Costco course, though I expect that will change.
As with any headline, it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. There’s a lesson in that, people, but I digress. The ball is back (and gone – but will be back again), Kirkland putters are coming (true story), and wedges too, and that means the golf world should brace itself for a full-on epidemic of K-Sig fever.
We’ll be doing some testing and cutting of the new balls ASAP (we were able to order a box), but in the meantime, I wanted to start by answering a question I’ve been asked several times already.
Is It the Same Ball as the Original?
Permit me to speculate. No. Hell no. No f’ing chance.
The new K-Sig is made in a different country at a different factory. It’s got a different cover with a different dimple pattern. It’s got a new sidestamp too. I can assure you, it’s a vastly different ball. That part is all reasonably easy to piece together.
Unfortunately, those critical details will likely be lost on the average Costco customer who won’t notice the change in the country of origin displayed on the box (China, not Korea this time) and will remain none the wiser, at least until the ball gets put into play.
Bottom line: While I’m open to being proven wrong (it won’t happen), the safe assumption is that the new ball won’t match the performance of the original. For $15 a dozen, it’ll be just fine, maybe even good-ish, but you’re not going to see legitimate tour-level tee to green performance this time around.
How can I know that? Let’s start with a bit of Kirkland Signature golf ball history:
The original K-Sig was a unicorn in the golf ball market. It was a $15/dozen, 4-piece ball with a thin cast urethane cover. That’s legitimate tour-level construction, and it delivered legitimate tour-level performance. At that price, the design shouldn’t have been possible, and as we saw, it definitely wasn’t sustainable.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve heard a few variations of the K-Sig’s origin story (overruns, a closet full of left-over cores), but the common thread in all of them is that most or all of that legendary design originated with TaylorMade before being sold (or, at a minimum, leased) to Costco by Nassau (the Korean factory that manufactured the original K-Sig). The ball you know (and love) as the Kirkland Signature 4-piece is still available in Europe as the Nassau Quattro.
So why doesn’t Costco still set it?
As it has been explained to me, the larger ball manufacturers weren’t particularly pleased about Costco undercutting an entire ball market. To understand why it matters what the traditional golf OEMs think, it’s important to first understand that Nassau and a few other reputable factories are responsible for the majority of golf balls made for brands that don’t own factories (Wilson, Volvik, etc.). These same factories also produce a significant percentage of the 2-piece/ionomer balls for TaylorMade, Callaway, and others. It’s a huge chunk of the names-you-know ball market, and that’s before we include notable direct to consumer brands like Snell, Vice, and OnCore.
Long story short, some screws almost certainly got twisted, and the smart business move for Nassau was to cut Costco loose rather than risk losing reliable long-standing OEM business. That made the bigger customers happy and left Costco searching for a new factory to make balls for it to sell on the cheap. It’s why, as we predicted, once the original 4-piece K-Sig was gone, it was gone for good.
What We Know About the New Ball
We’ll know more once we can hit (and cut) the new 4-piece, but there’s a good bit we can piece together from the information at hand.
The new ball is produced in the same factory in China that makes the current Kirkland 3-piece model. That factory, formerly known as Fantom, was sold and is now operating as Qingdao SM Parker Golf Co. According to a source inside the ball industry, SM Parker, as the name might suggest, is closely aligned with SM Global LLC, a warehousing, logistics, packaging and repackaging company. The connection to SM Global is significant because Costco is one of the company’s largest clients (if not the largest). Notably, SM Global LLC has, for some time, been listed as the manufacturer of Kirkland golf balls on the USGA Conforming Ball List.
As an FYI, Fantom/SM Parker also supplies balls for direct to consumer brand Cut. It also supplied Snell’s MTB Red.
The first takeaway from all of this is that Costco is now much closer to the source of its golf balls. At Nassau, where the original K-Sig came from, the giant retailer wasn’t a priority customer. That won’t be the story this time around, so it’s reasonable to think that inventory issues will ease (the Costco website says the balls are expected back in stock October 15th).
Knowing both the factory and the specs from the USGA list, tell us quite a bit more. The USGA dimple specification for the new balls matches that of the current 3-piece ball. It’s a 338-dimple ball. The original 4-piece K-Sig was 360.
The crucial thing to understand here is that designing a viable dimple pattern is excruciatingly difficult. It requires specialized aerodynamic expertise, so when a factory has a design that works, it tends to use it over and over (and over) again. Because these cover designs are unique to each factory, the dimple count often provides a significant clue as to where a given ball is made.
It’s a reasonable assumption the covers on the 3-piece and 4-piece K-Sig balls are absolutely identical – and if that is the case, it’s going to be a big problem for anyone hoping the new ball will perform like the old ball.
The cover Costco is using is thick (visible in our photos of the 3-piece ball). Thicker is almost invariably firmer, and that pretty much guarantees that the cover of the new ball won’t be nearly as soft as the cast urethane cover of the original Nassau ball (Nassau has expertise in casting thin urethane covers).
By comparison, SM Parker uses an injection molding technique, and while it’s possible to produce an injection-molded cover that’s soft and thin, that certainly isn’t the case with the other SM Parker produced urethane balls currently on the market.
As we saw in our ball test, the Kirkland 3-piece will give you plenty of spin on full swings when there’s still enough head speed to get into the middle layers of the golf ball. When you get closer to the green, however, spin is driven entirely by cover softness. More accurately, spin comes from the hardness difference between the cover and casing layers.
Around the green, a firm cover over a firm casing layer isn’t going to produce nearly the same amount of spin you get from a softer and thinner cover. That’s not an opinion; it’s the physics of spin working against a harder cover. It’s also true that thicker urethane covers are generally less durable than thinner ones.
Piling it on further; I’ll also mention that the current 3-piece ball isn’t particularly good in the wind. For lack of a more elegant description, the ball flight can get a little bit wonky and unpredictable. Given that the covers are almost certainly the same, I’d expect similar from the 4-piece.
The Probable Upside
While there’s plenty of buyer beware here, I don’t expect the new K-Sig will be a bad ball. SM Parker (formerly Fantom) is among the more reputable ball plants. We rated the 3-piece as Good, and I suspect the 4-piece will be just as Good. The thing is, we believe that serious golfers looking for complete tee to green performance should be looking almost exclusively at the balls we rated Very Good or Excellent. I’d wager the new K-Sig doesn’t qualify.
That said, I understand that not everyone wants to spend $50, or even $20 on a dozen golf balls. With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that Costco is still giving you a 4-layer, urethane ball for roughly $15 bucks a dozen. You could absolutely spend more and get a lesser ball. That should count for something.
Signature Putters and Wedges Too
The ball may not be the only Kirkland golf story this fall. Those looking closely at Costo’s selection of images for the new 4-piece ball may have gotten a glimpse of what appears to be a Kirkland Signature putter. A source inside Costco has confirmed that the company is planning to launch a $149.99 putter which was described as “like a Scotty Cameron Newport.”
A Kirkland wedge is also in the works, and we’re told that the retail price for that will be 2 (possibly 3) for $99. That one is said to be like a Vokey.
Taking inspiration from Titleist may be a middle finger in response to the lawsuit Titleist filed over the original Kirkland Signature 4-piece. It may also be as simple as common sense as both Vokey and Cameron enjoy market-leading positions in their respective categories. Either way, the addition of hardgoods to the Costco golf lineup suggests that the company believes it can reach the budget-conscious golfer who’s no longer willing to foot the ever-increasing bill levied by the biggest names in the traditional golf market.
Sometimes just good is good enough.
More information on Costo’s line of golf products as it becomes available.