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.

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.

Titleist NXT Tour & NXT Tour S

NXT_Tour_TourS_ Pkg_640x445Every golfer knows the Pro V1 and Prov1x are flagships for the Titleist brand. Because of their performance they are number one in sales and at the same time the most expensive ball on the market. But, however dominant the Pro V1 franchise is, Titleist does make other models and stablemates NXT Tour and NXT Tour S should not be overlooked.
NXTs are both less expensive and a different construction than Pro V1s but for average golfers their performance certainly makes them worth a look. We conducted trials of both NXTs with four golfers having a range of handicaps playing under a variety of conditions.
First let’s deal with the price. At my local golf shop a dozen Pro V1 or Pro V1xs are $48. NXT Tour or NXT Tour S are $35. That’s a difference of just over a dollar per ball so, keeping in mind there are some inherent performance differences, should the price differential be important to you the decision is easy.
The next reasonable question is, “what’s the difference between the two NXTs and how is it significant?”
NXT_Tour_TourS_cutawayThe NXT Tour is a three-piece construction with a two layer core and Titleist’s Fusablend cover of 302 dimples in a complex tiled octahedral pattern. Fusablend is their propriety formulation and is softer than the Surlyn used for many other non-Tour category ball covers. The NXT Tour S is a two-piece ball with a somewhat softer Fusablend cover compared to the Tour but with the same dimple design.
Based on the construction the NXT Tour should be longer off the driver because of less spin, have a higher trajectory than the NXT Tour S and run out more on the green.
The results from our average players were interesting. They used both the white and yellow colors in the Tour S but only white in the Tour because it doesn’t come in yellow. Each of the four liked the yellow’s increased visibility even to the point of saying not only was it easier to see but in one case commenting the color gave him some added confidence.
Each player thought the Tour was longer than the Tour S though without actual measurements all agreed the difference wasn’t large. The comparative amount of check or roll out was judged by two of the players (15 and 18 handicaps) to be about the same but the five and 12 handicappers both thought there was discernably more spin on short shots with the Tour S. This seems to make sense due to the softer cover of the Tour S and the fact it even felt softer for most every shot.
The 12 handicapper said of the NXT Tour, “For my particular game this ball was long off the tee, great for my second shot and had tremendous feel around the greens. I particularly noticed that it reacted very well with wedge shots around the green.”
Comparing the two the 15 handicap wrote in an email, “Both the NXT Tour and the NXT Tour S Yellow seem to go about the same distance for me. The rest of the performances seem to be equal and I like both, but prefer the yellow Tour S.”
The conclusion is if the NXT Tour and Tour S are a fit for your wallet there is no question they are quality golf balls with performance that will complement most anyone’s game. As a side benefit, the yellow color for the Tour S may even be a visual aid as well.
Images Courtesy of Titleist