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                                                                                                          

 

Ten Rounds with a Cleveland Huntington Beach Putter

Golf clubs, and putters especially, get their names for lots of reasons—some having to do with their performance, some for the designer’s family members and some retain the R & D department’s project moniker. In the case of the new putter collection from Cleveland Golf the name I’m told is simply a reflection of the town where company headquarters is located, Huntington Beach, Calif.

Cleveland as everyone knows makes outstanding wedges and though not particularly thought of as putter company some of their previous models have been excellent such as the TFi 2135 from two years ago. But my interest in the Huntington Beach putter series frankly was because I like Cleveland wedges and therefore thought it would be worthwhile to see what their putters were like.

The model chosen was the 6C which is a mid-size mallet, face balanced, center shafted design with a head weight of 360 grams and 3° of loft. The companion model 6 has a similar head but is heel shafted. Three of the others in the collection are traditional blades of 345 gram head weight plus there’s another mid-mallet, the 10, of 360 grams.

At first look the most striking feature is the milling of the face which is what Cleveland calls, “a coarse diamond-shaped” pattern that’s four times deeper than their Classic HB putters from 2014. This was done to increase the friction at impact to produce a truer roll.

The head is a soft 304 stainless steel and tests by Cleveland engineers found it to be 51% softer than the more common 17-4 stainless used in putter heads. In addition to producing a soft feel at impact, despite the fact there is not insert, it is also easier to bend for customizing allowing plus or minus 4° of lie angle to make the putter exactly what your set up requires.

After the first three holes of the first round it was evident the HB 6C was a quality putter. It helped me to knock in a six footer for par, a 20-footer for birdie and a par save on the third hole. It would be fair to say I was sold.

Over the remaining rounds were all in Florida on Bermuda greens and, as you get with Bermuda, widely varying speeds and grain. However, the HB 6C gave me the confidence that comes from seeing putts go in or at least get close time after time.

It performed well from around the green off the Bermuda fringe where lies are often very tight and prone to the dreaded chunked wedge. The HB 6C was a natural for taking Hank Haney’s advice that many times a putter is the best choice from off the green, if the turf conditions warrant, on the belief a mediocre putt will almost always be as good as or better than a chip.

The face has a very comforting, consistent feel so playing with a Titleist Pro V1, which has a soft cover, distance control was hardly ever an issue. Even testing done on the practice green with a Surlyn or hard cover distance ball did not reveal any problems adjusting to the inherent difference in impact.

Negatives: The sole could use a little more curvature to smooth passage through the fringe especially if the putt is into the grain.

The HB 6c hit the ball solidly since the sweet spot is fairly large but on downhill-down grain putts care is needed to get the speed correct.

Some of the players who tried this model did not like either the head shape or alignment line but liked the feel and all thought a blade-shape would be more suitable.

Recommendation: At the top I said Cleveland wedges were the reason for testing the Huntington Beach 6C putter but that was only partly true because I was intrigued at the possibility of finding a premium performing putter at less than a premium price. Each of the putters in the Huntington Beach collection sells for $100—plus $10 more for an oversized Winn grip. So the recommendation is to get to a golf shop and try one. I think you’ll like it as I do.

Images courtesy of Cleveland Golf

Ten Rounds with Epic

The Great Big Bertha Epic driver from Callaway Golf caused a flurry of comment on the Internet and in club rooms around the country for a simple reason…its construction is unique.

When I received the advanced information and specifications for the Epic prior to the official announcement, I wasn’t an enthusiast for the name. Nor am I now however, there no denying the construction is unlike any other on the market so I think we can allow Callaway some license to call it what they want. Actually I’m told Epic was the code name used during development and it stuck.

But enough about the nonessentials. For the first time a manufacturer has been able to place bars of titanium inside the clubhead connecting the crown and sole to reduce the amount of deflection at impact. This transfers energy to the clubface and Callaway says it creates maximum face flex and more ball speed even though the clubhead speed remains the same. The name for this breakthrough is another I’m not thrilled with but of course my opinion doesn’t matter. They call it “Jailbreak Technology.”

The club body is a titanium skeleton or “Exo-Cage” with the areas between the “ribs” filled by carbon fiber. Included are the crown plus three sections of the sole so the Epic clubhead’s surface area works out to 46% carbon fiber. This says Dr. Alan Hocknell, senior vice president of research and development, creates a light yet stiff structure leaving lots of weight which can be redistributed to alter the curvature bias of the ball. To provide for a draw or a fade shot tendency Epic has a 17-gram sliding weight at the rear of the sole which according to Hocknell can adjust the ball curvature up to 21 yards. That of course goes a long way in straightening out most any slice.

To maximize performance Callaway also recognizes the importance of the correct shaft so with the Epic they offer a choice four stock shafts in four different weight categories. A very nice feature that can mean having a driver that “works” or not and may be a significant cost savings over buying a non-stock shaft.

The Epic comes with a choice of basic lofts–9 degrees, 10.5 degrees and a HT model of 13.5 degrees. Settings on the hosel can adjust that loft from two degrees more to one degree less and there’s also a setting for a draw or neutral lie angle.

The GBB Epic tested was a 10.5 degree model with a Project X HZDRUS T800 shaft the standard 45.5 inch length and from the very first swings on the range it was apparent Callaway has a winner. Though the shaft was one inch longer than my current driver, contact was solid and trajectory (after adjusting the loft to 11 degrees) was exactly what my swing should produce.

Distance was as good as any driver we have tested but the most important fact is that on my usual towards-the-toe miss the ball still went almost the same yardage, though of course exhibiting a fairly pronounced right to left hook. As the Epic became more familiar the forgiveness exhibited swing after swing makes it an unqualified winner.

Negatives: Epic’s price of $500 mandates a club fitting by a qualified fitter. This makes good sense even though there may be an additional cost.

The stock shafts may be too long for some, especially slower swing speed players, and those with pronounced slices so it might be a good idea to consider trimming the standard length.

With the lie angle setting at neutral, some who tried the Epic thought the face looked like it was slightly open. This was not actually true, only what it looked like, but this may be a concern for some potential purchasers.

Everyone commented on the impact sound though truthfully after a couple of rounds it didn’t bother me. It is a harder or perhaps sharper sound and certainly distinctive from any other driver.

Recommendation: Put the Great Big Bertha Epic on your short list. It’s a premium driver that stands out in comparison with others in its class for both its construction and most importantly forgiveness. There’s a low spin version without the sliding weight but with two interchangeable sole weights called the Epic Sub Zero also priced at $500.

Images courtesy of Callaway Golf

The “Secret” About Wedges

There’s a lot of talk about drivers and there’s no doubt the club taking up the number one slot in the bag is important but it’s also true the clubs in the other end of the bag, the wedges, are important as well. It’s wonderful to hit a booming drive but if you can’t wedge it close going low will be tough.

The secret about wedge play is there is no secret. It just takes a basic knowledge and the selection of the proper wedges for you, plus of course maybe a lesson from a PGA Professional.

To maximize results make sure the lofts are correctly gapped so the distance each wedge goes with a normal swing is about 10 to 15 yards different than the next more lofted wedge. This is often, but not always, four degrees of loft.

An example would be the wedges in my bag starting with the pitching wedge which has a loft of 45 degrees and using a “normal” swing flies 120-125 yards. Next is a 50 degree “gap wedge” good for 105 to 110 yards, then one with 54-degrees of loft used for 90 to 100 yards and finally a 58 degree wedge at 80 yards.

So, four wedges effectively covering a range of 40 plus yards.

It’s important to note—and this is another “secret” that’s not really a secret—ideally you would carry the wedges that give you as many full swings as possible in a round realizing though, no matter what loft your wedges you will always be faced with in-between yardage shots.

There is no magic formula and gapping to a certain extent is a matter of personal preference. It comes down to getting it right so you hit the ball closer with more confidence. A discussion about bounce, that other vital aspect of wedge selection, will be covered in another article.

Here are three of this year’s wedges that caught our eye and we have tested extensively:

Callaway Golf Sure Out: The name was used by the original Ben Hogan brand and since Callaway owns the name they were able to bring it back for a super game improvement wedge designed with input from instructor Hank Haney. Callaway’s team made the Sure Out with lots of sole camber, i.e., curvature from heel to toe. Additionally there is lots of bounce to help it through sand and long grass and 17 grooves that go all the way across the face. These features plus a nice wide sole mean sand shots, greenside pitches and even flop shots can be hit without opening the face or cutting across the ball, techniques that “scare” many average golfers. Priced at $120, Sure Out wedges are available with either lightweight steel or graphite shafts in 58 or 64-degrees of loft.

Cleveland Golf RTX-3: Compared to Cleveland’s previous RTX-2 model, nine grams of weight has been moved from the hosel to the clubhead so the center of gravity is closer to the impact area making a noticeable improvement in feel. For more consistent contact there are three different V-grind soles to match your swing profile and Cleveland’s third generation micro-milled face in between the grooves provides more spin and thus control. Choices include finishes of black satin, Tour satin and Tour raw plus there’s a cavity back version. The available lofts range from 46 to 64 degrees and each is priced at $130.

Ping Glide 2.0: The updates of the original Glide wedges involved making grooves sharper-edged and slightly decreasing the spin between to increase friction to produce more spin. Impressively Ping lab testing reports the Glide 2.0 generate up to 400 rpm higher spin which is important to aid in getting the distance and trajectory just right on every shot. We especially like this wedge’s finish which the company has tagged “hydropearl.” It not only looks good but sheds moisture to reduce the chance of flyers. Ping offers four sole grinds to match your attack angle and the turf conditions at the course you most often play. With steel shafts they are priced at $140 per club.

Images courtesy of manufacturers

Ten Rounds with the Ping i200 Irons

By ED TRAVIS

Right out of the box the new Ping i200 irons make a positive impression. They look great, like an iron should look, with almost classic lines and this makes sense since Ping intends them to be “shot-makers” irons. They are targeted for use by recreational players wanting a cleaner look with less offset than a game-improvement iron such as the Ping G.

Before getting in to the technical side of the i200s a big part of the first impression they make is their finish…a soft chrome look called “hydropearl.” Eye pleasing to say the least and functional too, which we will cover in a minute.

The i200 story revolves around three features. In the back of the head is a muscle-stabilizing bar to aid shot control and produce the nice smooth contact inherent in the irons. Second is an elastomer insert in the cavity behind the face that helps the face flex and dampen impact vibration. The insert is almost double in volume from previous models which means it is in contact with three times the area of the face.

Finally, the clubface is thinner so it is more reactive but equally important the saved weight from the face Ping was able to move towards the toe and into the hosel so it contributes to more forgiveness. There are some nice smaller features as well, such as the look of minimal offset at address which some, myself included, find is confidence inspiring. This of course won’t fix any swing faults but for me, if an iron sets up well that’s a positive factor in making the ball go where it should.

The blades leading edge has been given slightly more contour and a little more bounce was added so turf interaction improved meaning shallower divots and better ball contact. Finally, even the hydropearl chrome finish has a second purpose beyond making the i200s look good, it actually repels moisture which helps to minimize flyers from wet grass and rough.

On the course, few irons we have tested felt any better right from the first swing. Short irons were extremely solid and trajectory control was easy especially when trying to knock it really close from inside 150 yards.

Distance was no problem though the short irons were 2-3 yards longer compared to my previous set relative to the distance comparison of the longer clubs. Or put another way a Ping i200 9-iron generally went farther than the 9-iron I had been using but the Ping i200 5-iron was the same carry distance.

Street price is $125 per iron with steel shafts so a set of 5-iron through pitching wedge is $750.

Negatives: Surprisingly and considering the soft feel of most shots, some strikes felt very hard on the face. Granted it was always when the swing was poor and contact poor, usually towards the heel. It didn’t happen with every bad swing, but when it did it was almost startling given the usual smooth contact. Longer irons tended hit the ball somewhat higher and living in Florida where the wind often blows, a lower penetrating flight is useful. This was not a major problem but definitely one to be aware of for shots into the wind.

Recommendation: Anyone wanting for irons with the look and performance of player’s iron but the playability of a game-improvement club should jump on the Ping i200s. They answer both requirements admirably.

Ten Rounds with EX10 Fairway Woods & Hybrids

Tour Edge Golf doesn’t spend millions on television advertising campaigns nor do they dole out money for toursters to play their clubs.

They aren’t a huge equipment company but they are though an OEM who has successfully created a reputation for high quality clubs using the latest manufacturing techniques, design and materials. Their clubs give golfers top notch performance day in and day out, often at what could be called, “very competitive prices.”

This season’s Exotics EX10 Fairway Woods ($250) and Hybrids ($180) are perfect examples.

The fairway woods use high density steel for the cup face which is combo-brazed (rather than welded) to the steel clubhead body producing a face that is both responsive and strong. Due to its strength the face can be thinner so more of the impact energy is transferred to the ball. Plus since the face is a variable thickness design hits not quite on the center, say towards the heel or toe, can still result in a “good” shot.

It’s obvious during testing, from the nice high ball launch, the work Tour Edge did to push the center of gravity lower and deeper in the head (including the use of a 9-gram sole weight), was a success. And there’s an added benefit with this weighting, it gave the EX10 fairway wood lots of forgiveness. The slim-looking aerodynamic shape is easy to like and the updated wave pattern on the sole (longer rails and deeper channels in between) helps the club pass smoothly through even fairly heavy grass.

EX10 Fairway Woods have a choice of lofts with heads becoming progressively smaller as the loft increases: 13-degree (173 cc), 15-degree (165 cc), 16.5-degree (165 cc), 18-degree (158 cc) and 21-degree (150 cc).

EX10 Hybrids are a similar construction to the fairway woods with the same high density, steel cup face–HT 980 high-tensile strength steel—and again, since it can be made very thin, it produces the trampoline effect, the key to added distance. The face and body are also combo-brazed and the wave pattern on the sole is improved.

In the hybrids a 2-hybrid (17 degrees), 3-hybrid (19 degrees), 4-hybrid (22 degrees), 5-hybrid (25 degrees) and 6-hybrid (28 degrees) are available.

On the course testing was done for ten rounds with a 13-degree 3-wood and two hybrids, a 3-hybrid and 4-hybrid. It should pointed out after a couple of rounds it was plain these newbies weren’t just squatters in the bag slots. They quickly earned permanent occupancy.

The course I often play, depending on the wind, requires a 3-wood from the tee on three or sometimes four holes and the performance of the EX10 can best be described as a “mini-driver.” On more than one occasion the ball actually went too far and since its Florida that usually means one of two things. Either the ball is in the water or blocked out by palms or oaks. Heck of a problem to have.

From tight Bermuda grass fairway lies the EX10 gets the ball in the air every time, the first 3-wood from any manufacturer I can say that about. Granted not every strike is dead solid perfect, my swing sometimes seems to go on hiatus, but my poor contacts are usually towards the toe and the EX10 still gets the ball in the air with credible distance.

The EX10 hybrids are a little longer from the tee than the previous model EX9s which were tested last year and more readily work the ball to tucked pins. Realizing anecdotal evidence for what it is, the second round with them from a par-5 fairway bunker, the 4-hybrid not only got the ball out but laser measurement of the carry and rollout was 186 yards. At my skill level I can’t ask for more than that.

However, where the hybrids really come into their own is from the rough. They get the ball up and out. Period. They feel solid everytime and the shot is almost always online. Long par-3s are even fun since with just a driving range swing, not trying to do anything special, both the 3- and 4- hit the ball high and it lands softly…sometimes even near the pin.

Negatives: Did not spend a lot of time hitting the EX10 3-wood from the rough since Florida rough is Bermuda and even in the winter time a hybrid is a better choice. If you are someone who takes a little divot with a fairway wood—à la Tom Watson—the “Slipstream Sole” of both the wood and hybrids may take some getting used to. Plus, and I know this sounds picky, the head covers on the hybrids are a pain to put back on.

Recommendation: These are in my bag to stay. The best recommendation I can give them.

Ten Rounds with the Cobra King F7+ Driver

In 2013 Tom Olsavsky joined Cobra Puma Golf as Vice President of Research and Development after a long stint with TaylorMade Golf as Senior Director of Product Creation. Industry observers expected this well respected designer would make his mark on the entire Cobra product line and he has.

Last year we told you we liked the KING F6 Baffler with the iconic rails on the sole and the KING LTD driver with the center of gravity on the neutral axis of the clubhead plus a “Spaceport” in the sole to help create lots of forgiveness. In fact, Olsavskly’s team did such a good job, the KING LTD quickly took the number one slot in my bag.

We also commented on the KING F6 driver which had a font-to-back weighting system and in revamping the F6 for this season the result is the KING F7 (460cc $350) and the slightly smaller profile KING F7+ (452cc $400). Both have three weights (1-12 gram and 2-2 gram) in the sole. One is positioned in the front just behind the face, the second towards the heel and the last in the very rear of the head. By switching the weights around gives in essence three much different drivers.

Trying out the various weight positons in the KING F7+ did produce noticeable changes in trajectory and curvature bias. Our 10 rounds of testing included one with the 12-gram weight in the heel and two with it in the rear position. Since my tendency is a hook (truth be told it deteriorates often to a pull hook) having the heavier weight in the heel didn’t produce a lot of fairways and with it in the rear position trajectory was too high.

Settling on the heavier weight in the front position, which obviously was correct for my swing, produced and mid-trajectory basically straight shot and allowed for a fade for those holes requiring a dogleg tee shot.

The stock Fujikura PRO XLR8 shaft is slightly stiffer in the tip and butt and gives lots of mid-point kick for mid-launch complimenting the 12-gram weight being in the front position.

The crown is carbon fiber which, being 20% lighter than titanium, weight could be shifted lower and deeper in the head making the KING F7+ above average in forgiveness.

Then there’s what they are calling COBRA CONNECT, a partnership with Arccos to track every drive. The Arccos sensor is preinstalled in the butt end of the grip so once it’s paired with the free smartphone app not only drive data is recorded but there’s a GPS rangefinder. It works, is automatic to use and the data may be reviewed after the round including distance and the number of fairways hit. They tell me the sensor battery is good for at least two years.

Distance however, is the thing everyone wants to know about and the KING F7+ is as long as the KING LTD I was carrying and with the same dead-solid sound. The trajectory (with the 12-gram weight in the front positon) is mid-launch and the lack of ballooning in the wind indicates low ball spin even on slight mishits.

Finally, the blue KING F7+ has a really great look at address. The shape is pleasing and the blue—with red and white accents on the sole–stands out in a world of mostly black clubheads.

The Cobra KING F7+ also has what is sometimes called Tour validation. Fan favorite Rickie Fowler won the Honda Classic with the F7+ and it’s played by Lexi Thompson, Jonas Blixt, Jesper Parnevik and World Golf Hall of Fame member Greg Norman. While it’s tough to make a comparison between their swings and that of the average golfer plus of course they are paid by Cobra, it is a vote of confidence since they could be using any of the other Cobra models.

Negatives: the F7+ is billed as being for better players and comes with an adjustable hosel from 8 to 11 degrees so if you need help with trajectory the F7, which adjusts from 9 to 12 degrees (and with the 12-gram weight in the rear), would be a better choice.

Recommendation: Get on a launch monitor and test (with the help of a PGA Professional) the KING F7+ against any of the other new drivers and I think you will find it will hold its own in terms of feel, accuracy, forgiveness and distance. The $400 price is at the low end of the range for Tour level drivers and with comparable features making it attractive for a lot of budgets.

PGA TOUR Superstore – Bucking the Trend

In addition to a soft demand particularly for hard goods, golf retailing has had to endure some difficult times typified by the bankruptcy of Golfsmith, Sports Authority and Ben Hogan Golf plus Nike Golf’s decision to close its club and ball business.

PGA TOUR Superstores however, are bucking the trend. The Atlanta-based retailer is profitable and showing strong sales growth with an active program for adding new locations to the current 28. Three more stores are scheduled to open this year.

The company is privately-held by AMB Group, one of the family businesses of Arthur Blank that own the Atlanta Falcons football team, Atlanta United of Major League Soccer Team and the soon to be completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. Blank was cofounder of Home Depot, retiring in 2001 as co-chairman.

In an interview at the PGA Merchandise Show Dick Sullivan president and CEO of PGA TOUR Superstores talked about their success and plans for the future. Sullivan joined the company in 2008 after successful stints at both Home Depot and the Atlanta Falcons.

Brand identity is a must, especially in the competitive business of selling retail golf equipment, so we began by asking about the use of perhaps the best know name in golf, PGA TOUR. Sullivan responded, “We have a 50 year license with the PGA TOUR for the name and are very happy with the association with the Tour and in fact handle the e-commerce for them off their website. We want people to feel the link between us and the Tour as being real and important.”

Sullivan continued by saying he wants his stores to be high in wow-factor so when a golf consumer walks in the first time their reaction is “WOW!” because of the large amount of floor space, the interactive and brightly lit open layouts and well-stocked shelves.

With stores averaging over 45,000 square feet a big part of the growth has been realized by maximizing revenue whether in sales of clubs, apparel or services. We questioned how the revenue per square foot compared with other retailers and though he was reluctant to share specifics Sullivan did say that, “Revenue per square foot is up to double of other golf retailers.”

Experiential is the word the company uses to describe a visit and Sullivan said sales mix in a given store depends on the local market but, “Last year (2016) we gave 45-50,000 lessons so we have a strong presence in helping golfers get better.” Also interesting and somewhat unexpected is some locations sell more ladies’ apparel than men’s.

In 2016 PGA TOUR Superstores had over seven million customers and that will presumably grow in 2017 not only from same store growth but from increasing the number of locations. Sullivan expects to have 50 stores in five years so the rate of openings will be steady but not spectacular.

Realistically the growth into new markets and opening of new locations in existing markets is driven often by the cost of real estate. “It has to make sense for us and some areas [commercial real estate] are pretty expensive and it’s hard to make the numbers work,” Sullivan told me.

The almost mystical reputation of Home Depot’s customer service is a benchmark for Sullivan and the employees of PGA TOUR Superstores and this starts with knowing golfers and what they want and need. The connection is made through store employees.

According to Sullivan, “The employees on the floor who are closest to the customers are at the top of the PGA TOUR Superstore pyramid and the CEO is at the bottom. Employees tell us what we need to do.” They are the ones dealing with the golfers so they understand what the customer wants and needs.

He followed that comment quickly with, “If you do the right thing the numbers will follow,” which certainly is a refreshing change from the bean-counter orientation of some other operations.

Anecdotally, on a recent visit to the Orlando store to purchase some golf gloves the display rack had none in my size. When I asked a store associate if they had any he ran…ran mind you, to the back and returned almost immediately with what I needed.

I don’t recall ever experiencing that level of enthusiastic service much less physical exertion ever in any golf store, big box retailer or green grass shop.

On average PGA TOUR Superstores have 14 hitting bays with the latest swing analysis software and graphics along with custom fitting of clubs, club repair, re-gripping. “We run Saturday clinics for juniors to build the interest of youngsters in the game hopefully making them lifelong participants but also to engage the parents in a meaningful way with their children, the game of golf and our stores.”

So how is it working? As noted previously PGA TOUR Superstores is bucking the trend with continued growth and profitability and for example, “Some snowbound locations have to use beepers like in restaurants to notify when a practice bay is available which have swing analysis software. Each location has PGA Professionals on staff.”

When asked for a description of their ideal target customer Sullivan responded, “The avid golfer is of course first for us. We want them to find everything they want and for them to come back.”

From my experience it would seem a lot of golfers will be doing just that.

Images courtesy PGA TOUR Superstore