At MyGolfSpy, we focus on golf equipment. I realize statement that may very well capture the “DUH” prize for 2017, but the reality is there's more to golf than MOI, CG and ball speed.
Editor's Note: Really?
When you’re in your 80’s and reflecting on your golfing life, you won't be thinking about how you adjusted your Epic, or what you thought of the M3. But you will remember that bucket list round with a lifelong friend, that hidden gem of a course you stumbled upon or the golf school package your spouse bought you for Christmas.
We’re talking about experiences, the stuff of life. And in true #PowerToThePlayer style, MyGolfSpy will periodically offer up our take on golf experiences ranging from a no-cost quickie to a big-ticket trip of a lifetime. Are these adventures worth your time and money? As always, MGS is here to help.
Soooo, welcome to the first installment of MyGolfSpy’s “What’s It Like To…” We might as well start out with a shocker. Yes, we went, and no, despite the jokes, we were not sent to the Pit of Misery.
Titleist Ball Plant III
The Titleist ProV1 may not be your ball of choice, but you can’t deny it’s the ball by which all others are measured. If you had a dollar for every time someone asked “how does it compare to the ProV?,” you’d probably have enough money to buy, well, some ProV1s.
Titleist has offered tours of its famed Ball Plant III in New Bedford, MA for years, usually for Tour players, PGA Pro’s and select customers only. This fall Titleist opened the doors to the general public, provided of course those members of the general public also belong to Team Titleist (which you can join for free).
“We’re booked solid for the next couple of months,” says Michael Mahoney, Titleist’s Golf Ball Marketing VP. “We even have someone who’s already signed up for a tour next October. There’s clearly an appetite for it.”
Often these types of free public tours provide only a cursory look at the operation before herding you into the gift shop. Titleist, however, gives you a 90-minute, in-depth, walk the floor and stick your nose into the machinery kind of tour, taking you from raw synthetic rubber all the way to painting and printing. You'll see every step of the process, and if you care even the slightest bit about the golf balls you hit, the entire tour is utterly fascinating.
Meeting & Greeting
The tour begins in a small welcome area featuring displays of the ProV1 and ProV1x at various stages of the manufacturing process. Our tour guide, Hank Conaty, is a recently retired 33-year Titleist vet whose last position was Senior Director of Engineering and Technology. During his career, Hank was involved in either developing or refining all of the processes we were about to see, and he delivers his technical insight in understandable terms that are pertinent to the non-engineer golfer.
The program starts with a brief video on the history of Titleist. For a company with a fairly stodgy reputation, the video has some laughs. Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and others are featured, with Poulter encouraging us to steal as many balls as we can during the tour. Hank quickly reminds us, in a chowdah-thick Boston accent, that Poultah was just kiddin’, and we should leave the bawls where they ahh.
Some facts and figures shared during the intro:
- Ball Plant III makes ProV1/ProV1x (AVX is also made here)
- Ball Plant II is nearby and makes 2-piece balls – NXT, NXT Tour, Velocity, TruSoft, and Pinnacle – for worldwide distribution
- A third plant in Thailand makes ProV’s for the Asian market
- Ball Plant III runs 3-shifts, 24-7 with 450 employees, producing 300,000 golf balls a day
- The ProV1 goes through 90 in-process quality checks; the ProV1x goes through 120, due to its dual-core construction
- Average employee tenure at Ball Plant III is 21 years; the longest tenured employee started in 1965
Titleist doesn’t allow cameras on the factory floor, and you have to leave your cell phone in a locker. We were allowed to take pictures in the welcome area, but all of the factory floor pictures in this piece were provided by Titleist.
Rubber To The Core
Consistency, reliability, and experience are words you’ll hear dozens of times during your Titleist tour. When marketing types use those words, they usually fade into white noise, but Hank is a scientist/engineer with a unique ability to explain how all the production steps are controlled, how those steps affect golf ball performance, and why it all matters to a golfer.
“Anyone can make a golf ball,” said Hank, as we entered the factory floor. “But can they make the same golf ball over and over again?”
The first stop is the boiler room, which made the HVAC geek in me tingle. Hank told us heating and cooling are critical in production and are carefully controlled so each ball made has the exact same heat experience at each stage.
Next is the mixing room, where Titleist makes synthetic rubber. Different thermoplastic compounds are mixed and melted to form the base material for the cores. The raw rubber comes out in slabs that look like big sheets of sod in green (ProV1 core), pink (ProV1x inner core) or purple (ProV1x outer core). After a curing period, the raw rubber sheets move to extruders, where they're formed into a long, thick cords and immediately cut into plugs. Those plugs will be molded into cores.
The plugs are placed into large trays and, using a combination of heat and pressure, are molded into cores. This process – called cross-linking - changes the molecular structure of the synthetic rubber from a thermoplastic into a thermoset. At this point, the core can no longer be reground because it can't melt.
“The key to consistency is the seeing the same heat history,” says Hank. “Each core sees the same heat and pressure, so the same chemical reaction takes place. That leads to the same core hardness from ball to ball.”
The next step for the core is the Glebar Room, for grinding, smoothing and polishing, after which they're ready for the casing, or shell layer. The casing is a shell made of surlyn, the same material used in the cover for 2-piece balls. The shells go into a machine and are pressure molded around the cores.
After more smoothing in the Glebar room, the cores are ready for the cast urethane cover.
Quality & Cast Urethane
At this point the tour detours into the Quality Lab. Hank tells us Titleist constantly tests for size, compression, and concentricity - making sure everything is centered with no thickening or thinning of any of the layers. Balls that don’t pass the test don’t leave the building, and performance rejects are destroyed.
There’s also a hitting machine in the quality lab, where cores and finished balls are tested for durability. They’ll hit balls 200 to 400 times to check the paint and printing.
“We want to make a ball that’s both pretty and durable,” says Hank. “We don’t do too well against trees or cart paths, but we hold up against pretty much anything else.”
Ball Plant III is one of the few factories in the world capable of making cast urethane golf balls. Not only is the process fairly complicated, making the cover molds – with specific dimple patterns - is also complex. Hank tells us Titleist strives for vertical integration, making its own molds as well as the tooling and machinery used to make those molds.
Unless you’re really into rubber, the cast urethane molding is the highlight of the tour. It’s a hot process, so the cores are first zapped by a flux capacitor/Back to the Future-looking machine, and then warmed to closely match the temperature of the liquid urethane.
Each cast urethane mold makes four balls at a time. The liquid urethane is first poured into the bottom half of the mold, and once it reaches the consistency of chewed bubble gum, the core is pressed in, creating half a dimpled cover. While this is happening, the other half of the mold is prepped. When ready, the first mold is flipped and pressed into the other half to form a complete ball. The mold is then slowly cooled to harden the urethane.
It takes about 45 minutes for each 4-ball mold to go through the entire process. Titleist runs at least 13 cast urethane lines during each of its three daily shifts.
The balls are then buffed, cleaned and prepped for the final stages.
Two Coats and a Shine
Hank tells us most ProV returns are for cosmetic reasons, usually hair or fibers in the ball finish. To combat that problem, Titleist uses a near-clean room environment for painting and finishing – we all had to wear disposable lab coats and hair nets in the painting room. Bearded gents, including our tour guide, also had to wear hair nets over their faces.
The balls get two very thin coats of paint. They sit on little perches on a conveyer belt as a robotic paint arm sprays away. There's a two-hour drying cycle after each coat before the balls head to the second most fascinating part of the tour, the labeling area.
Labelling is another robotic process. A machine quickly adjusts each ball such that the printing is on the same plane every time. The robot jostles the ball and is able to find the seam in what seems like a millisecond before moving it into position for printing. The Titleist logo is always on the pole of the ball, and the ProV1 sidestamp is always on the equator, where the seem is.
The printing machines stay busy labeling balls with numbers 1 through 4. Titleist does build up reserves of numbers 5 through 99, so if you want a dozen 87’s, they’ll have them in stock. Further customization, such as names and logos, are added at a separate facility in New Bedford, where packaging and shipping also take place.
Lastly, every single ball goes through an X-ray machine for one last check before leaving the building.
Open Door Policy
When you’re the #1 ball in golf, there’s usually only one way to go – and Titleist has seen some gnawing away at its market share in 2017. Callaway is making inroads, and Bridgestone is always a factor, as are Srixon and Wilson. The Kirkland thing certainly didn’t help, and direct-to-consumer competitors are creating their foothold.
“When you look at golf balls, it’s difficult to see what’s behind them,” says Mahoney. “They all look white and round and have dimples. Every time someone finishes one of our tours, they walk away saying ‘I can’t believe how much goes into it, the attention to detail, everything you do.’ ”
“Opening up the plant is an opportunity to give more golfers the opportunity to see this. It gives us the opportunity to connect directly with golfers and make sure we provide them with as much information as possible, so they can decide for themselves whether we can continue to be worthy of their investment.” – Michael Mahoney, Titleist
So, is a visit to Ball Plant III worth your time? If you live nearby, it’s an absolute no-brainer. If you’re planning a Cape Cod golf vacation or visiting Boston or Providence for business or pleasure, New Bedford is an easy side-trip, and the 90-minute tour leaves you plenty of time to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Or, if you're into the macabre, you could drive about 15 minutes west to Fall River and visit the Lizzie Borden house. You know, just for laughs.
One thing is for certain, after touring Ball Plant III (and, if you ever get the chance, Bridgestone’s equally impressive Covington, GA factory), and seeing everything that goes into making a single golf ball, you may find yourself amazed they're only $4 a pop.
And you’ll think twice about trying to clear that water hazard.