How is a golf ball made? In Chicopee, there is one more ingredient: pride.

How is a golf ball made? It starts with the core.

“It’s really an inside-out process,” Norm Smith says as we arrive at the factory. He’s Callaway’s vice president of manufacturing, engineering and quality, and we tour the company’s ball plant in Chicopee, Mass., a small town 85 miles west of Brookline, the site of this year’s US Open. Smith’s tan betrays the fact that he is headquartered in Carlsbad, California. But his smile suggests he relishes this New England manufacturing town and is at home amid its whirlwind of production.

“We don’t want to be in some tolerance,” Smith says, pointing to an X-ray machine that measures core construction and centricity in every bullet that leaves the square. “We want to be on target.”

Chicopee is nicknamed the “crossroads of New England” because four interstate highways criss-cross its borders and can take you to Boston; Providence, RI; New Haven, Connecticut; or Albany, NY in less than 90 minutes. Manufacturing is in Chicopee’s DNA, dating back to a sawmill built by English settlers in the 1670s. Textile mills followed – cotton and woolen mills too. Other industries sprang up, including the production, at the Ames Manufacturing Company, of swords and cannons used by the North in the Civil War. In the late 1800s, Spalding came to town and helped the boom in bicycle manufacturing. Spalding also made other sports equipment, and soon their offerings included golf balls.

From the outside, the ball factory is quite unassuming. A small “Callaway” sign — the only clue to the activity going on inside — greets you out front. Interstate 391 passes just east of the property, so the buzz of commuter traffic is a constant. The vast Connecticut River, key to the region’s industrial core, lies a few par 5s to the west. Dotting the neighborhood are greasy spoons and local sports bars, including the Dugout Café, where you can grab a burger and a beer for $8.95, and where Tedy Bruschi’s Pats jersey and Manny Ramirez’s 24 hang side by side on a wall. It is a manufacturing city, but it is also a sports city.

Callaway’s weathered brick exterior comes into its own in this environment. The shock comes when you see its interior: a maze of advanced technologies. Employees monitor massive machines, load conveyor belts, program robots, check computers. Sheets of cotton candy-colored “rubber mix” are paraded from station to station. Think Willy Wonka meets the Industrial Revolution – but add bots. The factory cruise is sensory overload. Can I look in there? Can I touch this? Can I bounce this? Can I take a photo? There is unfathomable R&D behind every step of the process. And some questions they won’t answer. There is more than a century of institutional knowledge within these walls. There are many things that go into the heart of this place.

When Ed Santos was three years old, his family left Portugal for the United States. They settled in Chicopee, where his father got an entry-level job at the 425 Meadow Street factory, assembling golf clubs for Spalding. He stayed for the rest of his career.

“He made his living,” Santos says passionately. “He put us in school. He did everything through this place.

Thomas Cloarec, the “rubber guy”, and R&D genius Dave Melanson, two of Callaway’s best assets.

Michel Le Brecht

The 1980s were a boom time for the factory, which steadily increased its ball production capacity to meet growing demand. But when Santos, following in his father’s footsteps, started working at the factory in 1993, he entered a decade of upheaval.

In 1996, Spalding was sold to investment firm KKR for an estimated $1 billion. But a series of missteps and miscalculations left the company in bad shape and debt piled up. In 2003, KKR sold its Spalding brand and “team sports” business to Russell Athletic. The remaining golf assets were consolidated under the former Top-Flite label and vacated by bankruptcy shortly thereafter. The plant was suddenly put up for auction.

Across the country, California-based Callaway had attempted to enter the golf ball market, but was plagued with high production costs and thorny copyright issues. Titleist, Bridgestone and Spalding owned most of the patents – and suddenly, for a price, Spalding’s were available, along with huge production capacity in Chicopee. Callaway bought for $175 million and immediately became a player in ball space.

But progress was not linear. The economic downturn of 2009 dealt a devastating blow to the golf industry. Layoffs are knocking. And when Chip Brewer took over as CEO of Callaway in 2012, the question arose whether ball operations would be outsourced to a lower-cost country. The future of the Chicopee plant was suddenly in question.

The manufacturing towns of New England know well how this story usually ends. But this one turned out differently. Executive Vice President of Global Operations Mark Leposky has been working to overhaul the supply chain and update outdated machinery. Brewer came aboard. Forget the shutdown – Callaway doubled down and committed $30 million to the plant instead. This amount was quickly increased to $50 million. They have since exceeded double digits.

A robot moves steel molds in and out of casting presses, where the core of a bullet is created.

Michel Le Brecht

Ed Santos can’t believe how much things have changed. It survived layoffs that a decade ago reduced the workforce to around 100 employees. Today there are nearly 500. He has become a senior production supervisor on the operations team, which means he oversees the molding and finishing of the cores. He marvels at parts of the process once done by hand but now done more efficiently by robots. He understands how much things have changed and he enjoys seeing the fruits of his labor rolling along the closely mown greens of the world’s greatest golf courses.

“There’s a lot of pride when you see Jon Rahm using a golf ball of the same type that we make here,” he says. “To see this ball spinning, in slow motion, and to see that [Callaway] chevron [logo] get into the hole – it’s like, Man.”

Santos has two young children. Sometimes they watch golf together on TV.

“I’ll be like, ‘Hey, dad made that ball. Someone on my team made this ball.

There are a lot of new faces on the floor now. Many come from the Chicopee community, introduced to the opportunity through the plant’s partnerships with local technical colleges. Others with specialized backgrounds come from all over the world.

Thomas Cloarec is one of these recruits. The 31-year-old is from France, has a master’s degree in materials science and worked at Goodyear before Callaway. He’s a senior process engineer. Put simply, “I’m a rubber guy,” he says. “That’s what I do. I mix rubber.

Cloarec tries to fool everything for me. Like many avid golfers, I have no idea how balls are made.

“The first step is like baking a cake,” he says. The raw ingredients are combined, mixed and blended through a complex thermodynamic process. This makes cake batter. Next comes the molding of the core. “It’s your oven,” says Cloarec.

The cores are coated with color-coded coats and transported, via a feed hopper, to an injection molding machine, where they receive their glossy polyurethane coatings.

Michel Le Brecht

Throughout my hours on the floor, the same phrases keep coming back: precision technology. Tight tolerances. Process parameters. Measure better, measure more. The goal is simple, says Norm Smith: To make the perfect golf ball. The pursuit of this ideal goes through obsessive production and quality control. That’s why they collect millions of data points every day, testing temperature, size, offset, composition, coefficient of restitution, dimple spacing. They process so much data that IT people annoy them about filling up the servers.

Dave Melanson is the plant’s product engineering manager. He grew up in Connecticut, just across the border from Massachusetts, and has worked at the plant for 24 years. These are his people.

“They are dedicated, blue-collar, salt of the earth,” he says. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve been amazed to see who you meet.” Melanson seems like the kind of guy who can give a great pep talk.

“In the end,” he said, “your machines are machines, aren’t they?” Push a button and it will start doing stuff. But it’s the people who run these machines, who do the setup and pay attention to quality. You know, success is really the little decisions that the workforce makes every day because the machines are blindly spitting out coins.

Advanced vision systems inspect each golf ball for abnormalities before finishing operations.

Michel Le Brecht

Melanson takes pride in every step of the process. He loves seeing Xander Schauffele use a Callaway on Tour. He likes to see employees invested in the work and the results. He loves seeing jobs come to Western Massachusetts.

“Manufacturing jobs aren’t what they used to be,” he says. “And golf balls are an attractive product to manufacture.”

How is a golf ball made? You need materials, machines and people. You mix the rubber. You mold the core, grind it down to make sure it’s a perfect sphere. Around that you add a coat, maybe two. You add the cover. You paint the ball and decorate it and put it in a sleeve next to two others like it. Collect four of these sleeves and you’ve packed a dozen balls. Now do it again, tens of millions of times. The modest Meadow Street factory supplies golf balls to the world. Unlike the building they are made in, the balls are shiny on the outside.

“There’s this juxtaposition of new equipment and investment,” Melanson says of his workplace. “You know the shell is a little old, but what’s going on inside is absolutely state of the art.”

None of this means you won’t lose your very own Callaway Chrome Soft in the woods, weeds or water. But when do you do it? You will know where the next one comes from.

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