Dean Snell On USGA & R&A the Proposed Golf Ball Rollback

Dean Snell On USGA & R&A the Proposed Golf Ball Rollback

Dean Snell is pretty well qualified to weigh in on last week’s USGA and R&A proposed Model Local Rule. Especially on a new Overall Distance Standard (ODS) test and how golf ball manufacturers will be affected it’s fair to call him a certified expert.

Evidence shows up in the 40+ golf ball patents he holds (and ones pending) from his time with Titleist, TaylorMade and most recently, Snell Golf, the direct-to-consumer ball company he founded in March 2015.

More proof comes with this little nugget of trivia: Snell appeared as an expert witness for the prosecution AND the defense in the 2008 Titleist versus Callaway golf ball patent litigation.

“Still makes me laugh,” says Snell, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in plastics engineering.

Titleist and TaylorMade Tenures

TaylorMade’s Vice-President of Research and Development for 18 years his fingerprints are all over the TP Red and Black, Penta (golf’s first five-layer ball), Lethal, TOUR Preferred, Noodle, RocketBallz and Project (a).

Before that, Snell spent seven years in Fairhaven, Mass., co-inventing the original Titleist Pro V1 and Professional. He’s also listed as a co-designer of Tour Prestige, HP2 and HP2 Distance.

Snell Golf’s Focus

Today, his approach with Snell Golf is, “No Tour Contracts, No Extra Costs, No B.S..”

Being an e-commerce, direct-to-consumer business model, he’s distanced himself (pun intended) from an ongoing soap opera with enough story angles, twists and bad blood it could main event, Wrestlemania 39 next month.

Watching this Battle Royal play itself out from a seat in the stands suits Snell.

Ask him what he thinks about it all; he’s happy to oblige.

On the Modern Ball for Recreational Players

When you’re the co-inventor of Titleist Pro V1, no surprise Snell is an advocate of the modern golf ball.

Wound-core and solid-core construction brought together produced a performance confluence of tour-level spin control AND distance capability.

For recreational playing consumers, the modern ball has been a revelation.

“Golf is a hard, hard sport to play. I don’t know if that gets mentioned enough in this debate,” he says. “Taking spin out of the ball, in my opinion has brought more people to the game, and its kept more people in the game. Look at young kids playing now and how good they are at such a young age. Look how much longer people play because they still hit it a comfortable distance. That keeps it fun for them. If you gave a 15-20 handicap golfer today a Tour Balata of yesterday, I don’t believe they would enjoy the game as much.”

What About the Pro Game?

Snell would never deny that multi-layer, solid-core golf balls have been a game changer for touring professionals. Pro V1 was built to be more consistent, durable, straighter and, yes, longer AND have a Tour Balata level of spin control.

Is the modern ball the root cause of this debate on distance? Snell contends that it’s one of four equal factors that have contributed to escalation at the game’s top level (more on that in a second)

As a television product, he thinks professional golf has advanced way beyond the Big Three era of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player and even surpassed the late 90s and early 2000s viewing when Tiger and Phil dominated.

On weekends he watches PGA Tour coverage religiously.

“It’s gone from stagnant and a little bland to a lot more interesting,” he says. “The same guys don’t win every week. One week it’s an athletic guy who wins with his distance, the next week, it’s a guy with his putting and wedge play. Doesn’t change our game when we go out and play, but for me, it’s entertaining and more fun to watch.”

Is the USGA and R&A Model Local Rule a setback for the television product if codified?

“It could be,” Snell shrugs. “I appreciate architectural people saying a shorter ball brings back angles and maybe how a designer intended a course to play, but that doesn’t show well on television. Players are the product; courses are the arenas.”

Bifurcation by Any Other Name

One of his main takeaways from last week’s rollback announcement was the governing bodies’ admission that distance is now officially on the clock as an issue that concerns golf’s less than 1% of tour pros and elite amateurs while allowing recreational golf equipment to go forward unimpeded.

Snell is pleased the USGA and R&A finally stated that for the record.

That said, he still considers the MLR “bifurcation” even if thinly disguised as a choice rather than a mandate.

“I’ll always believe one set of rules is best for the game,” he says.

Tackling the Model Local Rule

In 2004 the USGA and R&A implemented its current Overall Distance Standard (ODS) for golf ball testing. Thresholds were a maximum of 317 yards (+ a 3-yard tolerance), and launch conditions set at 120 mph, 2,520 rpm, and a launch angle of 10-degrees.

What the governing bodies have proposed is an updated testing procedure that maintains 317 yards (+ 3-yard tolerance) but moves launch parameters to 127 mph, 2,250 rpm and 11-deg launch.

No current golf ball used on Tour will conform under these updated guidelines. That means golf ball manufacturers will have no choice but to re-tool every aspect of their franchise products to satisfy player expectations and USGA and R&A requirements.

“Sounds simple to say, hey, let’s go make balls 15-20 yards shorter, but it’s not,” Snell says. “There’s a trickle-down of build problems that require step-by-step, layer-by-layer solutions for R&D. All of the things you put into the design of a golf ball don’t only relate to the driver. They relate to total performance tee to green. Every aspect of the game changes.”

Offense to Defence

When Snell started at Titleist, Tour Balata had 4,000 rpm of spin. The ODS proposal calls for spin to be set for 2,200 rpm. There’s not much question that bringing back Tour Balata spin levels at 1,800 mph more spin would shorten up golf balls.

But does it fundamentally change the game at the Tour level from offense to defense?

“Players will try and control the driver with a lower trajectory, and the ball isn’t going as far, so distance will come down,” Snell says. “At the same time, iron spin will rise, and for wedges, it goes up a lot – to about 10,000 rpm. That becomes a problem in windy conditions and for holding greens and pulling balls back. Definitely, it impacts a player’s ability to control shots.”

How Will Manufacturers Tackle a New World Order?

When a golf ball manufacturer like Snell Golf submits prototypes to the USGA and R&A for testing, they do everything possible to maximize speed, spin rate and aerodynamics to keep product just below legal.

That’s the competitive nature of the category.

“If you get things where you’re supposed to, you’ve pushed the speed limit on velocity and distance because everyone plays there,” Snell says.

Swing speed being effectively two-thirds of ball speed, seven more miles-per-hour at impact pushes current balls way past the conforming thresholds.

Snell says designing compliant products through CAD (computer-aided design) is one thing, producing them is another.

“Every company will have to look at different core designs, changing mantle layers, different covers that create more spin or designing to solve the problem with dimple pattern. Doing this strictly on an aerodynamic basis would be tough. You’d have to design some crazy dimples to get to the speed and spin rate they want to test at,” he adds.

How Snell Would Do It

Happily, he doesn’t have to but if Snell had a vested interest in the Tour to satisfy a new ODS, his first order of business would be to assess the proposed USGA and R&A test conditions with current product.

Once complete, he’d move to a discovery phase of whether an aerodynamic design keeping the same spin is the best way forward or if a combination of aerodynamics and spin is the more practical approach.

“You’d do the evaluations and it could work out to be both,” he says. “By adding some spin, not too much, adding some drag, not too much, your goal is to create a ball that would be under but still close to 320 yards (+3 yard) at 127 mph.”

Strictly as an aerodynamics modification, Snell would look at patterning changes for dimple design as soon as possible.

“Every product is different. Every aerodynamic out there is different. When you go on a launch monitor or play in simulators, there’s a programmed model in there that gives you spin, launch, speed, and it uses a model to calculate distance. Works great, but it’s not real life when it comes to golf ball specifics. There’s different lift and drag forces on every dimple pattern. Some of them are designed for faster speeds, to keep the ball in the air longer, and for some companies it’s that second stage flight that assists with carry.”

And if he identified spin as the best means for achieving a rolled-back tour product?

“As I said before, spin impacts every shot in the bag. You’d do your due diligence with tour data and work from there,” he answered, “Especially on shots from 125-130 yards into the green where it really counts out there.”

Who’s Picking Up the Tab?

Everything involved with a distance rollback comes with a significant cost factor. Snell cites re-tooling to create a new set of deeper dimples to slow a Urethane cover ball down as “an extremely expensive undertaking.”

Not insignificant is the re-engineering and R&D investment required in multiple areas for prototyping, in-house testing and tour testing.

“When you go out on Tour and give this shorter ball to Rory (McIlroy) if you’re TaylorMade or to Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth if you’re Titleist, no one is buying that ball. The pros don’t buy it, and consumers won’t buy it because it’s 15-20 yards shorter. In the end, the manufacturers will want their money back from this. If you’re already trying to protect recreational consumers and keep the balls people are actually buying in a controlled price range, you’re potentially adding millions of dollars in R&D, manufacturing retooling costs, and tour support for a product for less than 1% of golfers. Someone is paying for that, and it shouldn’t be the consumer,” Snell says.

Wait…How Many Pro V1s???

Titleist has multiple golf ball models in use on the PGA Tour. Some are older Pro V1 or Pro V1x models players won’t change out of. Others have specific performance characteristics like Left Dash and Left Dot.

Snell hasn’t had to look at a weekly Darrell Survey golf ball count for seven years, but he has a pretty good idea what Titleist, for example, would be dealing with.

“They probably have 12-15 balls they’d have to look at,” he says. “And I can guarantee Titleist will not make 15 new models. They’ll probably make one or two of each and the players will have to learn to play with them. That means different levels of feel if you change spin and different levels of feel for changes to aerodynamics.”

Shit Show Scenario

The USGA and R&A have initiated another six-month Notice and Comment Period on the MLR through August 14.

Equipment manufacturers, tour administrators, players and individuals running elite amateur competitions will be able to provide feedback as they have with the Distance Insights project.

Social media is already buzzing with ‘What If’ scenarios.

The U.S. Open and Open Championship are obvious locks to implement the MLR. Voicing distance concerns for quite some time, The Masters will as well. After that? The PGA of America doesn’t seem enthused, and the PGA Tour and other tours worldwide are assessing what a rollback will mean to their product. Both organizations, of course, are more tightly aligned with golf ball manufacturers.

Reasonable the NCAA, regional and independent tour associations, including junior tours, would fall in line with whatever the Tour decides since they’re part of professional golf’s development ramp.

So, if the PGA Tour turns thumbs down? A veritable shit-show awaits in prospect.

“I don’t think it will come to that, but if it did ‘shit-show’ is a good way to describe it,” Snell says. “The players would absolutely hate it, and it wouldn’t be good for fans. To go from the Valero Texas Open with the current ball then have to switch into a shorter ball at The Masters that has 4,000 more rpm’s of spin with a wedge would be the worst thing that could happen out of this. No doubt it would cause chaos.”

Snell’s Four-Point Distance Issue Philosophy

Three + decades of experience with golf ball performance, his personal philosophy hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. He puts any distance issue in four equal silos:

  • 25% golf balls with lower spin rates (not faster speeds meaning players
    hit it higher)
  • 25% drivers with faster COR and expanded sweet spots
  • 25% agronomy from firmer, shorter-cut fairways
  • 25% player biomechanics, strength and fitness level

“The golf ball hasn’t gotten faster,” he contends. “Back in 1990, 160 mph was tour ball speed with Tour Balata. Now it’s 185 -190 mph. Some guys can get it to 200. Any distance issue is a combination of player, driver, shorter, harder fairways, and ball flight being higher. That’s the reality.”

Over a two-year period during the Mercedes Championship at LaCosta Resort a few years back, Snell tested out his agronomy theory.

“I did a comparison of top ten players for driving distance – the first year where it rained pretty good and the next year when conditions were dry – and the difference was 22-23 yards,” he says. “Making fairways softer on tour would slow roll and distance down. Since the players hit it high, it wouldn’t roll out nearly as much. If the Tour shaped fairways a bit different out at 300 yards, if they’re a bit softer, if rough is thicker, accuracy becomes more important.”

Bifurcating the Tee

Snell is a big proponent of another alternative: A shorter tee.

No, he’s not crazy describing it as bifurcation but legislating a half-inch shorter tee for Tour players and elite amateurs would be a cheaper fix than the OEMs spending millions to produce new golf balls.

“A half-inch shorter tee would reduce distance by 10-15 yards based on how much lower they’d have to tee it, how much spin that adds to the golf ball and how much it reduces loft at impact. They can’t hit the ball as high, and there’s added spin, so it goes shorter. I’ve been saying the same thing from the time I was doing the Professional to Pro V1. That’s when driver spin rates got much lower and drivers themselves started to get bigger heads and longer shafts.”

The Only Thing Certain is the Uncertainty

On one hand, Snell thinks bigger, stronger, more flexible athletes are kind of being punished for their length with this proposed MLR.

On the other, he knows the longest hitters are sure to gain a competitive advantage if it goes ahead.

“If a guy is hitting a pitching-wedge into a green and the other guy is hitting an 8-iron the player hitting 8-iron can still win,” he says, “but as you go further back, if that same comparison becomes a 7-8 iron versus a 4-5 iron that’s a big difference over 72 holes on approach shots to firm, fast greens.”

Snell is like a lot of people. He enjoys tour players hitting it long but gets caught up in the moment when a shorter hitter wins with his driving accuracy and short-game ability.

“When Mark McGwire played baseball at Fenway Park, they didn’t make him hit from behind the backstop. He got to hit from the plate, same as everyone else, with that short wall in Left Field,” Snell says, “but Ichiro could still beat the Red Sox with singles and doubles. To me, it’s pretty cool if you don’t have to hit home runs to still win the game.”

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