By E. Michael Johnson
Nearly four years after the 2012 Masters came to a conclusion there remains a fascination as to how Bubba Watson—one of the favorites for this year’s Masters—hooked a ball 40 yards with a 52-degree wedge from 144 yards with a modern golf ball? The answer is the shot that won Watson that Masters in a playoff was actually easier than most people think.
Wait a minute. Hasn’t part of the argument of those claiming the modern ball (defined here as multilayer and urethane-covered) is the ruination of golf as we know it been that shotmaking has been taken out of the game because you can’t shape the ball due to its lower spin rate?
Although that has often been the argument, fact is it is a misconception that today’s solid-core, multilayer balls don’t produce significant spin. Although true to an extent with the driver (driver spin rates on the PGA Tour with wound balata balls were approximately 4,000 revolutions per minute. Today it is closer to 2,300 to 2,400 rpm) what many don’t understand about multilayer ball technology is that spin rates for tour players hitting wedge and iron shots is strikingly similar to what it was when pros used wound balls. “In 1990 I worked with tour players and we monitored 8-iron spin and found they had between 8,000 and 9,000 rpms of spin with an 8-iron,” said Dean Snell, former senior director of R&D for TaylorMade and now head of Snell Golf. “Today tour players are still spinning 8-irons well over 8,000 rpms. So there’s not that much difference.”
According to Snell, balata balls were wound to such high tension and the balata was so thin and soft that there was a high compression under the cover. That led to high spin with wedge and iron shots. However, today’s urethane covers also are thin and soft—very close to that of balata. Additionally, the mantle layer is very firm and, just like high-tension winding, creates high spin off an iron.
OK, so the ball will sufficiently spin off an iron. But how can it move so much with such a high-lofted club?
“Curving a golf ball is because of spin,” Bill Morgan, senior VP of Titleist golf ball R&D, told GolfDigest.com at the time of Watson’s shot. “The only reason a ball curves left or right is because the axis of rotation has shifted. In other words, the ball wasn’t hit squarely. A shot such as Watson’s, however, depends highly on the mechanics of the golfer. Some have an easier time hooking the ball, others have an easier time slicing the ball. The lie comes into play, too. The club come into play. It’s an athletic event.”
Being left-handed probably helped, too, because it required Watson to hit a hook and not a slice. “Hooking with high spin—and he probably had that ball spinning at close to 10,000 rpms—is much easier than fading with high spin, plus you get more distance with a hook,” said Snell. With a high-lofted club it is extremely difficult to hit a fade, let along one as sharp as Watson’s shot required because you have to open up the face so much the ball can’t travel the distance you want it to. When hitting a hook, the face is closed down. “Don’t think about the number on the bottom of the club,” said Morgan. “How the club was presented to the ball was not at 52 degrees. It was more like a pitching wedge. Whatever the club was that he would normally hit that distance is about the effective loft that 52-degree wedge was delivered to the ball. Plus the soft, urethane cover with a high-lofted club produces a lot of spin.”
Morgan went on to add that Watson’s power likely played less of a role than did his form. “Although there may be more than a 20 mile per hour difference with the driver between Watson and his fellow tour pros, it is probably as little as 3 or 4 m.p.h. with a wedge,” said Morgan. “That means Watson’s shot was more about technique than power. Producing that sidespin was the result of delivering the club to produce a different spin axis orientation to make it move. “
Or, as Snell put it, “Everyday golfers couldn’t believe that shot, but tour players weren’t shocked by it. You close the face a bit and produce that kind of spin and the ball is going to hook like mad.”
An old-school shot—even with a modern ball. And one we’re still talking about.