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On a roll

Titleist’s Pro V1 has outdistanced the competition for 10 years running

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By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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NEW BEDFORD — Hard to believe, but the No. 1 ball in golf recently turned 10, capping a decade of dominance that stands out among the game’s constantly changing equipment fads and fashions. Rarely has something so small made such a big impact, and remained that way for so long.

Titleist’s Pro V1 quickly became, and has steadfastly remained, the best-selling ball in golf. When it first hit the market — on Dec. 15, 2000 — it was armed with an avalanche of press and praise. Used by pro golfers in record-setting victories in the weeks leading up to the consumer launch, those who followed golf couldn’t avoid hearing about the new ball. When it was finally available, the rush was on.

Never before had a ball delivered so much distance on longer shots, and so much spin and control on shorter shots, while remaining durable. Before the Pro V1 came along — and similarly-constructed balls by other golf ball manufacturers — a golf ball’s strength would have been distance or control. Suddenly, a player could have both.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea that this Pro V1 technology was going to take off,’’ said Billy Andrade, a PGA Tour player from Bristol, R.I., who won on Tour the very first week that pros were permitted to use the Pro V1 in competition. “It was like, ‘Wow.’ You gained so much more distance, and you could still spin it. The perfect combination.’’

The buying frenzy has hardly slowed. According to Titleist, more than 75 million dozen Pro V1 balls have been sold. Every day, some 500,000 Pro V1 balls are made at Titleist facilities, many of them at the Ball Plant 3 in New Bedford, not far from the worldwide headquarters in Fairhaven of its parent company, Acushnet. A team of more than 500 works at the plant, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Producing a Pro V1 is a time-consuming, 18-step process that begins with a tiny rubber pellet and ends — every one approved by hand — with twice-painted, newly-stamped golf balls sitting in giant bins, ready to be shipped around the globe.

Ultimately, they land in the hands of elite professional golfers and on down the chain: accomplished amateurs, college players, juniors, seniors, high handicappers, low handicappers.

Initially, supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Waiting lists popped up. Bidding wars, too. Pace of play suffered, some half-jokingly suggested, because anyone who lost a Pro V1 would spend a lot of time searching for it.

“Overnight, word-of-mouth spread and the consumer demand for Pro V1 was so great that we had to accelerate the market launch from March 2001 to December 2000,’’ said Mary Lou Bohn, vice president of golf ball marketing and Titleist communications. “We had a perfect storm of a breakthrough product arriving at just the right time. The immediate acceptance and rave reviews by Tour players was the catalyst.’’

The price (a dozen usually retails for about $46) hasn’t changed much. Or the popularity. It took four months after the public launch, according to Golf Datatech, for the Pro V1 to become the top-selling golf ball. It’s remained in that position ever since.

“It is, by far, the longest-running No. 1 model of any golf product we’ve tracked since we began Golf Datatech retail reports in 1997,’’ said Tom Stine, the market research company’s cofounder.

The Pro V1 came along at a time when golf was experiencing a noticeable equipment upgrade. Courtesy of research, development, and technology, clubheads were getting larger, sweet spots much more forgiving. The better the clubs, manufacturers reasoned, the better people would play.

Same approach with the golf ball. The Pro V1 is a solid-core, multilayer ball with a more durable urethane cover. When the Pro V1 was being developed in the late 1990s (it took six years), the ball preferred by top players was a two-piece wound model, but its softer balata cover cut easily.

“A solid construction distance ball that spun and felt like a wound ball had long been a design objective for all companies,’’ said Bill Morgan, senior vice president for Acushnet’s golf ball research and development. “In the 1990s Tour players started placing a greater emphasis on driving distance. The Pro V1 was designed to respond to the evolving nature of the game.’’

Despite not being the only ball of its kind — longtime equipment manufacturers such as Callaway, and newcomers like Nike, were coming out with their own versions — the Pro V1 was generating the most response, based primarily on its reputation and affiliation. The most powerful name in golf equipment stood behind it; Titleist, founded in 1932, has been the most-used ball at every US Open since 1949. Plus, many of the better-known Tour stars chose to play the Pro V1 when it came out, and were vocal about its advantages.

Andrade, in the middle of one of his worst seasons on Tour in October 2000, took the new ball and shot 67-67-63-67-68 to win the five-round Invensys Classic in Las Vegas, leading a 1-2-3 finish for the Pro V1 in its debut. Forty-seven players played the Pro V1 that week, and Andrade’s victory was the first of what’s become 247 PGA Tour wins to date.

“It was good for Titleist, and great for me,’’ Andrade said. “Players were using it — are using it — because it’s a great ball and a great company that makes it.’’

The Pro V1 ride hasn’t been entirely bump-free, though. Like many popular products that generate millions of dollars in revenues, litigation became involved, with a lawsuit by Callaway Golf alleging that Acushnet infringed on patents it owned involving the manufacturing of multilayer, solid-core golf balls. The suit was brought in 2006, with both sides claiming court victories along the way. In March, a federal jury sided with Acushnet, perhaps finally putting the lengthy legal battle to bed.

As long as Pro V1 balls are being made, despite the cost and other ball options, there will be a loyal group of golfers playing them. Dan Weilandt, a 50-year-old from Franklin, figures he plays 50 rounds of golf per year. In 47 or 48 of those rounds, he’ll be using a Pro V1.

“I’ve tried almost everything out there, but I always come back to the Pro V1,’’ said Weilandt, who plays to an 11 handicap at Mount Pleasant Country Club in Boylston. “It might not be the longest ball all the time, and it’s not the ball that spins the most, but it’s always consistent, and it really suits my game.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com