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

Fuzzy Thinking

Fuzzy thinking, even by well-known and respected people is still fuzzy thinking and when the topic is the distance the golf ball goes, fuzzy thinking easily results in a call to “doing something before the game is ruined.”

Respected icons of the game such as Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin have said more than once the problem with golf is the ball goes too far.

Maybe by taking a look at the facts we can sweep away the fuzziness concerning golf ball distance because if we don’t, sure as heck, the fuzzy thinking will eventually prevail.

First, this controversy over technological advancement is not new. It was essentially the same in the nineteen century and rears its head with every major advancement in balls and clubs. If you have some time, look up the evolution of the feathery ball to the gutta percha and then to the rubber-core ball or the story of the Schenectady center-shafted mallet putter being outlawed after Walter Travis used one to win the British Amateur.

The cry was all the fine old courses would be made obsolete because they were too short and no longer challenging or simply improvements in equipment meant the game was becoming too easy. Sound familiar?

Today the distance the golf ball goes is due to vastly improved launch conditions. This began with the introduction of metalwoods and then the development of graphite shafts allowing an increase in size of driver club heads. When titanium heads were introduced makers were able to almost double driver clubhead size again and driver shafts could be made much longer. All of these plus an immense improvement in ball aerodynamics added significant distance with all clubs.

Professionals—the ones fuzzy thinkers believe hit the ball too far—have also benefitted from intensive computer-aided instruction, better physical training and the simple fact a large number of them are taller and bigger than in the past.

Improved equipment and better agronomy have resulted in courses, especially on Tour, playing firmer and faster. Plus we must recognize the desire of operators to have the longest, toughest layout so they can boast of the difficulty for professionals rather than the playability for recreational golfers.

The number of golf courses is steadily decreasing so overall use of the land is not an issue. It is true some “fine old courses” may not have the land to be stretched in order to accommodate the modern professionals but that’s OK. For the average player not every course needs to be like this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills and have the capability to be played to over 8,000 yards.

However, the fact is in 2017 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 291.20 yards, an increase of about one yard in the preceding ten years so there’s been no “distance explosion” in more than a decade.

For recreational players titanium-headed-graphite-shafted drivers and solid-core-low-spinning urethane cover balls have not produced anywhere near the gains in yardage achieved by professionals. Technology has not caused golf handicaps to plummet and the typical male golfer still isn’t hitting the ball over 200 yards–if that.

The rulers of our game don’t seem to understand the problem in terms of the average golfer who occasionally makes a par and buys a celebratory beer when he makes a birdie. Additionally the USGA continues with the idea the ball goes should be reduced while telling weekend warriors to play from a shorter tee set. That’s illogical and a nonstarter.

Of course the culprit most often cited is the Titleist Pro V1 which debuted in the fall 2000 and at once became the most played ball on Tour. Every manufacturer now makes similar balls that are low spinning with urethane covers and solid cores.

The PGA Tour is in the entertainment business and the business model should be what its customers, i.e., golf fans, want. There’s no question we want to see birdies and eagles and drivable par-4s not to mention DJ smoking one 340. In 2007 the scoring average on Tour was 71.34 and this season it is 72.00. In fact going back 20 years the average was 71.77 showing courses aren’t getting easier despite what some would like you to believe.

As Frank Thomas former technical director of the USGA and current golf industry consultant has often said, driving distance has gone as far as it can go because the physics involved are maxed out. Or put another way, you can’t argue with Mother Nature.

Finally, part of the fuzzy thinking can be laid at the doorstep of the media because it’s easy to write that a well-known player, ex-player or some administrator is decrying the state of the game. One headline trumpeted “Great Balls of Fire!” referring to today’s low-spin golf balls. This is a cheap shot displaying a lack of knowledge not to mention an abuse of journalistic standards.

The inescapable conclusion there’s no horrific problem with the distance the golf ball travels. That’s just plain old fuzzy thinking.

And the solution is easy. Do nothing.

The crisis in golf technology or golf ball distance is only in the minds of fuzzy thinkers.

Ten Rounds with Callaway Steelhead XR Irons

Fifteen years ago I had a set of Steelhead X-14 irons from Callaway Golf. They were actually released in 2000 and though at the time they were cutting edge design Callaway’s new Steelhead XRs would blow them away in a side by side comparison—that is if I still had the X-14s.

Besides the name the newest model has a similar head shape, particularly at address with a somewhat more rounded toe, the X-14s longer looking blade length and a revamped bore-through hosel. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the XRs are merely an updating of some model pushing its 20th anniversary. They are also more than an update of the XR model from 2015 though both fall into the category of iron most of us should be playing…namely game-improvement.

Steelhead XRs are a modern game-improvement iron suitable for even low handicappers looking for an easy-to-hit forgiving club.

After extensive on-course time the benefits of Callaway’s 360 face cup construction were very evident and never more so than on off center impacts. The distance produced when hit in the center of the face is impressive but to me more significant is how far the ball when the impact wasn’t in the exact center.

Steelhead XRs’ bore-through hosel allows weight from the heel area to be shifted closer to the impact area so the center of gravity is dead in the center of the face. As Dr. Alan Hocknell, Callaway’s senior vice president of R&D, points out not all irons are able to do that. “We’ve used the lightness of this hosel to get that weight distribution and put the CG right there.”

Game-improvement irons don’t have progressive center of gravity placement but the Steelhead XR long irons have it low and back in the head while the mid-irons have the CG mid-back and the short irons have a low mid placement to help the ball flighting and spin control. So decide for yourself but that sounds very close to being progressive as the loft increases.

Of particular note, living in Florida where the wind blows almost all day every day, the ability of an iron to produce different trajectory shots is a must. The Steelhead XRs did that very well. As an example during a morning round one of the par-3s, which plays slightly downhill, had a light breeze helping left to right. The shot called for a 6-iron which I hit into the middle of the green.

Late that afternoon, having gone back out and playing the same hole, the wind had strengthened and switched to directly into us. I felt a 6-iron was still the club but hit the shot about half the height of the morning, again to the middle of the green.

It’s helpful to be playing clubs that not only will do that but more importantly after some experience with them gave me the confidence to even attempt those totally different shots.

Negatives: The basic trajectory of the Steelhead XRs is higher than some will like if they already are high ball hitters. Though they should be attractive to low handicap players since the amount of offset is minimal and the forgiveness is evident with every swing, some may want a more of a “players’ iron” look at address.

Recommendation: Callaway is on a roll with the entire iron line and if your to-do list this summer has a line item for the purchase of new game-improvement category irons the Steelhead XRs are a great choice. A set of 5-iron through pitching wedge is $600.

Images courtesy of Callaway Golf