Mark of a Pro

Two days before Thanksgiving, the Cherokee County (Georgia) Sheriff’s Department recovered the body of Roberto Alvarez from the bottom of a four-acre pond at Towne Lake Hills Golf Club outside Atlanta. He had drowned while attempting to collect errant golf balls that had splashed down between Holes No. 4 and No. 8 at the public course.

PDF DownloadAlvarez was an illegal immigrant, according to investigators. But that’s not what got him in trouble. It was his job. He worked for a contractor hired by the golf course to retrieve balls that would be resold at a discounted price.

Had Alvarez survived, he likely would have emerged with dozens if not hundreds of the most coveted, high-end golf balls in the world: the Titleist V1 ball. For his efforts he would have received between 8 cents and 15 cents for each ball from either the golf course or another retailer, his infinitesimal slice of the estimated $1 billion golfers spend each year for new and used golf balls.

To breathe during his underwater scavenger hunt, Alvarez apparently drew air through a garden hose connected to a compressor. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still investigating.

While unrelated, the death came six months after the Acushnet Co. of Fairhaven, Mass., the world’s largest manufacturer of golf balls, raised the stakes in its battle to protect its popular Titleist and Pinnacle brands.

Acushnet now marks all balls with digital fingerprints to protect its profits and the profits of 14,000-plus authorized retailers from unscrupulous or unauthorized resellers, knock-off artists and, indirectly, their employ of the Roberto Alvarezes of the world.

Acushnet’s newly introduced Golf Ball Brand Security System marks every one of the 48 million balls that come out of its five factories each year. The company uses invisible dye with specific molecular properties that chemically alters the ink in ways that are hard to replicate. The dye affixes not just an identification number to each ball, but its destination.

Acushnet representatives now can use a handheld infra- red scanner to verify if balls are of its own manufacture. The scanned data is fed into a database, giving Acushnet officials a digital trail of exactly when and where the balls were shipped. When balls turn up in places they’re not supposed to be, Acushnet can track down the source.

“Maintaining and protecting trade-channel integrity on Titleist golf balls is our biggest challenge, given the volume and consumable nature of this particular product,” says Mike McCampbell, vice president of sales for Titleist USA.

This dogged pursuit of “channel integrity” came about shortly after Titleist unveiled the Pro V1 ball in the spring of 2001. No golf ball has received as much marketing hype— especially from PGA Tour professionals such as Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson—nor produced as much as demand as the Pro V1.

The ball’s solid rubber core and extremely thin but strong urethane elastomer cover appear to add distance to tee shots and control to chips and putts. In early 2001, professionals using the Pro V1 ball won nine of the first 11 PGA Tour tournaments.

“It was insane,” says Tim Thompson, manager of Bob’s Golf and Tennis in San Jose, Calif. “When it first came out, we couldn’t keep them in stock. Everyone was asking for them and they were back-ordered for months.”