We received a great email the other day from one of our regular readers. Our reader wants to know “when should a golfer change clubs beyond the person just having a fetish and cash for new stuff?” He also wonders how much has golf technology changed over the years and if there is a limit to the technology that we are seeing.
Wow, some tough questions, but good ones for sure. The answer to these questions isn’t something that can simply be quantified. There are no definitive numbers or charts to rate golf club performance, all we can look at are measurable results such as distance and shot dispersion, and the most accurate way to determine these results is through robotic testing. Of course, using this type of testing ignores some pretty big intangibles like feel, sound, and visual appeal. With all of this to consider you can start to imagine what golf club designers are thinking about when they begin to create new design concepts. This is why the golf club industry follows trends so closely.
When Karsten Solheim introduced the first cavity back iron it didn’t take long before all the other major manufacturers followed suit. Why? Because this iron was a revolutionary new concept that was easier to hit and made the game more enjoyable to the masses. The next revolutionary golf club was the TaylorMade Pittsburgh Persimmon driver. At first this club was laughed at but soon everybody was making one. Again, the Pittsburgh Persimmon was easier to hit and longer. As more players and manufacturers recognized the benefits of a steel driver they became the norm. Club companies started to spend millions and millions of dollars in research and development to try and come up with their own Pittsburgh Persimmon. What has followed are more and more golf clubs that make the game easier to play at all levels.
We have gone from relatively simple concepts like using stainless steel or titanium to build a golf club to the point we are at now where companies are using nanotechnology and improving golf clubs at a microscopic level. Golf is now a billion dollar industry and any slight advantage can mean the difference between a year in the red or the black, for both manufacturers and professionals.
One example I love to use to illustrate what technology has done relates to driver distance. Every year companies come out with new and improved drivers. They market these drivers as more forgiving and longer off the tee. So a customer says “Well, how much more distance am I going to get from this new R5 Dual than I did with my R580XD?” Obviously the increase isn’t going to be huge, maybe two, three, five yards on average. Most customers usually scoff at this but when you start looking over a three or four year period all of a sudden we are talking about 10-20 extra yards off the tee, thats a pretty significant increase over a relatively short time period.
The same applies for irons. The example our reader used is Callaway X-14 irons versus the new Callaway X-18 irons. Is there a difference between these two? Absolutely, new weighting systems and patents in the X-18 make it a more forgiving iron than the X-14. The difference probably isn’t enough to make you pawn off your X-14’s in favor of X-18’s but given the choice the overwhelming majority would prefer the X-18. However if you were to compare the X-18’s to the original Big Bertha irons the difference is going to be phenomenal.
One way to gauge how technology has changed is to look at the way the game of golf has changed. Many old golf courses are so-called shotmakers courses. They place a premium on control, working the ball in both directions, creativity around the greens, and club selection. More players would lay-up off the tee in order to leave themselves in better positions coming into greens. Now we see players who are hitting the ball 50 yards further, the game is about trying to carry hazards and get the ball as far down the fairway as possible. Better wedges and better grooves make it easier to hit greens out of the rough so distance, not accuracy is rewarded off the tee. Golf is a much more aggressive game now than ever before and there are two reasons for this; one is that the players are stronger and in better shape, and the other is that technology allows us to hit the ball farther and straighter than ever.
So is there a limit to these technological advances? Not in my opinion. I think the only limits on technology we will ever see will be those implemented by the USGA or R&A. There will be lighter alloys that will make drivers even more forgiving. Better shafts will increase clubhead speed and better weighting and balls will reduce spin rates and increase aerodynamics further increasing distance. Companies like Grafalloy, Aldila, and Wilson are only beginning to explore the possibilities of nanotechnology while other companies continue to dream up new types of steel and titanium in their quest for the next big trend.
What does all this mean for all of your equipment, should you be changing every year? Probably not. The easy answer is to say you only should change your equipment when it is going to make a noticeable improvement in your game. This can mean different things to different players. For a tour pro changing a wedge or putter might only make a difference of half a stroke a round but over a four round tournament that could mean the difference between winning and losing. For a 15 handicapper getting a newer and better driver might knock two strokes off their game immediately. A 35 handicapper might not get any benefit out of new equipment and might be better to work on their game first. One way to judge when new equipment is really going to help you is to judge the shortcomings in your game against other players and look to see if new gear can help you improve in those areas. Another great resource can be club fitters. Fitters who know their stuff and are honest will be able to tell you what types of clubs will help your game and if they are really necessary for you.
And of course for some of us it is more of a game to see how much gear we can have piled up in the basement until the misses decides it is time to get rid of it all. For us technology can’t change fast enough because we have to be at the cutting edge all the time. For us gearheads the golf industry will never disappoint.