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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

Revolutionary technology is carrying Woods' challengers to new heights

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Jack Nicklaus, as usual, was right.

For years, while others have pointed at square grooves and titanium shafts and thin-faced drivers, Nicklaus has insisted it was golf ball technology as much or more than anything that was responsible for producing mind-boggling low scores and sending venerable, shorter courses scrambling to avoid becoming antiques.

There is a common thread to Joe Durant's two PGA Tour wins this year, to Mark Calcavecchia's 72-hole scoring record in Phoenix, to Davis Love III playing the first seven holes in 8-under while rallying from seven shots off the pace entering the final round to win at Pebble Beach, to lefty Mike Weir's recent round of 62 in Miami.

It is called the Titleist Pro V1 golf ball.

Durant, who started the season at No.208 in the world golf rankings, had two tournament titles under his belt this year before the man who is ranked No.1, Tiger Woods, snagged the first of his back-to-back wins.

Because of a contractual obligation with Nike, Woods does not play the new Pro V1 ball.

But just about everybody else does, and it has narrowed much of the gap that Woods enjoyed a year ago while winning nine titles, including three major championships.

He dominated the U.S. Open by 15 shots, the record winning margin for any major, and added an eight-shot win at the British Open while claiming the career grand slam at the age of 24. In the four majors of 2000, Woods was 53-under-par; next best was Ernie Els at 18-under.

Seeking a fourth straight major championship, Tiger comes to this week's Masters riding the crest of back-to-back wins. They have come by the slimmest of margins, however, and there will likely be plenty of pretenders upgraded to contenders at Augusta National courtesy of the Pro V1.

“You can't go in just thinking about Tiger because there are a lot of other guys playing so well,” said defending champion Vijay Singh. “The advantage is the new ball. Guys are just flying the ball so much better.”

Calcavecchia had not won in two years before carding a 28-under-par total in the Phoenix Open. Durant had won once, the 1998 Western Open, in 161 pro starts before breaking through at the Bob Hope Classic. He celebrated by taking a week off, then winning the Genuity Championship in Miami in his next start.

Calcavecchia echoes most players in claiming about 15 yards of added distance off the tee. Jeff Sluman, all 5-7 and 140 pounds of him, and rail-thin Brad Faxon each have added about 18 yards, and Faxon posted a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Still, Durant is possibly the best study of what the Pro V1 ball has meant to so many PGA tourists. A guy who once quit the tour to sell insurance and work in a sporting goods warehouse, Durant finished 116th in tour driving distance statistics last season and recently had moved up 100 spots on that list to 16th.

In his first six tournaments last year, he averaged 272.1 yards per drive, 72.54 strokes per round and had zero earnings. In his first six events in 2001, Durant averaged 284.9 yards per drive, 69.56 strokes and had earnings of $1.5 million.

“The ball technology has come a long ways,” said Durant, who will turn 37 later this week. “This ball has made a big difference in my game. I don't think it's coincidence.”

Phil Mickelson first hit the Pro V1 last June as part of a blind product test with other brands of balls. Not knowing at the time what he was hitting, Mickelson said, “it looked like it was almost a magic ball.”

He'll get no argument from Billy Andrade. The new Titleist ball was introduced last October at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas. Andrade, mired in a slump and 159th on the money list at the time, switched to the ball right then and there. He won the tournament and $765,000.

“It goes longer than any other ball and it spins better around the greens than any other ball,” said Mickelson, who won with the Pro V1 in early February at the Buick Invitational while improving to No.2 in the world golf rankings behind Woods.

Since last year's Invensys Classic, players using the Pro V1 have won 13 of 19 PGA Tour events, including 9 of 13 this year.

The golfing public has noticed, as well, keeping supply short at most outlets despite a whopping suggested retail price of $54 per dozen.

What makes it special?

Solid-core balls - those that spin less the harder they are hit - have long been popular because of the resulting distance, but were disliked by professionals because of an inability to always control direction.

The wizards at Titleist have apparently fixed that, possibly by replacing elastic windings in the casing (the level between the core and the cover) with an ionomer that better controls side spin and lessens a ball's tendency to travel off course. The core is a solid, resilient rubber, while the core of the Titleist Tour Distance SF, one of the more popular balls on the PGA Tour prior to this year, was a liquid-filled, wound center.

“The harder you hit it, the less it spins,” Mickelson said of the Pro V1. “Consequently, the ball jumps off the face with very little spin and bores through the air and flies forever. Around the greens, when you're hitting a little wedge and not creating near the clubhead speed, it grips the face and spins tremendously.”

With control problems satisfied, pros are relishing the opportunity to get the added, solid-core distance.

“I can hit this new ball a lot higher than I've ever done, so I can go with a lower loft of driver and it just zooms straight into the air,” Singh said. “Everybody's hitting it farther and it has brought a lot of shorter hitters closer to the longer hitters than they've ever been.”

Simply, it means the gap has closed between the field and Tiger Woods. It doesn't mean Tiger won't continue to be the game's dominant player - that would be the case whether he was using a Nike ball, the new Titleist or an ancient gutta-percha ball.

Woods is not being hampered by not hitting the ball further. His Nike Tour Accuracy is also a solid-core ball and Woods already hits it as far as he needs to and is able to put more spin on short shots than anybody else.

Two straight wins have put to rest the early-season suggestion by TV commentator Johnny Miller that Woods was treading water while being leapfrogged by players using the new Titleist ball.

But greater distance for other players using the Pro V1 has enabled them to keep Woods in their sights, a decided psychological benefit for players who had already been working harder to get better as a result of Tiger raising the bar.

“When (Woods) came out and won a lot of golf tournaments last year he was very impressive, but people are now beginning to realize you can't get intimidated by him,” said Thomas Bjorn, who won when Woods suffered a final-hole collapse at the recent Dubai Desert Classic. “You have to go out and beat him. The intimidation is disappearing.”

Might a new golf ball have something to do with that?



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