Snell Golf are little known in the UK, but in the USA they specialise in creating premium golf balls that retail direct to the golfer and they have plenty of ball heritage as I found out when I met with founder Dean Snell.
Hi Dean. Can you give me a little background to your career in the golf ball industry and how you’ve got to where you are now with Snell Golf?
I got lucky actually, I answered a job advertisement for Titleist. I was working in aerospace and defence and I was doing design work for fighter planes and I answered an ad for Titleist for quality control, but I didn’t play golf, I actually hated golf. So they sent me over to the R&D and then they gave me an offer a couple of days later.
So my background is in engineering. I have a plastics engineering degree with a minor in chemistry and maths. So I started working with Titleist in 1990 and the first project was to try and convert balata to urethane – how do you do it and what’s the process. They didn’t know how to do it so we created the first ball called the Titleist professional, which was the first cast urethane golf ball. When they did the original Pro V1 I was part of that design group and then TaylorMade had hired me out to the golf ball division.
So I was employee number one with TaylorMade just starting from ground zero. Hiring an R&D group, building a factory, finding ways to do things with patents– it was fun. I made a lot of good friends in the field, a lot of great tour players are friends of mine. I’ve been here at Lake Nona four or five times with Justin Rose and Retief Goosen, working with them so I keep in touch with the tour players.
Then I started my own business in 2014 on the following premise: A lot of people can benefit from premium tour balls, but won’t pay the money for them, so if I can take what I’ve learned from working with these players and use the best materials and the best processes and create very very high performance golf balls that benefit all golfers, that don’t have the big overheads, the big marketing side, don’t have the big tour contracts, and sell direct to consumers so all that saving I then pass back to the consumer."
Now we sell six dozen golf balls for $26.33 per dozen, which is a big saving over tour balls that are $45-55 a dozen. So it lets people who have never tried high performance balls to have an opportunity to do so and hopefully they will see a benefit.
It seems to me that the cast urethane seems to be the key to this, is that right?
Yes. Cast urethane is a cover technology that came in in 1995 and in my opinion it’s the best. There are thermoplastic urethanes that are modified, but you just can’t cast it thin enough to create that very good performance and with cast urethane, the softer it gets the better the durability gets, which is the opposite of other materials.
So there is a big benefit to it in that you can control short game performance, increase durability and make the feel very soft so its a very good cover material.
You say that high-handicap players are the ones who can benefit from tour performance golf balls the most. Can you explain why that is?
Yes, so what happens is that higher handicappers typically play lower class golf balls: two-piece, low compression, soft golf balls and these have very low spin with a driver through wedge. +
So the average golfer misses 17 out of 18 greens, that means that you’re playing 17 par 3’s effectively somewhere around the green, but you’re playing with a golf ball that doesn’t have any performance to it.
If you shoot 100, you hit around 14 drives, you’ve hit 86 other shots that count close to the green and this is where you can benefit from having a little more spin and a little more control over the ball. You won’t see spin rates that have tour players sucking the ball back, but you may stop it 5 or 6 feet closer, eliminating some 2 or 3 putts that will help lower your scores.
Titleist for example will say that money no object, all golfers should be using the Pro V1, which is where your MTB ball is. Do you subscribe to this view that everyone should be playing a premium ball rather than other types of balls?
Yes, absolutely – 100% agree. The increased performance that you can get playing a premium ball is only going to help your game.
I recommend that people go out to 100 yards and take a 2-piece low compression golf ball, and take a tour ball and just go to 100 yards and hit some shots in, then got to 70 then 60, and 30 – this is where they are different. Do that for five or six holes, and if you walk off that 6th green going “I like the way that ball checked or bump and run or felt” then the premium ball could be for you.
If you can’t tell any difference there then your games not good enough yet and you can buy the cheapest one, but if you’re looking to improve the improvement is going to come from the tour performance.
If that is the case then why do people keep on buying these low compression, softer golf balls?
Price, they buy them because of price. I mean if I was a marketing guy and I came and told the story that for $15 you can buy this tour ball, the perfect example being the Costco Kirkland Signature ball phenomenon that went on. This is a 4-piece ball and nobody was talking about 2-piece golf balls in any of those conversations.
It’s not going to happen, it’s hard to do, we can’t do that as manufacturers. But the performance part of it, people think that they’re not good enough to have it. But if price is taken out of it, they can get better if they do have it.
What is your opinion on the Kirkland Signature ball because it has come and gone in a flash?
I know the details of the whole deal and to be honest I’m not allowed to speak about it. But to me it wasn’t a matter of if they were going to stop, it was just a matter of when. It couldn’t happen, it wasn’t going to happen. There was a huge volume problem with something like that.
Having that technology and they were trying to say that the volumes would increase – the amount that they actually had and they actually sold don’t even show up on a chart. They’re extremely small. And they were expecting to go away and get more and you can’t do that, not in this business. So it was a matter of if not when it was going to go away.
They just wanted to sell something so they got people to pay $55 to join Costco now they have no golf balls. It was a kind of tour ball, but it’s impossible for manufacturers to make something at that price and then sell at those volumes. You can’t do both, it’s impossible to do.
Cast urethane requires a huge investment to make. They come in cells, like little lines and it’s about $2 million to build one cell which makes a given amount of golf balls. So if you have a certain amount in your factory that you make and sell and someone wants more, then you can’t do it. To set up to do it properly is a year and a half job and they didn't have the resources for that.
How easy for a new entrant like you to come into the industry and build a ball when there must be patents left, right and centre?
Yeah, it’s very difficult. There were once ten independent companies that were selling golf balls. Titleist had a patent that they said was being infringed on aerodynamics and they filed suit and seven out of the ten are gone.
So it’s very difficult, you have to be fortunate. I have been in this industry for 28 years now so I know the technology pretty well inside and out, and I’m able to create a performance with technology that other people may not know how they can do it.
That’s the advantage I have, I’ve read almost every single golf ball patent over the last 25 years. That was my job as part of R&D, it was to just read everyone’s inventions to get a feel for where the market was going, what they did and what they were going to do.
So without giving any secrets away, are the opportunities in the materials that you’re using or is it how many layers you have and how large they are?
It’s both, there’s opportunities to use different materials, each different material can create different sounds or different spin rates. The thickness of the layers can control performance as well. So the design and how many layers can have an impact, particularly when you get into the higher layers, there is a value to them at the very high level of the game.
The five piece ball that I did with TaylorMade, I did it with Jim Furyk. Jim Furyk said to me “Hey, we’re making these balls spin so low with drivers, I can’t keep a 4-iron in the air. So when I compress to the 4-iron, the ball is falling out of the sky.” So I put a fifth layer inside the ball that added spin on the 3, 4 and 5-iron on his impact.
I work with all the average golfers out there in the world, all these normal players that play the game but I’d never had a guy tell me that his 4-iron just fell out of the sky. So you can have that technology and performance if you wanted to pay for it.
My position is when you bring something for people, bring something that they can use, don’t make them pay for something that they’re not going to see the big benefits from. Three and four piece golf balls work for 99% of golfers out there, that 1% is the high-end tour players – they would be able to tell the difference.
You’ve mentioned low ball spin, are balls spinning too low now?
No. The benefit that happens now is that the club and ball companies kind of work together, because most of them are in it together. When we go lower on the spin of a golf ball and they go lower on the spin of a driver, they increase the loft. That makes the ball go further. That’s the only way you’re going to get your distance now.
If the loft was higher and the spin was lower, we have to make sure as the designer that we have the aerodynamics right so when these balls start hitting the ball higher with lower spin we have enough lift and drag to keep that ball in the air. If you don’t, it will fall out of the sky so all the benefits of spin riate are now gone so we have to stay in touch with that on the aerodynamics side.
So our design range on golf balls used to be 3000 to 4000 window on a driver spin for dimples, then I went 2500 to 3500, then 2000 to 3000 now its 1500 to 2500, so we designed in low windows because these drivers and balls are all driving spin rates down.
Price aside, is there a reason for golfers to use soft golf balls?
I’ve seen a lot of times, the older market, people like to hit the ball. They’re not spinning it anyway so they’re getting a ball that’s going to launch a little higher with a little less spin and for some players getting it up in there air and carrying it a little further is a win for them. They’re not looking for that little knock-down shot where they can make it check. So if you’re not looking for that game and you don’t have that game, don’t pay for that game.
What construction are the Snell My Tour Ball golf balls?
We have 3-piece right now, 3 piece cast urethane and the Get Sum is a 2-piece ball.
What is the different with the Get Sum?
This golf ball gives them performance where it’s not going to stop next to the hole or spin back or anything like that but it is going to be something that’s going to be a little easier to play if you’re beginning, learning, hitting the ball a little bit higher and straighter with less spin.
That level would be the players that went and did that little short-game test I mentioned earlier and didn’t even hit it the same twice on a wedge. If you don’t hit very well with wedges and that’s your problem, then don’t spend the money.
If you do test from 100 yards and you see a difference which is where they are different, then buy the My Tour Ball. But if you hit flat shots, roll it and I just like to play, then there is a use for our Get Sum ball.
With the softer Get Sum ball, if golfers aren’t generating the spin anyway what is giving them the launch?
It’s the 2-piece design. If you go low spin with the driver, you go low with the wedges and my own golf balls used to be high with drivers and high with wedges. So what happened was that the Titleist Professional came out and it was that it dropped the spin, but still gave it a good spin.
Then Pro V1 one came out, even lower but still gave it a good spin. So the new balls today are like Pinnacles and still give spin. So multi-layered designs have helped us create a spin curve from driver through wedges. 2-piece balls it’s low to low, medium to medium. If you play a high spin 2-piece ball it’s high to high so you can’t create a curve, you get what you get.
Snell balls are currently available direct in the United States. Will they also be available in the UK and Europe?
No, in all honestly it’s been our biggest challenge. We’re in 11 countries now, and for a distributor to come and buy and sell them has been simple in 11 countries. I’m all for it but I’ve had three people in Europe where I have said, here it is, here’s the model, you come up with a business plan to do it, then when you try to keep the costs down like that for the logistics that they need, it proved to be a bit of a challenge more than other countries have. Right now it’s just waiting for someone to find out how the logistics will work and how they’re going to do it and hopefully we will be selling there too.
Thank you Dean