It would be easy to dismiss the original BirdieBall as another crackpot inventor’s attempt to develop a golf training aid. There’s a section of the PGA Merchandise Show the MyGolfSpy crew calls “Desperation Row.” It’s the low-rent section and it’s where you’ll find booth after booth manned by entrepreneurs. They’ve cashed in their 401k’s to follow their dream of inventing golf’s next must-have training aid and they’re letting it all ride on one spin of the golf industry’s roulette wheel.
Sadly, the house almost always wins.
But John Breaker, BirdieBall founder, bwana, guiding spirit, chief cook and bottle washer found a way to buck the odds and beat the house.
The Original BirdieBall—It’s All Tiger’s Fault
“It was 1999 and my Dad and I were watching the Masters,” Breaker recalls. “Tiger was just bombing the ball. And one of the announcers said they’re going to have to ‘Tiger-proof’ this golf course.”
That’s just what Augusta tried to do but the Breaker father-and-son duo had a different idea. They felt they could come up with a Tour-level limited-flight golf ball.
“I had spent years in the plastics business so I knew how to get plastics analyzed,” he says. “We thought we could come up with a material that was unique so we could govern the hysteresis of the rebound [Editor’s Note: Don’t ask] and put that in the core. We decided to get the materials in golf ball cores analyzed.”
Breaker gathered up about four dozen different golf balls and drilled 5/8-inch holes in them. His plan, until he found out how much it was going to cost, was to get the cores analyzed. Instead, he was left with a bucket full of balls with holes drilled all the way through them.
The limited-flight ball idea seemed dead. But this is where the story, quite literally, takes a left-hand turn.
The Original BirdieBall is Born
What would you do with a bucket of golf balls sitting in your garage and a one-acre lot sitting in your backyard?
Whack the ever-loving snot out of them, of course.
“I took the bucket out to the backyard, threw the balls on the grass and hit the first one,” says Breaker. “It flew about 20 yards and made a sharp left-hand turn. And it made this crazy noise. I’m like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
The next one went about 20 yards and made a right-hand turn.
“OK. This is kinda weird. The next one I hit with the hole purposefully up. And I hit it flush. Just smoked it.”
Breaker remembers thinking the ball must have flown 160 yards, easy.
“Instead of going over the fence, it hovered in the air and fell to the ground short of the fence, maybe 60 yards away. And I’m like, ‘What the hell just happened here?’”
And that, dear readers, is how the original BirdieBall was born.
“I realized that shape—a cylinder with a hole through the middle—did things that were very similar to a golf ball but also very different from a golf ball.”
Yeah, but where does a napkin ring figure in all this?
As it turns out, that shape is pretty important.
Built for the Backyard
“We decided early on this wasn’t going to be something anyone would play golf with,” says Breaker. “The only way we could sell some was if this was something people could play in their backyard.”
To do that, Breaker had to limit BirdieBall’s flight even more.
“We learned the best way to further restrict flight was to straighten the ball up so it’s less aerodynamic when it’s flying. But we wanted to make sure this thing would still spin exactly like a golf ball.”
This being the late ‘90s, you couldn’t just Google “golf ball flight characteristics.” Google itself was barely a thing. To learn stuff, you had to do it the old-fashioned way by visiting this thing called a library and this other thing called a bookstore.
“Everybody knows now that a golf ball has reverse spin around a horizontal axis,” says Breaker. “All we have to do is watch it fly for a nanosecond and we know what it’s going to do. Well, Trackman didn’t exist back then so we bought a couple of books to find out what’s happening.”
Breaker and his dad did learn the basics: if you hit a ball with a descending blow and compress it, the ball jumps off the clubface with backspin due to the loft of the club and the fact you hit it below the equator. The attribute of that spin, or how it tilts on its axis, is what makes the ball hook or slice.
“It’s the spin that does all the nastiness and the good stuff,” says Breaker. “The golf ball doesn’t fly without it. What we learned from our books is that we definitely had to work on the shape.”
Mimicking the Golf Ball
“We wanted this to be a backyard practice ball and the final design has a very similar spin rate to golf ball instantaneously,” says Breaker. “The difference is our ball tries to slow down the second it comes off the club.”
That’s why the original BirdieBall looks like a napkin ring. Every quarter rotation, the air meets a straight wall and every other quarter-turn it meets an airfoil that gets it up in the air. Aerodynamically speaking, it’s equal parts Stop and Go.
“The cylindrical shape helps create the high spin rate,” says Breaker. “It allows you to compress the bottom portion of the BirdieBall. And because you’re hyper-compressing it with the loft of the club, it throws the ball up in the air with reverse spin.”
And then there’s the sound.
“It has different sounds,” says Breaker. “The deeper the hum, the lower the spin rate and the higher the initial velocity. The Birdieball jumps off the clubface with a very similar ball speed to a golf ball but it’s also trying to stop the second you hit it.”
Breaker admits spin rate data is a bit spotty. That’s because the BirdieBall’s flight characteristics change so fast and even the best launch monitors have trouble picking it up every time.
And while he does insist the spin rate is very similar to that of a golf ball, the spin characteristics and whether the BirdieBall hooks, draws, fades or slices, are very much spot-on.
A basic tenet of ball-striking is to hit the little ball first and the big ball last. Whether you’re a beginner or you’re fighting the chunks, Breaker says BirdeBall can help.
“BirdieBall has a flat side and the club has a flat face,” he explains. “When you put the flat face on the flat side, instantly your hands are in front of the golf ball at impact. You’re hitting the ball first and you’re learning how to compress it.”
“You’re delofting the club to compress the BirdieBall. And the more you compress, the more rebound you get and that gets you more ball speed.”
“It’s equal parts fun and rewarding for someone who’s just learning,” says Katie Breaker, John’s daughter and BirdieBall’s marketing manager. “But it’s even more rewarding for the seasoned golfer.”
So, is BirdieBall saying a typical avid golfer, the kind who takes himself and the game way too seriously, isn’t going to take one look at this thing and say “what the f***?”
“I’d say 99 out of 100 become total converts,” says Breaker. “It happens all the time. An avid golfer hits it for the first time and we count to ourselves ‘one-two-three-wow’ and on cue, he turns around and says ‘Wow!’”
This scenario played out recently at a First Tee event in Denver. One of the dads said he wasn’t going to have his kid learning how to play golf with that silly contraption, The First Tee director asked him if he’d ever hit one and the dad replied he was a one handicap and wasn’t going to ruin his swing hitting a napkin ring.
“Once the guy did hit it,” says Breaker, “the First Tee director said to himself ‘one-two-three-wow.’ On cue, the dad turned around and said, “Wow!”
A YouTube Sensation?
The original BirdieBall won Best New Product honors at the 2005 PGA Merchandise Show. And Golf Magazine has proclaimed the BirdieBall feels and sounds just like a Pro V1. That, says Breaker, led to unintentional marketing gold.
“There was a video online guy who wanted to trash us in the worst goddamn way,” says Breaker. “So he buys a box and sets up a microphone in his backyard. He hits a Pro V1 into the net and then hits a BirdieBall.”
In the real world, Breaker explains, they don’t sound exactly alike but, in this guy’s test with his microphone, they did.
“So, he says, ‘OK, maybe they sound like a Pro V1 but how do they perform?’ So he starts hitting them in his backyard, over his house and into his pool. He wants to hate them but, by the end, he’s like, ‘OK, these are really fun.’
“That guy has done more freaking business for us.”
Breaker estimates he’s sold over seven million Birdieballs since 2005 and, as you’d expect, there’s been a major uptick in sales over the past year. As a company, BirdieBall’s overall business increased threefold last year, largely due to its top-performing putting mats. The Birdieball itself? Breaker estimates an 800-percent increase in sales last year compared to 2019.
“We’re in 7,000 high schools now. We’ve probably brought more people into the game than anybody in the past 10 years. I’m not going to back off of that. We work with schools, the First Tee and the PGA on every level.”
“We’re trying to make the game more accessible,” adds Katie. “You can hit it anywhere you have 40 yards. You can practice in your backyard. You can bring it to the cookout. It’s a nice social thing.”
If You Build It…
Breaker has something called BirdieBall Park on his drawing board.
“It’s a Topgolf-like facility but with BirdieBalls. When I go to Topgolf, I see so many people topping the ball. With BirdieBall, you’ll get it up in the air every single time.”
While it’s hard to quantify whether a BirdieBall spins at the same rate as a golf ball, my own experience shows it does fly like one. While rebuilding my swing after knee surgery, I’m fighting the dreaded pull hook. In the space of 40 yards, I can hit 7-irons to my heart’s content and can work on path and impact. When I hit a pull hook, I know—and my neighbor knows.
There’s an element of practice but don’t discount the element of fun. Golf is, after all, a game. And games are supposed to be fun. So it’s not a real golf ball. So what? No one ever refused to play Monopoly because it wasn’t real money or RISK because it wasn’t real war.
“This is a product that you can have a toss with your dad in the backyard,” says Breaker. “The best part of this invention for me was I could spend the last years of my dad’s life hitting BirdieBalls back and forth with him. And there aren’t many products you can do that with.
“My dad never had time to play catch with me. We worked on cabins, we built garages together—we worked. But when I finally got to do this with my dad and it was golf and it was our invention? I tell you—those are the sweetest memories of my life.”
For more information on the original BirdieBall, visit the company’s website.
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