Diary of a Driver Fitting


One of the best ways to hit better shots is to play with clubs that help to correct those individual swing idiosyncrasies we all have. The process for finding the proper sticks is called club fitting and in spite of what you may have heard, to a certain degree it is true, you can buy a game.

Let’s say you are trying to get rid of a slice-producing over the top move that sometimes abruptly morphs into a hard pull to the left. If your clubs could compensate even a little so the ball more often went where you wanted, this maddening game would be a lot more fun.

Some may have doubts about club fitting and question if it is worth the money. Others are hesitant with the excuse they aren’t good enough which may be another way of saying they are unsure of exactly happens during a fitting and perhaps even have a fear of being embarrassed.

As age has imposed itself on my swing, club fittings every couple of years have proven their value if for no other reason than “good shots” become easier. The “I’m not good enough” argument therefore puts the cart before the horse because players at every level of skill beyond rank beginner can be helped with a fitting.

To allay any hesitation from not knowing what to expect we thought it would be worthwhile to follow a typical weekend warrior through a driver fitting and keep a diary of the experience for our readers.

Picking a friend named Scott as guinea pig…oops sorry, the guy to be fitted, an appointment was made at our local PGA TOUR Superstore with fitter Sam O’Donnell. The price for a driver fitting is $100 and O’Donnell pointed out the procedure is the same as what the pros on Tour go through whether only a driver or the whole bag, in fact his area of the PGATSS facility has a big sign, “Fitting Van Experience.”

O’Donnell first asked Scott about his game: how often he played (3-4 times per month), how he scored (mid 90s), his most frequent miss (slice) and what Scott was looking for out of the fitting (straighten the slice). He then measured the length (45.5 inches), loft (9.5 degrees) and grip size (standard) of Scott’s current driver, a 2014 model TaylorMade JetSpeed with a stiff flex Aldila shaft.

After Scott had stretched a bit and drove a few to warm up O’Donnell asked him to hit six drives using his JetSpeed and a TaylorMade TP5, the ball which Scott most often plays. Data on each drive was measured by a ForeSight Quad launch monitor for a baseline O’Donnell could use to judge differences as shafts and heads were changed.

Scott at 6-foot 1-inch generates lot of clubhead speed consistently registering in the 105 to 110 mph range but unfortunately the ball usually started left of the target and then took a tremendous turn to the right. If we had been on the course every one of his drives would most likely have missed the fairway and the straight-line distance from the tee was seldom over 220-yards. Plus, as do most golfers who slice, Scott made impact low on the face and towards the heel which all by itself robs him of yardage.

As was said of the late President Ford, Scott sometimes must wait until his first tee shot lands to see which course he would be playing that day. Though that sounds exaggerated (and it is of course) you can’t mistake Scott’s deep desire to play better…if for no other reason than to beat me.

O’Donnell now took a similar TaylorMade clubhead from his stock of several dozen made by a variety of manufacturers all with quick-connect hosels and had Scott hit more drives using a different shaft than the one in his JetSpeed. In addition to the ball’s path, measurements shown on the launch monitor included clubhead and ball speed, back and side spin and smash factor—the ratio of ball speed to clubhead speed. After a few drives with the first shaft a second was tried with the same head, then a third and a fourth and then back to the second and third again. Finally, the second, a stiff flex Fujikura Pro Green 62 weighing 66-grams and 45-inches in length, was selected since it consistently produced the best combination of distance, trajectory and dispersion.

O’Donnell pointed out in most driver fittings he evaluates at least four shafts and often more.

Now that the proper shaft had been identified the process moved on to finding the best clubhead. Based on his experience O’Donnell had an idea which clubheads were the most likely to produce the results he wanted and selected those for testing on the Fujikura shaft. Each head was hit at least six times and a couple as many as a dozen. Analyzing the results the number of heads was narrowed down to two low spin models, the Ping G400 LST and the Callaway Great Big Bertha Epic Sub Zero. When mated with the Fujikura shaft both produced much improved results over Scott’s JetSpeed, more distance and less left to right slice.

After hitting each of them again the decision was made to go with the Callaway on the strength of slightly lower dispersion and the fact Scott liked its looks at address. All of this took almost two hours but when we left Scott had a set of specifications for a new Callaway Great Big Bertha Epic Sub Zero driver with a stiff flex 45-inch long Fujikura Pro Green 62 shaft. He told O’Donnell he wanted to think over spending the money, $500, and would get back to him if he decided to buy.

Two days later a text message from Scott said he was going in after work to place the order and a week later his driver arrived. Needless to say, he could hardly wait for the weekend to put the new one-wood into play and the following Saturday Scott phoned driving home from the course.

His first words were, “I’d say the driver is an A+. Now when I walk on the tee I’m looking forward to it. I measured at least one of the drives to over 270.”

He continued saying, “I hit eight of 14 fairways and only one drive was way out to the right.”

Wonderful news, not just because it was a validation for Scott having spent all that money but the enthusiasm in his voice was great to hear. By way of comparison, with his old driver Scott often didn’t hit even one fairway a round and 270 was just a dream.

A couple of other points. To put to rest comments sometimes heard about the fitting process at some retailers, neither Sam O’Donnell nor PGA TOUR Superstore receive extra compensation for specifying clubs of any manufacturer nor does O’Donnell receive a sales commission when a driver is sold. O’Donnell put it simply, “We just want players to walk out of here with the best clubs for their game.”

Scott’s evaluation of the fitting experience at PGATSS can be summed up easily, he told me he is going back to have irons fit.

The lesson for golfers of all levels is the better-suited the clubs the better the results. A professional level fitting is making an investment in our future enjoyment of the game.

Tour Edge HL3 – Quality & Performance at Lower Price

One of the more interesting introductions at this year’s PGA Merchandise Show was a family of clubs from Tour Edge Golf called Hot Launch 3 with members running from two versions of the driver down through wedges. Over the past few years the number of models in the premium and ultra-premium price categories has continued to grow as manufacturers look to increase revenue in a stagnate market.

Tour Edge on the other hand with the HL 3 family is taking a different approach and making a major push at the other end of the price spectrum.

Company founder and master club designer David Glod makes the point that HL 3 drivers for example don’t take a back seat in performance to those at two or even three times the price. A rather refreshing approach to say the least and fortunately for golfers Tour Edge has carried through the same relationship of price and performance in the other of models in the family.

The standard and Offset versions drivers are each priced at $189.99 and both feature a variable thickness titanium cup face to preserve ball speed on off center impacts. They have a channel in the sole behind the face’s leading edge to lower ball spin and make the head more forgiving plus there’s a fixed rear sole weight which moves the center of gravity rearward to produce a higher ball launch. Lowering the ball’s spin and pushing the ball’s trajectory toward a more ideal angle are key to getting the most distance from a given swing speed.

In the Offset version, the entry point of the shaft into the clubhead is further forward, i.e., closer to the target, which is more of a “slice-fighting” configuration than the standard.

“Our HL3 line has taken a major step forward in terms of looks and performance over Hot Launch 2 and that was a product that we saw more than double in revenue,” said Glod. “We really see HL3 as being the driving force of growth for Tour Edge and that all comes down to it being the best value available in the custom fitting market.”

He continued, pointing out the company has plans for 1,000 custom fitting centers each having a mobile custom fitting bag filled with HL3 clubs. This will give golfers of every skill level the opportunity to test and be properly fitted with clubs that will maximize results for their particularly swing.

The standard model HL3 driver will be available in lofts of 9.5- and 10.5-degrees and the HL3 Offset in 10.5-, 12- and 13.5-degree lofts. Both come with a proprietary UST Mamiya stock shaft weighing from 48 to 60 grams depending on results of the driver fitting.

HL3 fairway woods, either standard or Offset, are priced at $139.99 with the hybrids at $119.99. A set of HL3 irons (4-PW) is $419.99 with steel shafts and graphite shafts are $70 additional. Adding to the player-friendly choices are forged face Iron-Woods (a category Tour Edge pioneered) at $79.99 with steel shafts or $89.99 with graphite in a range of lofts from 18 degrees to 59 degrees. Iron-Woods make an ideal way to mix-and-match with fairways woods, hybrids and irons to make up just the right set.

Taking a standard version HL3 driver to the course provided the opportunity to see results under actual playing conditions rather than simply a few swings on the range or pounding balls into a net. For comparison drivers from two different manufacturers, both with a custom fit after-market shaft, were also put in the bag.

The comparison was revealing.

Using Titleist Pro V1 golf balls for all the tee shots we saw the Tour Edge HL3 could certainly hold its own. My driver swing speed is 96 to 98 mph and to achieve the most realistic comparison all three drivers were hit on every par four and par five. Without question the distance using the HL3 was essentially the same as the more expensive drivers given the variations in wind, slope and firmness of the landing area and the usual variations in my swing. Also, it was apparent the dispersion left and right with the HL3 was probably somewhat less but since actual measurements were not done we called it “comparable” to the other two drivers.

Does this mean you should rush right out and buy an HL3? Of course not.

This is all about is what works for you not some guy writing a review.

What it does mean though, if you are in the market to replace your one-wood the Tour Edge Hot Launch 3 should be part of your consideration. After all, it only makes sense to find clubs that fit your game and produce the results you need at a price that doesn’t bust the budget.

Callaway’s Rogue Arrives

Callaway Golf had a banner season last year with the Epic club family, especially the driver, and hopes to do the same this year with the new Rogue driver and fairway woods. Like the Epic, Rogue has titanium bars (named Jailbreak technology) connecting the crown and the sole that are now hourglass shaped saving about 25% of the weight compared with those used in Epic. According to Callaway’s research the bars or rods have the effect of stiffening the club body, so energy is more efficiently transferred producing added ball speed. The second feature not to be overlooked is Rogue’s new X Face VFT variable face thickness profile which combined with the Jailbreak rods helps to preserve ball speed if impact is off center. This design also allowed mass to be moved altering the center of gravity for a better launch and added to the head’s resistance to twisting.

Compared to the Great Big Bertha, Epic and XR model drivers the face of the Rogue can be made thinner because of the improved Jailbreak rods and after doing an impact probability distribution a pattern for the thinner and thicker portions of the face was developed.

Boeing Aerospace was consulted on the crown’s Speed Step first seen on the XR driver and for the Rogue they were brought back to modify the geometry of the leading edge and head curvature for 0.6 to 0.7 mph increase in speed. The carbon composite crown is similar to the Epic driver but larger, in fact the largest Callaway has ever been able to produce. Measuring total MOI, i.e., both vertically and horizontally, the XR 16 driver had an MOI of 7,400, the Epic of last year tested at 8,000 and the Rogue a significant advancement to 8,600. Any driver over 7,000 is considered a “forgiving.” Company testing also shows the Rogue gave a 16% tighter shot dispersion.

While most of the attention, as it was last year with the Epic driver, will probably be focused on the titanium rods inside the head the Rogue’s face design is worth a bit more explanation. This X-Face with VFT has raised ridges in the shape of a large X in the middle of the inner side of the face with the thickness varying in strategic areas. The result is in addition to producing a minimum thickness overall it helps ball launch parameters and allows the areas of the crown and sole flange near the face to be thinner while still lowering energy loss from vibration.

Callaway says “X-Face with VFT technology expands the area of the clubface that delivers fast ball speed to promote more distance on off-center hits, and more consistently fast ball speed and distance overall.”

There are three Rogue models. In addition to the standard configuration there is a draw model which has weight moved towards the heel…an anti-slice configuration to reduce side spin without a closed face angle, a more upright lie or lots of offset between the head and the shaft. Compared with the standard Rogue it has about 17 yards less slice and compared with the Epic driver with weights moved close to the heel, about 7 yards less. The Rogue Sub Zero for better players is a low spin model but still has a high MOI and has two weights in the sole, a 14-gram and a 2-gram to adjust the trajectory and spin. The Epic Sub Zero had 12-gram and 2-gram weights.

Each Rogue driver model is priced at $500 and will be available February 9. The Rogue fairway woods have the Jailbreak rods (made of steel not titanium as they are in the Rogue driver) with Callaway’s well-regarded face cup design. There are two models, the standard and the Sub-Zero. Both are priced at $300.

Senior Golfers–Get Fit

If you remember Arnold Palmer in his prime or Jack Nicklaus dominating the PGA Tour you are probably of the age when golf can take up more of your time—notice I didn’t say retired…simply a shift of priorities. And as the title of this article suggests it’s time to get fit and I don’t mean go to the gym every day, though if you are like me a couple of visits per week wouldn’t do any harm.

What I’m referring to getting clubs that fit your swing.

You hear people say all the time they aren’t “good enough” to have a fitting but that’s not true. No one has a perfect swing and even good players have days when it feels like they are swinging a rock tied to the end of a stick. You don’t have to bring a tour-quality swing to a fitting.

Seniors are like every other golfer in the world. They want more distance. This means making more efficient contact, generating more clubhead speed and for seasoned citizens probably a dose of slice correction is called for as well. These are exactly the types of fixes a good fitter can provide.

To begin with he will have you hit several shots with your current clubs collecting the data on a launch monitor. This provides a baseline or numerical description of the distance, spin and trajectory your swing typically produces. Then drawing from his stock of clubheads, he selects one that is the same as yours and have you hit more shots with shafts that in his experience will help produce better results. Once he is satisfied with the shaft he picks out clubheads for trial until the results have been optimized.

Two more points and you can be on the road to more distance, better scoring and more enjoyment of this ever-frustrating game.

First, going to a fitter that has access to only one brand of clubs might not be the best idea simply because any given manufacturer may not make exactly what you need. Think about it…if one company made the ideal clubs for every golfer then all the other manufacturers would soon be out of business. For this reason, a visit to the professional fitters at a place like Club Champion makes a lot of sense. They have a mind-blowing 35,000 possible club and shaft combinations from which to choose and the expertise to get it right.

Secondly, since its winter and in most of the country it’s too cold and snowy to be on the course, there’s always the question of whether you should wait until the weather improves to get your fitting. For the answer we asked Jay Hubbard, vice president of Club Champion and his reply was succinct, “The off season is a good time to get fit. You’ve been playing all season and you know which clubs are giving you trouble and which ones aren’t. You are familiar with your swing and will replicate it easily during a club fitting making it easier to find the perfect golf equipment.”

Then we asked him to expand on the benefits senior players specifically can expect from having a fitting.

“More than anyone, senior golfers can benefit significantly from regular club fittings. As we age, we lose flexibility and swing speed. These factors can dramatically affect accuracy, distance, trajectory, and carry. Club Champion fitters receive monthly training on club fitting and equipment. They are trained to help every golfer maximize their game. A key component to regaining lost performance is the club shaft. While club manufacturer offers a few shaft alternatives for senior golfers, Club Champion has more than 500 shaft options many, not available from the club manufacturers. Factors such as flex, weight, torque, and kick-point matter and can either dramatically help or hinder the senior golfer. Finding the right shaft, for your game can add as much as 30 yards with your driver and 20 yards with your irons. The result, seniors will enjoy the game more, post lower scores, and play more rounds.”

Who gets the most benefit from dialing in their club specs?

“Club fitting isn’t just for low handicap golfers. The high handicap golfer often benefits the most. We recently conducted a study with Golf Magazine that appeared in the August 2017 issue. One of the high handicap golfers in the study, Joe Dresnok from Palm Coast, Florida is a 71-year-old senior golfer with a 32.1 handicap. After a Club Champion golf club fitting, Dresnok dropped 10 strokes. He commented, “My old clubs were sabotaging me.  “The irons have been spectacular. I just can’t say enough about them. I can’t believe that I can hit greens as frequently, anywhere from 150 to 100 yards, much better than I ever could before. I’m now hitting an 8 iron from where I used to hit a 6 iron.”

Hubbard followed up by adding, “65-year old retired business executive, Samuel Stecker from Hernando Beach, Florida is a 20 handicap. He commented, ‘I am four to six better. The club fitter listened to my physical issues and steered me into the appropriate head and shaft. I am 17 yards farther with my driver and dispersion is as good as ever.’” 

Golf is a lot more fun is we hit the ball better and score lower, so the conclusion is obvious. Get fit and from my own experience I recommend going to one of the master fitters at Club Champion.

NOTE: A Club Champion fitting is easy to arrange simply call 888-340-7820 or go to ClubChampionGolf.com for locations and pricing. My recent driver fitting resulted in specifications for a Ping G400 LST driver with 10-degree loft with a Grand Bassara 39 shaft by Mitsubishi. They also fit me for Srixon Z 765 irons, a forged “muscle-cavity” design, with KBS Tour 90 shafts.

Top Ten Golf Stories of 2017

Woods Comeback…Again: A WD in Dubai in February. Another back surgery in April. A DUI arrest in May with a follow-up treatment program. Tiger Woods’ came back to golf in December for an 18-man exhibition that had some in the media and some of his fans in a frenzy of expectation and speculation. The facts are Woods looked physically fit, seemed to have positive attitude and played fairly well though his short game obviously needs some work if he is to achieve his goal of besting Jack Nicklaus’ major record.

Rollback or Bifurcation: Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson say it’s true. Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin and USGA Executive Director Mike Davis agree. The golf ball goes too far. Woods certainly never said this when his prodigious length was blowing away fields and Johnson, whose is even longer, admitted a restricted flight ball would be to his advantage. But as savvy, knowledgeable and vested in the game as these gentlemen are there’s a problem. Neither the available data nor a logical appraisal of the facts support their contention. This however hasn’t stopped them from proselytizing a rollback of ball performance or the creation of the equally objectionable alternative, separate equipment regulations for professionals, i.e., bifurcating the rules.

TMaG Sold: It took a year but Adidas AG (OTCMKTS: ADDYY) was finally able to find a buyer for TaylorMade Golf, Adams Golf and apparel-maker Ashworth. Purchaser KPS Capital Partners, a private investment group, payed $425 million, less than half of the 2016 sales figure and it could turn out to be a bargain. If KPS does as expected and applies the classic turnaround remedies–cutting costs, growing sales and refocusing management– they could recoup their investment by selling the company or taking it public in maybe as few as three years,

Lexi Thompson: Lexi Thompson, the best American player on the LPGA Tour, was penalized four strokes costing her the ANA Inspiration after a television viewer sent an email about a possible infraction the day before. There was lots of official mumbling, something about fair application of the Rules of Golf, but in December the USGA announced effective Jan. 1, no more viewer call-ins or emails about possible rules infractions will be allowed. Many think this reasonable application of common sense is long overdue. Golf now is in line with other sports where the official’s job is to officiate, and the viewer’s job is to view.

Presidents Cup Rout: The U.S. President’s Cup team captained by Steve Stricker beat up on Nick Price’s Internationals by such a lopsided margin the U.S. actually was one-half point from clinching the win before the final day singles matches. Two takeaways—first those who criticized Striker for picking Phil Mickelson were wrong…again. Lefty earned 3 ½ points and, as he has done in the past, was an inspirational leader for the team. Second and more importantly for the future of the Presidents Cup, continued U.S. dominance has made it essentially an exhibition masquerading as a real competition. This needs to be fixed before the Presidents Cup becomes totally irrelevant to players and fans, if it hasn’t already.

Callaway Surges: During the past three years Callaway Golf (NYSE:ELY) took over TaylorMade’s dominant sales position in woods and irons with products such as the technically innovative Epic driver. Callaway’s irons have been first in sales for over two years and for the past four years they have been the fastest growing major golf ball company. Company sales for 2017 are expected to be approximately $1.035 billion up substantially from the $871 million in 2016.

PXG Success: Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG) may not be a major factor in the equipment business but owner Bob Parsons has a real success story he can boast about for this new and somewhat edgy club company with really expensive equipment (the basic driver costs $700). PXG rang up $38 million in sales for 2016, its first year in business, which was great but 2017 looks spectacular. Parsons told Dave Dusek of Golfweek, PXG will have sales of $100 million for the year but more astonishing, make a profit which may be a record for an upstart club company.

PGA Tour Shake Up: Ever mindful of the futility competing for fans attention with the NFL, the PGA Tour has some big changes coming in the 2018-2019 season. The PGA Championship will be played in May rather than August and The Players Championship now in May moves to March. The shakeup includes reducing the FedExCup Playoffs from four to three events allowing the Tour to finish before the NFL season kicks off plus provides some room for schedule tweaks in Olympic years.

Major Winners: Sergio Garcia finally won a major and appropriately it was the Masters. Long-hitting Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open, also his first major, doing it in fine style and Jordan Spieth had another multiple win year capped off with the Open at Royal Birkdale. Then there was Play of the Year Justin Thomas who began the year with a 59 in the Sony Open and finished with five wins including the PGA Championship. Each of these players has his own compelling story and next season it should be even more exciting with the return of Tiger Woods.

LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan had quite a year: In the Solheim Cup, the American squad beat up on Team Europe and subsequently Whan offered to aid the financially struggling Ladies European Tour. He had to cancel the Alisport Shanghai tournament from a lack of proper permits and then had to shorten the Evian Championship major to 54 holes from a lack of dry weather but caused an eruption of controversy. Hall of Famer Juli Inkster then rattled some cages with her outspoken contention corporations are unfairly depriving the LPGA of a fair share of monetary support. But when the player’s dress code was modified social media and some conventional media were exposed at their mean and bitchy worst.

More Holiday Gifts on My List

Here’s part two of gift ideas and for the benefit of my family, it really is my wish list as well.

Puma IGNITE DISC Extreme Golf Shoes: An upgrade of the Puma’s popular DISC technology plus a new graphic it combines 4-way stretch mesh with a leather saddle for a great look and it’s still waterproof. Using a DISC closure the insole is a molded EVA, the midsole is full-length IGNITE foam and the outsole is integral TPU performance configuration. All this for the attractive price of $120 per pair and there’s a choice of four colors. Get all the facts at CobraPuma.com.

Ben Hogan: Billed as the most technologically advance irons they have ever built, the Ben Hogan PTx model is for better players looking for a more forgiving iron or those who feel they are ready to move from a super game-improvement iron to one with more control. Made with Hogan’s co-forged titanium-steel construction that precisely places the center of gravity in each clubhead. They may be purchased only through BenHoganGolf.com and are priced at $770 for a seven iron set with steel shafts.

Arccos 360: Arccos pioneered club mounted shot tracking and the new 360 uses 50% smaller sensors placed in the butt end of the grip which automatically record every shot for live shot tracking plus there’s GPS yardage and shot analytics with the smartphone app. Great for on the course game tracking of every round. Priced at $249.99 at ArccosGolf.com.

Chase54 Baroque Polo: A classic paisley print with a nice looking embossed style ideal for any time, any place wear. Makes use of Chase54’s DryFuze fabric for moisture wicking to be comfortable (and dry!) in even hot humid weather. The material even has a slight amount of stretch so there is nothing to restrict the wearer’s swing. Metal collar stays keep the collar from curling and are removable for washing. The price for the Baroque is $76 and may be found along with other Chase54 polos at better retail shops or on Chase54.com.

Cobra King F8 Driver: The F8 (and F8+) have Cobra’s first milled titanium face in a driver model which produces better accuracy plus more distance. Arccos for Cobra Connect is included at no extra charge. When paired with the free smartphone app the distance and accuracy of every drive is measured and tracked plus the app may be used as a GPS yardage rangefinder. This makes a perfect gift certificate item and that ensures a perfect fit. The Cobra F8 and F8+ drivers are $399.

Just the facts, ma’am” – Sgt. Joe Friday

The golf world is all aflutter with the impending return of Tiger Woods and that’s a good thing.

Heaven knows golf needs all the interest and enthusiasm it can get if only to stimulate more participation, more rounds, more equipment sales…well, you get the idea.

What is not needed is another big star complaining how far the ball goes and Woods during a recent podcast joined Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin among others saying golf is in trouble.

Quoting Woods, “We need to do something with the golf ball. I think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf course[s], if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7,400 to 7,800 yards long.”

As if this weren’t indictment enough he continued, “And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property to start designing these type of golf courses and it just makes it so much more complicated.”

Really? Complicated for who? Not fans nor ordinary golfers who hit 200-yard tee shots. Not when courses are closing left and right and the number of players continues to shrink.

The reason comments from Woods or Nicklaus or Player are a concern is they are among the most respected men in the game and their opinions may eventually push the USGA into “rolling back” ball performance. Rather than being a solution such a retrenchment would be a disaster for equipment makers, recreational players and golf fans.

Some say that ball performance is not a problem and isn’t supported by facts so let’s take a look.

There’s no arguing professionals and other elite players are hitting the ball farther, much farther, and as a result the courses they play have been made longer. That makes sense and similar solutions to mitigate equipment advances have been going on for at least 150 years. Scoring however has not benefited from all this added distance. In 2017 PGA Tour scoring leader Jordan Spieth averaged 68.846 strokes and in 1980 Lee Trevino led all players with 69.73, less than 0.9 stroke improvement in 37 years.

Not exactly a case for manning the barricades to repel the bad guys. Statisticians call that level of difference “noise.”

So if scoring doesn’t support these concerns does an analysis of driving distance?

In 1968 with persimmon heads, 150 gram steel shafts and balata-covered wound balls the average driving distance on Tour was 264 yards. By 1995 it was just about the same–262.7 yards. That year Callaway Golf introduced the “huge” 265cc lightweight titanium head Great Big Bertha driver and longer, lighter graphite shafts soon followed. Predictably because drivers now weighed less swing speeds went up and by 2003 average distance was 285.9 yards—a jump of 23 yards in just eight years.

At the same time the ball also was being improved and the added distance from the new low spinning, solid core balls was readily apparent. In 1996 the 3-layer urethane cover Top Flite Strata came out but the real game-changer was Titleist’s introduction of the Pro V1 in October 2000. Within weeks it became the most played ball on Tour and quickly took over the top spot in retail sales.

From 2003 through 2017 average driving distance increased to 292.5 yards equating to about 17 inches per year in part due to development of even lighter shafts and clubfaces with higher rebound across a larger area. However, a major portion of the gain can be accounted for by course agronomy allowing drier, more closely mown fairways so the ball to rolls much farther. Additionally players are taller and stronger and have intensive physical training regimens. During the same time a huge leap forward in instruction took place as coaches used launch monitors to refine players’ swings to an extent never before possible.

The real proof though is tee ball distance is a lousy predictor of success on the PGA Tour and as might be imagined the best correlation to money won is average score. Driving distance and driving accuracy have the lowest correlation.

The conclusion is plain. Since 1964 average driving distance is 30 yards greater but after 2003 distance enhancing design improvements have been incremental…not revolutionary. Nothing goes up forever.

Finally, though Woods didn’t mention it, there’s another other oft voiced complaint. Something like, “fine old courses have been made obsolete and championships can’t be held there because they don’t have the acreage to add yardage.” Not only has that not true since many of the “fine old courses” have already been lengthened but a lot of them can’t hold professional events for reasons other than the length of the holes. There may be no room for 50,000 fans to park or for the corporate hospitality tents which are a primary source of tournament revenue or perhaps the driving range is not big enough to accommodate more than a fraction of the field.

These facts are rarely mentioned by those decrying golf ball distance gains and have nothing to do with the fact Rory McIlroy and 42 others averaged over 300 yards last season.

Golf does has problems but the distance elite players are hitting the ball is not one of them. Fans want to see the long ball from Rory, Dustin and Bubba and aren’t interested seeing their 120 mph swing send the ball the same distance it went in 1995.

The whole idea of rollback is ridiculous. It’s hard to comprehend how any lessening of ball or driver performance will help sell more tournament tickets, sponsor advertising, merchandise or equipment. The PGA Tour obviously has figured that out and hasn’t joined in with the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It also true recreational players are not complaining and it can be argued anything making the game more fun and even a little easier benefits participation. Those who make the assumption length equates to difficulty are also making a mistake. Course design and setup for professional tournaments requires intelligence, creativity and imagination without gimmicks. Maybe something simple such as cutting the rough and fairways higher or installing bunkers on either side of a landing area are possibilities.

Some are concerned about land and water usage which is certainly a legitimate question, not one resulting from how far the ball is being hit, but of the proper use of finite resources. Course architects and maintenance experts are already finding solutions such as drought resistant grasses, course topography and hole routing. What is needed most of all is a change in the mindset of developers who specify an over-the-top expensive “championship” course to aid residential real estate sells or for a resort to put heads in beds.

Here are a couple of simple requests for Tiger. Please come back to the Tour healthy and competitive. Secondly, because of your prominence people listen to your opinion please check out the facts and perhaps your opinion will reflect a new view point…one that is less harmful to golfers and the golf industry.

Dangerously Wrong

“Whilst delighted for all the players, it’s quite sad to see The Old Course of St Andrews brought to her knees by today’s ball & equipment,” October 8, 2017 nine time major champion, Gary Player.

Player was intense competitor, intelligent and perceptive with tremendous stature in the game but unfortunately the opinion expressed in this tweet ignores the reality of golf today. But in case your attention at the time was otherwise occupied here’s a bit of background.

Ross Fisher playing in the European Tour Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the “home of golf,” the Old Course at St. Andrews, posted a course record 61 in a vain attempt to catch winner Tyrrell Hatton. Player seems to conclude Fisher’s record and other low scores posted during the Dunhill were due to the ball and equipment. He is not only mistaken but for everyone who plays, dangerously wrong. Let me explain.

Player didn’t mention that for four days the weather was everything one could desire this time of year on Scotland’s east coast and most importantly there was little or no wind. St. Andrews has immense landing areas and greens wide open in the front which leaves the wind as its primary defense. Without wind the course is particularly vulnerable to skilled players and you can add that the course set up was not too severe since the Dunhill is a pro-am and amateurs are playing each day.

So with no wind and accessible pin locations low scores are not surprising.

At a tournament length of over 7,300 yards St. Andrews is not a pushover and though scores during the Dunhill were not what we usually see during the Open Championship, it is undeniable that over the years the course has withstood every generation’s best. Not perhaps without some lengthening. Not without reworking some of the tees, putting surfaces and bunkers but always with what my friends in Chicago call “the hawk,” the wind, being a major factor.

The tweet reflects Player’s oft expressed opinion modern clubs and balls are a problem but in truth since the gutta percha ball replaced the featherie 150 years ago someone is always opining the exact same thing after every advance in equipment technology.

The danger in Player and others beating the drum claiming such a sad state of affairs is the USGA and R&A will take it on themselves to “fix the problem.” Following the logic of “drivers are too hot,” or, “the ball goes too far,” could mean further restrictions on equipment or even creation of separate equipment standards for elite-players.

Either would be detrimental.

Both ignore how virtually all elite players follow an intense physical conditioning regimen, a rarity until Tiger Woods turned pro but exactly what Player himself has preached since the 1960s. Additionally those saying today’s equipment is a problem overlook how virtually every elite player makes extensive use of sophisticated computer imaging to dial-in their swing mechanics. Nor are the tremendous advances in agronomy taken into account allowing fairways to be so much firmer they have Stimpmeter readings on the order of greens 50 years ago.

In other words it’s not just equipment and it is overly simplistic to focus solely on the springiness of clubfaces or the improvements to the golf ball when wound balls were replaced. Yes, the ball goes farther but the contention that hurts the game is not supported by facts and is only a desire to keep things as they were, a solution to which will unduly penalize all but a few.

Put another way, do you or any of your friends think you are hitting the ball too far? Or even more simply, do you know of anyone who has given up the game because it’s too easy?

Making rules to rein in distance because it is thought a few hundred professionals and maybe a like number of the best amateurs are hitting greater distances is ignoring the reality of modern golf. It also ignores the laws of physics as pointed out by Frank Thomas (inventor of the graphite shaft and former Technical Director of the USGA) that the increase in distance due to the solid core ball and high rebound driver faces has reached its maximum.

If indeed there is a problem, and I’m not conceding there is, the Tour could solve it by simply setting up courses to be more penal though fans would immediately hate it. The fact the Tour does not do this is a tacit acknowledgement for the status quo. Fans enjoy seeing pros struggle occasionally when faced with narrow fairways, landing zone hazards and four inch rough as at a U.S. Open. But that’s once a year and the USGA not the PGA Tour runs the championship. If penal setups were the case every week it wouldn’t take toursters long to figure out it’s often best to leave the driver in the bag. Fans would lose the excitement of seeing D.J. or Jason or Bubba challenging the course with booming drives.

How much excitement is there in one plain vanilla par-4 after another calling for a three-iron tee shot then a wedge? Not much and what other entertainment business would ever propose to intentionally alienate fans?

World-class instructor Hank Haney puts it best, “Fans don’t go to a baseball game hoping to see some good bunt singles.”

And there’s another factor. If the pros had to play with a restricted equipment it would kill any OEM marketing plan that relies on “Tour validation.” Acushnet, Bridgestone, Callaway, Cobra, Ping, PXG, TaylorMade, Wilson and others spend millions for endorsements and advertising on the premise fans want to play with the same equipment as the pros.

You may argue with the premise but you can’t deny restricting the ball or drivers used by elite players would drastically change the economics of the club business…probably for the worse.

As I have written before the so-called distance problem isn’t a real problem, it’s only a conclusion drawn based on an opinion or maybe even an unacknowledged yearning for the “good old days.” The idea modern equipment hurts the “integrity” of the game is almost fatuous and certainly dangerous. It’s a triple threat with the potential to push golfers out of the game, alienate fans and jeopardize the ability of manufactures to be rewarded for their advances in equipment design.

A Couple of Trends in Equipment

Without dusting off my crystal ball—it’s got a big crack in it anyway—I see two trends worth noting in the golf club business. Both involve the development of clubs with limited appeal and at this point neither can be described as having can’t-miss prospects.

First is the appearance of ultra-high-end price clubs as exemplified by PXG custom-only models starting with the driver which carries a tag of $700 followed by fairway woods at $500 and irons at $300 or more. And since a bag full of PXGs wouldn’t be complete without the addition of one of their putter models plan on spending another $400 to $600. Add that all together and the total comes to well over $5,000…without the cost of the bag.

Of course for many years there have been custom-made clubs at prices much higher than normal but none in just two years have made as much of an impression on the overall market as PXG.

PXG founder and CEO Bob Parsons said in an interview with Golfweek he expects $100 million in sales this year and more significantly, to be profitable. Repeat that to yourself. In two years from nothing to profitability…in the golf business.

Realistically $100 million in club sales is not a very big ripple on the pond compared with Callaway who expects around $980 million in sales this year and well behind Acushnet who has forecast in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. The importance is that major makers have even decided to enter at the ultra-high-end price point. Titleist, for example, has the C16 driver selling for $1,125 and Callaway’s new Great Big Bertha Epic Star is $700.

The story is the same with irons and illustrating with the same two companies, an eight iron set of Titleist C16 irons are $3,000 while Callaway Epic irons start at $2,000 with new Epic Star irons at $2,400.

The question of course is how big can this ultra-high-end price market be? The fact is though at least three companies (and you can add Honma, XXIO, Bettinardi plus a couple of others) are working to take advantage of what growth may be there.

The bottom line is performance has to justify the price otherwise the only players paying double or triple of what are considered “usual prices” are those whose egos make the decision.

The second trend is the increase in the number superlight clubs made specifically for those with relatively slow swing speeds, often identified as seniors and ladies. These superlights are made to answer the quest for added distance based on the idea if the club weighs less it can be swung faster and thereby generate more yardage.

A couple of examples starting with Cobra Golf’s F-Max family with the F-Max driver headlining the offering. Cobra’s approach is to use extremely light shaft with a head shaved of extra grams while the center of gravity has been positioned both to fight a slice and hit the ball on a higher trajectory. Interestingly the $300 F-Max driver is also at the bottom of the price spectrum as is the pricing of other F-Max family clubs.

Callaway has gone the other way with the Great Big Bertha Epic Star driver which follows the extremely successful Epic of last season and with all the features that made the Epic such a hit but much, much lighter. The Epic Star comes in at 286 grams versus the Epic at around 310 grams. The Epic Star ($700 as mentioned above) is for players having trouble generating even a moderate clubhead speed and a relatively modest swing speed increase of five mph can produce an additional 15 yards. The cardinal rule is more speed equals more distance.

Lightweight, even superlight, clubs especially drivers have been around since titanium heads and graphite shafts became the norm and even after clubhead sizes reached 460cc Cleveland had a 260-gram driver. As always performance will decide if these latest examples are cost effective plus of course whether a $300 driver can outsell a $700 model. In any event it would seem the market for superlight clubs is much larger than that for ultra-high-end priced clubs.

It’s going to be interesting to see how these two trends develop.

Ten Rounds with the Tour XDream

A longtime friend who handles publicity for a number of golf equipment companies called to say he had just taken on a putter company and would like me to test their product.

My first reaction was, “Oh goodie, another putter.”

I have lost track of the number tried over the years many of which never made it into a column since I believe what my mother always told me, “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.”

But since my friend had asked I readily agreed to include the MLA Golf Tour XDream in the rota of clubs for the “Ten Rounds with…” series.

I’m glad I did.

First of all the putter’s most obvious feature is the also the one that separates it from the rather crowded field of flat sticks, namely the alignment aid on the top of the putter head. This large white flattened horseshoe is distinctive in shape, prominent in appearance, visually striking and meant to aid our brain to correctly perceive the proper line of a putt.

According to the company which is based in Switzerland, MLA stands for Multiple Line-detector Activation and the clubhead pattern is the result of working with Dr. Lennart Hagman, Ph.D. who has made extensive studies over 20 years of the brain’s perceptual process. There’s a much longer and more complete explanation of why they think the white horseshoe works but of course the proof is in the putting. 

In a nutshell, I used the Tour XDream for ten rounds on greens from Florida to Alabama and believe it did help me to line up putts particularly breaking left to righters, which for a right-handed player are the most trying. Feel was excellent and distance control never a problem even on very fast surfaces. The milled 375 gram head has two changeable weights in the sole and three more are included. Putting a 5-gram weight in both the heel and toe positions made the head face balanced, my preferred weight configuration.

The stock grip is a Forward brand model designed with extra thickness under the flat top of the grip where the left palm sits in a normal placement of the hands. As a result the wrists arch slightly which facilitates the modern shoulder, big muscle stroke.

Negatives: The flattened horseshoe alignment aid took some getting used to and in fact several of the players who tried the Tour XDream felt a smaller, blade style head would be better. MLA does make several blade models which we did not test. Also at 375 grams the Tour XDream is at the upper end of what might be considered ideal weight range for typical green speeds.

Recommendation: The MLA Tour XDream is a solid, efficient putter and if you like the looks of the unique crown alignment aid it could be a very good choice. The price is $299 at their site MLA.golf if you want to purchase or for complete technical details.

Images courtesy of MLA Golf