Back in 2000, whilst Tiger Woods was laying waste to golf’s history books in devastating, dominating fashion, Billy Andrade’s career was in tatters.
By mid-October, things had had gone from bleak to black. A winner of three PGA Tour events, the then 36-year-old carded rounds of 67 and 75 to miss the cut in the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill Golf Club in Virginia – his 18th weekend off in 28 starts that year. His game had become infected with its very own Y2K bug.
As a result, he was forced to do something he hadn’t needed to do since his rookie season in 1988: register for Q-School.
“I was something like 180th on the money list and there were only three or four events left,” he tells bunkered. “It was awful. I remember playing a practice round around that time with Fred Couples. He said to me, ‘How are you doing? I haven’t seen you in a little while.’ I said, ‘Fred, I’m having the worst year of my career. I’m playing terrible.’ He wished me good luck for the week and I remember wondering when I’d next see him.”
If it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have had no luck until, as they are apt to do, his fortunes suddenly changed without warning.
Andrade went to the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas – one of two 90-hole, five-round, three-course marathons on the tour at that time – hoping ‘Sin City’ might somehow deliver his salvation.
He was desperate for something – anything – that would breathe new life into his game and, by extension, his career.
He found it in a plain, unremarkable white box in his locker.
It had been left there by a rep from his long-time equipment sponsor Titleist. Inside, there were a dozen bright white golf balls. To the casual observer, that’s all they were: golf balls, just like any other.
Except they weren’t. These golf balls were about to change the game. These golf balls were the Titleist Pro V1.
Andrade recalls: “We’d been hearing rumours of a new ball coming from Titleist for several months. I don’t think it’s any secret that they were a bit of a latecomer to the three- and four-piece golf ball market. Other companies, like Bridgestone and Precept, were already doing it and their players were benefitting. So, there was a lot of excitement amongst those of us on tour who played Titleist balls when we heard they were working on something new.”
At that time, Andrade was using the old Tour Balata, a ball that he liked and had success with, but a ball that had been rendered almost obsolete by another Titleist creation: the Professional.
“The Professional was really made for bombers like Davis Love III and Ernie Els,” adds Andrade. “Almost overnight, these guys, who were already hitting it huge distances, added serious yardage. But for guys like [Brad] Faxon, [Jeff] Sluman and me, it did nothing. I tried it but it went nowhere. It didn’t spin. As a comparatively shorter hitter, I needed more spin to keep the ball in the air, whereas guys like Davis and Ernie needed less. So, for them, the Professional was a huge leap forward. For me, it didn’t really matter.”
Finding a ball that satisfied every player’s needs had become the equipment industry’s search for the holy grail. It also seemed destined to remain equally as elusive.
“I think back to when I was a 12 or 13-year-old kid,” says Andrade. “At that time, you’d maybe use a Top-Flite or a Molator on a par-5 if you were looking to really get one down there, then switch to a ‘spinnier’ ball on a par-3. You were constantly chopping and changing because you needed different things at different times. On one hole, you’d want no spin. On the next, you’d want lots. Making a golf ball that gave you both distance and feel seemed like an impossible idea.”
Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
With a moment of true inspiration, Titleist cracked the code. In a paradigmatic shift, the company essentially turned the Balata inside out. It replaced its soft, liquid-filled rubber core with a firmer solid rubber core that had a harder mantle. This was then encased within a coating made from a soft plastic called urethane.
The new ball was everything that the Balata wasn’t, specifically consistent, durable and reliable.
Over the next several months, members of the Titleist Golf Ball R&D teams embarked on what was affectionately called the ‘100 Man March’, whereby they took the prototype Pro V1, put it in front of at least 100 tour pros and asked them to hit shots side-by-side with their current model. The feedback was almost universally promising. As a result, the ball was added to the USGA conforming list starting the week of the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas.
Mac Fritz, the Senior Vice President of Tour Promotion for Titleist, was tasked with placing golf ball orders for the tournament. He went with approximately 60 dozen of the new Pro V1 based upon his guess that 25 players would immediately convert to the new ball.
He was way off.
All told, 47 Titleist players decided to put the Pro V1 into play in its first week on tour. To this day, it remains the biggest shift in equipment usage at a PGA Tour event.
Anrdrade was one of 47.
“The reps were pretty jacked up giving us the balls that week,” he recalls. “I mean, that’s not unusual. Reps are always excited when they’re giving you new product to try. But they were extra excited that week.”
It didn’t take him long to figure out why.
“I remember playing a practice round with them and thinking, ‘You know what, I better save these because I’m 100% using them this week.’ That’s how good they were. They were so much longer than the Tour Prestige. I added 15, maybe even 20 yards instantly. And I mean instantly. I was averaging a club less for my second shots, sometimes two.”
It answered every question that Andrade asked of it. “It was much firmer and the sound was a little harder than I was used to as well but the flight was awesome. I recovered the distance I had been lacking off the tee without sacrificing any of the feel I wanted with my irons, wedges and even my putter. I mean, that’s the magic potion every professional golfer wants right there.”
Having played poorly all year, Andrade opened with a pair of 67s in Vegas. In round three, he shot his lowest 18-hole score of the year, a superb 63 that put him into the title mix. A fourth round 67 consolidated his place among the contenders.
“In the fifth and final round, I think I shot something like even or one-under on the front nine and I honestly figured I’d played myself out of the tournament because everybody tends to go real low in that round,” he says. “I got to the tenth tee, looked at a leaderboard and saw I was still sitting third. I told myself, ‘Okay, let’s get hot on this back nine.’”
He did just that, ultimately converting a five-footer on the last to sign for a 68 and a 28-under-par total. It was enough to win by a shot from Phil Mickelson.
“The funny thing was I didn’t even know Mickelson was even in the tournament until the final round when I hit my tee shot out to the right on 16 and saw him putting on 17,” he laughs. “That was the first time I knew he was playing. Because the tournament was played across three different courses, you didn’t see get to see everybody and he hadn’t really factored until that final day when he came from nowhere to shoot a really low number.”
As low as it was, it wasn’t low enough to catch Andrade, who won for the fourth time on the PGA Tour and the first since the Bell Canadian Open in September 1998. More significantly, it saved him the stress and uncertainty of going to Q-School the following month.
“It was a real ‘outta nowhere’ win,” he sighs, relief still present in his voice 20 years later. “I went from something like 180th on the money to list to forty-something. It really jump-started the second act of my PGA Tour career.”
It was also the first win by anybody – pro or amateur – anywhere in the world using the Titleist Pro V1. Every Titleist player who finished in the top-30 that week used the Pro V1.
“That’s when you know you’ve got something right,” says Andrade. “It was the ultimate street cred.”
The ball quickly became the talk of the game and completely changed how manufacturers – not just Titleist – made golf balls. For example, at the 2000 Masters, 59 of the 95 players in the field used a wound ball. Twelve months later, that number had plummeted to four. By the end of 2001, not a single event on any of the world’s major professional tours had been won using a wound ball. The change was both seismic and sudden.
“You think about pieces of equipment that have made a big impact,” says Andrade. “Ely Callaway and the Big Bertha took the driver industry to the next level and that was unquestionably huge. But Titleist with the Pro V1 elevated not just the ball market but the entire game to somewhere I’d never seen. It was a game-changer in every sense of the word.”
Today, Titleist produces up to 300,000 Titleist Pro V1s per day from Ball Plant III at its Massachusetts headquarters. Since its introduction, the franchise has been the ball of choice for more than 3,000 champions worldwide – a run that started way back in October 2000 with Andrade.
He has kept a letter Titleist sent him following that victory along with a specially-made memento they sent him. “It’s basically a display of four different Titleist balls from through the years, finishing with the original Pro V1 that I used in Vegas that week,” he says. “It’s pretty neat to be able to say I’m the first guy that won using the ball that changed the game. It’s truly an honour.
“I guess, if nothing else, I’m destined to go down in the history of golf as the answer to a quiz question.
“And hey, I’ll take it!”
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This article first appeared in issue 181 of bunkered (October 2020). To subscribe, click here.