MIAMI — After a pro hits a ball, it sounds like a bottle rocket whizzing through the air. It hisses, spinning between 1,500 and 2,500 times a minute. Big hitters can smash drives at speeds of more than 175 miles per hour, with some golfers exceeding even that number.
But around the greens those same pros need the ball to feel as soft as a marshmallow off the face of a sand wedge. Too much spin can steal precious yards off the tee, but players need that spin and feel when confronting firm, fast greens.
Zach Johnson, who has a locker with his name on it at Augusta National, talked with Titleist representatives before the start of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship about changing from the 2009 version of the Titleist Pro V1x to the just-released 2011 model.
According to Titleist, the dimples on the new Pro V1x are shallower and arranged in a new pattern that helps it fly higher and reach its highest point farther down range. On paper that would be good for Zach because it would make his approach shots come down more vertically and stop faster on the famous greens at Augusta.
"It's not easy to make a ball change, but I don’t think it's difficult either," Johnson said that day in Marana, Ariz. "I think it's just a matter of practicing with it."
But with the Ryder Cup concluding in October, post-season commitments and a much-needed vacation scheduled before Johnson took off for Hawaii and the winners-only Hyundai Championship in early January, finding practice time was tough.
"When it comes to ball testing, to me, it's all about the spin I'm getting on full shots," Johnson said. "I'd say more so with irons. After that, it's your driver. I mean, you can always manipulate the loft of your driver or the shaft, but with irons it's a little more difficult. After that pitching and chipping around the greens becomes the next more important thing."
Johnson famously laid-up on all the par 5s at Augusta in 2007 en route to winning the Masters, yet made plenty of birdies because his distance control with his irons and wedges was impeccable.
Anthony Kim, the player who holds the Masters record for the most birdies made in one round—11 in 2009's second round—has a different approach.
Kim, who missed a good portion of the 2010 season due to injury, switched to Nike's 20XI-s ball at the 2010 HSBC Champions in Shanghai last October.
"I wanted a golf ball that spins around the greens," Kim said recently. "That's the most important thing to me, really, because the [new] grooves are affecting how the ball is coming out of the rough around the greens and how the ball is checking up—or not checking up. So for me, it was just if I could putt with it and the feel I had with the longer putts and how I could spin it around the greens."
"I got the ball Wednesday afternoon and put it into play on Thursday," he said.
Kim's switch was fast; Johnson's was methodical. He had Titleist reps send several boxes of the new Pro V1x balls to his home and practiced with them before coming to this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship.
"The new ball is in the bag, as of yesterday," Johnson said Wednesday morning on the driving range at Doral.
According to Fordie Pitts, a Titleist rep, Johnson tailors all of his equipment for major championship conditions. It may have taken a little longer than other players, but with just four weeks before the start of the Masters, maybe Zach thinks he's found a ball that can help him win a second green jacket.
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(Photos: Johnson by Kohjiro Kinno/SI; Robert Beck/SI)