Hemingway called it duende. It’s a Spanish word that doesn’t translate well into English, but essentially duende is a mixture of flair, bravado, and soul that turns doing your job into a passion play. Hemingway was talking about bullfighters, but if you look hard enough, you can find duende in any profession, including golf, where there's often no shortage of "bull" to fight.
Golfers can have duende (Arnie was the King of it), but what about a guy who designs and sells golf balls for a living?
I don’t know about the duende part, but I do know that Dean Snell is a golf ball maverick. He pulls no punches and calls ‘em as he sees ‘em. If it’s rock-the-boat straight talk on topics such as low compression, ball fitting or the real Kirkland Signature backstory that you seek, pull up a chair, friends. It promises to be a wild ride.
Let’s start with some background. Just who is Dean Snell?
We’ve profiled Dean Snell before, but there's nothing wrong with a good sequel. So with that, please raise your hand if you’ve heard of – and gamed – any of the following:
Titleist Professional, ProV1, Hp2 Tour, Hp2 Distance and Tour Prestige.
TaylorMade Black Max, TP Red, TP Black, Penta, Lethal, Tour Preferred, Tour Preferred X and Project (a).
Not bad for a guy who wanted to be a hockey player.
“Hockey was my passion,” says Snell in a Boston accent thicker than clam chowdah. “I went to UMASS-Lowell on a hockey scholarship and studied engineering. I graduated with a BS in plastics engineering, with minors in chemistry and math.”
Snell went on to play Junior-A level amateur hockey before spending a season with the Philadelphia Flyers minor league affiliate in Hershey, PA, where the dream took a detour.
“There were a lot of good players in the organization, and you needed a break or two. It went okay, but I figured I still have all my teeth and I have an engineering degree. Let’s put this thing to work.”
Work meant serving seven years as a product development manager for Titleist, in his hometown of Acushnet, MA. Snell’s first project was a biggie – developing a cast urethane process that could mothball the age-old balata cover, a process that resulted in the original ProV1. Snell’s name is listed on the first ProV1 patent.
“It was a 5 or 6-year thing to learn how to do it. It’s a real specialty, and there aren’t many factories in the world that can do cast urethane. Titleist has factories, TaylorMade has factories, and there are few overseas. It’s hard to do.”
In late 1996, Snell moved on to TaylorMade as VP of Golf Ball Research and Development. He stayed until October of 2014.
“It was a mutual type separation at a time when TaylorMade’s business decisions were changing,” says Snell. "The ball business for them is a nice business, but it’s not their primary business. They had a different direction they wanted to go in.”
Snell and Titleist have wrangled over the years over his involvement with the ProV1. TaylorMade touted Snell as the developer of the ball and Titleist objected, insisting he was part of a team. Snell says he personally never made that claim, and that it was a misunderstanding. That dispute never went to court.
More recently, Titleist has objected to MyGolfSpy referring to Snell’s involvement in the ProV1 development.
“Titleist tries to protect themselves. Their opinions on things of involvement in the ProV1 are completely different than mine. I did have a conversation with them – after they sent a letter to you guys (MyGolfSpy), they sent a letter to me. I called them and I had a nice discussion with them. I told them my opinion and they really didn’t have a disagreement with it, so since then there’s been no issue whatsoever.” – Dean Snell
Snell had been kicking around the idea of his own golf ball company for five or six years before leaving TaylorMade. “I thought it would be cool to have my own thing where all the stuff I’d gathered and learned over the years I could kinda give back to people who couldn’t afford the Tour type ball or Tour performance. I wanted to keep it small, almost like a hobby, with family and friends working with me and have some fun with it.”
Birth of Snell Golf
Snell Golf opened for business in January of 2015 to very little fanfare. Snell admits it was a low-rent operation.
“When we started, I was working out of my house,” says Snell. “The office people were sharing an office from a buddy in his company – he had some open space, so we put in a desk and some phone lines. For warehouse space, another buddy said ‘hey, use this.’ We were in three or four locations, with no expenses, no overhead, just to see if it could work logistically.”
Snell’s first product was the My Tour Ball (shown above), and it remains the company flagship: a 3-piece, direct-to-consumer ball offering Tour level performance at the non-Tour price of $32 a dozen.
“I was expecting the discussion to be more about the how the golf ball was affordable. But when MyGolfSpy did their independent test and the My Tour Ball beat the ProV1x pretty significantly, it opened up discussion about the performance. The affordability part came after.” – Dean Snell
Snell says the company is growing nicely – with volume jumping 400% in 2016.
“That’s just ridiculous,” says Snell. “My goal when I started was a crawl-walk-run approach, and to have fun doing it. Friends are helping, my family’s a part of it, my kids work with me, and my daughter-in-law is office manager…we have fun; we play golf, the family’s here. You don’t have to sit in an office from 8-to-5. I go pack balls with my kids, my wife, one of my best friends. It’s just constant joking around and having a good time. If somebody makes a mistake, we joke about going to HR. We just want to have fun with it, and that’s how I want it to be.”
The fun seems to be working. Snell recently bought a main office building in New Bedford, MA, as well as another warehouse to keep up with volume.
“Things are moving along pretty good.”
Ask Dean Snell a question only if you’re prepared for the answer, which will come at you like a slap shot from the point. At a recent press conference, Snell was asked why his golf balls putt so well. His response?
“Because we make ‘em round.”
Go ahead Internet, argue with that one.
Another topic sure to get him going is: do low swing speed players need to play low compression golf balls?
“That one really pisses me off,” he says. “If people are going to get better at golf, they gotta get better as they approach the green. That’s where you play 80 to 90 percent of your shots. That’s where golf ball performance is different, and that’s where everybody should try to get the best performance they can.”
“This marketing hype of low compression for low swing speed, that you need it? I disagree 100%. You need performance. If you shoot 100, 80-something of your shots are going to be around the green, and you’re choosing a ball because you think you need it off the tee? You hit 14 drives, and those 86 other shots count, but you’re telling someone you need a low compression ball because your swing speed’s low? I don’t like that marketing message. To me, it’s just not true. You need a higher spinning ball when you get near the green.” – Dean Snell
Snell says there is a value to low compression: it means low spin and the ball may tend to go a little bit straighter, or at least not slice quite as much.
“Some people just play golf for fun, you know?” he says. “Low compression, low spin balls – they can actually get them to launch a little higher. For a lot of players, that’s a win. ‘Hey, did you see that shot!!’ They don’t care how far their 8-iron goes, they just know they hit it, it went straight, and they win.”
Snell’s My Tour Ball isn’t what you’d call low compression, but Snell says its thin, cast urethane cover does have a soft feel along with Tour-level performance the closer you get to the hole.
“Soft and thin gets you that little check, because the soft cover and hard mantle act with each other around the green,” says Snell. “If you think about a 3-piece cast urethane ball, the cover is so thin; it gives you that performance around the green. When you hit the driver, the cover doesn’t have any impact at all, so now it’s a core and hard mantle – that’s a 2-piece ball. So with the driver, you’re hitting a 2-piece ball with low spin. Around the green, you’re hitting the mantle and cover, and that gives you control.”
Ball Fitting Fallacies
Another Snell pet peeve is ball fitting.
“You hit three shots into a net with yours and three shots into a net with theirs,” says Snell. “And then a technician takes your best one and worst one and says ‘look; you just gained 7 yards. This ball’s for you.’ C’mon…”
Snell says he’s done over 100,000 thousand distance tests between Titleist, TaylorMade, and his own company and believes that off the tee, golf balls are very close to the same in terms of distance. In addition, he says statistics and standard deviations make that sort of ball fitting unrealistic.
“With a robot, the standard deviation is five yards and over 100 shots, statistically 99 out of 100 would be within plus or minus three standard deviations, so that’s plus 5-10-15 yards, and minus 5-10-15 yards from the average. So that’s a 30-yard range from your longest ball to your shortest ball. Now there would only be a few shots on the short side and a few on the long side, most of your shots would be in the middle of the bell curve.” – Dean Snell
Snell says with a robot you could have one shot going 260 yards and another going 290, but most of them would be in the 275-yard range. With a tour player, that standard deviation doubles to a range of 60 yards, and with average players, it doubles again to 120 yards.
“So when someone does a ball fitting they hit one shot with one ball and one shot with another ball and then says that ball is 10 yards longer based on those two shots?” says Snell. “If they sit there and hit 100 shots, the next one might be 15 yards shorter, and the next one might be 20 yards longer. Your deviations are so big you can’t base anything off two or three hits. Statistically, it’s not possible.”
Snell says ball fitting should be done on the course, from 125 yards and in.
“We sell a test pack where you get two sleeves of each ball (the 3-piece My Tour Ball and the 2-piece Surlyn covered Get Sum). Go out and play a few holes at 125 yards and in and try them both. Hit chips, wedges, whatever, and by the time you’re done you’re going to like something better because they’re different. If you can’t tell any difference at all, then just buy the cheapest one.” - Dean Snell
(We did reach out to Bridgestone for its take on ball fitting. Adam Rehberg, Bridgestone’s golf ball chief, respectfully disagrees:
“We’re not under the belief that most golf balls act the same off the driver because we’ve experienced the difference in our ball fittings. We see huge differences from person to person, and a very high spin Tour ball can be super detrimental to certain players, which is why our most recommended ball in our fittings is the mid-priced e6. It’s helped players with both accuracy and distance.”
Rehberg adds greenside performance is also important, and Bridgestone always takes a player’s spin needs and preferences into account. “We have a wide array of urethane balls with different hardness, different spin, and different feel. We have very different characteristics within our different balls.”)
The Kirkland Story
The sudden rise of Costco’s Kirkland Signature ball hit particularly close to home for Snell Golf: the balls were made in the same factory (South Korea’s Nassau, which also makes balls for TaylorMade). You’d think Costco’s success would have put a dent in Snell’s business, but in fact, just the opposite happened.
“A lot of stories were picked up about (the Kirkland ball),” says Snell. “And they put us in the story on the Tour performance side of it, but at affordable pricing. So we got into the conversation.”
Snell says his company did as much volume this past November and December as it normally does in June, July and August, which are the company’s biggest sales months. In fact, Snell says he had to airship extra inventory in because they were in danger of being sold out.
“When Kirkland doesn’t have any balls to sell, you have hundreds of thousands of people waiting, and they can’t get them. I think that helped us because it sent them over to our website and they’d read a little bit about Snell Golf and what’s going on here.”
And if you ask Snell if the Kirkland Signature ball will return, he answers like a hockey player – by pulling the sweater over your head and punching away.
“I know what it costs to make them. I know the margins on them,” he says. “If I sold those balls at $15 a dozen, I don’t have a business. If a manufacturer has to make those balls for me to sell for $15 a dozen, they don’t have a business. It just isn’t gonna work.”
Snell isn’t giving the full story on how the Kirkland ball came to be, but he does leave plenty of clues.
“In the factory, there’s a big learning curve,” says Snell. “There’s training they go through in the factory. The processing is more difficult; the tooling is expensive to do - $300,000 to $400,000 to tool it up. So if you’ve got cores and mantles that are sitting around and you want to sell them for half the price, or you’re going to scrap them and get nothing? That’s great; you can do that.”
From that one can infer a few things. Nassau’s process for making cast urethane golf balls is expensive and involved, so one doesn’t simply turn the machines off and send your highly trained people home. You want to keep machines running and your people productive. And if you have extra stuff, well, that’s where Costco comes in.
“I don’t blame Costco at all, or even Nassau,” says Snell. “The perfect storm side to it – there’s a volume they had that they don’t have anymore. There are capacity issues that they have; there are a lot of other little factors that go in, there’s some confidentiality stuff that goes on, which is between companies.”
“Everybody thinks they’ll just start another line and they’ll supply Costco. It can’t happen and it won’t happen. It’s impossible. But that’s just people that don’t understand the cast urethane process. What Nassau can do and how many balls they can make – there’s a number on it. And when that number is maxed out you can’t make any more. I don’t think Costco is going to spend a couple million dollars to build their own equipment just to make golf balls. They definitely wouldn’t do all that just to sell balls for $15 a dozen and make maybe, what, a dollar on them?” – Dean Snell
Snell also debunks the common notion that somehow Titleist was behind the sudden disappearance of the Kirkland Signature.
“This was a case of where the bark was so big, but the bite?” says Snell. “I read a lot of these blogs and people are saying it’s going to upset Titleist. I’m telling you, the volume that Costco sold – Titleist probably made just during this conversation.”
Snell says the actual impact Kirkland made on the golf ball market was minuscule – roughly .00002 percent. “That’s the amount they were able to do for that month. It doesn’t even show up on a market share chart.”
And if Costco does want to come back with a $15 a dozen ball, it’s very unlikely it’ll be the same ball.
“I went through this with Costco every single year when I was with TaylorMade,” says Snell. “They wanted a ball TaylorMade called the TP Red. They wanted to call it TP Red, and they wanted it for a price we couldn’t even make it at, never mind try to make some money on. And all the intellectual properties and the patents and the work you do on it, they just get that for free to sell a golf ball that disrupts your business? It doesn’t work that way.”
The Future of Snell
Snell Golf’s core business is direct-to-consumer via the Internet, but Snell says you will see My Tour Balls at select Pro Shops this year. However, you won’t see Snell paying anyone on tour to play the MTB. The focus will remain on low overhead sales to keep the price down for consumers.
“Our biggest seller is the six pack, the value pack,” says Snell. “New customers come in and buy one dozen, and then they buy six dozen the next time – that’s $26 a dozen with free shipping, so they save $6 a dozen off the normal price. They may split them up with their friends and say ‘Hey, it’s only gonna cost me $157 and I have 6 dozen balls for the year. That gets it down to almost half the price of a normal Tour ball.”
And where does Snell Golf go in the future? Snell doesn’t have a goal in mind; he just wants to have fun getting there.
“I’m a true believer that the more you try to take on, the more mistakes you make,” he says. “If you do things small and you do them right, it’s a win and you grow a little at a time, which is totally fine. You don’t feel pressure to do something; you just enjoy it.”
“I did it for 25 years – the travel, the presentations all over the world. I’ve gone everywhere with Tour players, weeks and weeks away from home, and I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to be home. I just want the second half of the life to not be as crazy as the first half was, but still have fun with it.”