Golf drivers review: What's next?

Have golf club manufacturers taken innovation to the limit?

world renowned clubmaker Tom Wishon
Thu, 9 Jul 2009
Golf drivers review: What's next?

golf drivers
The power and the glory: Tom Wishon asks: "What will the manufacturers do next?"

  EVER SINCE the first Callaway Golf Big Bertha driver consigned the persimmon headed driver to the golfing scrapheap, the race to produce bigger, better and longer drivers for golfers has consumed the equipment industry.

With every conceivable variety of shape, geometry and material having already been used, and the regulations on what can be done tightened by the golf rules authorities, just what is the future of our beloved big stick? We asked world renowned Custom clubmaker and equipment expert for his valued opinion.

golf drivers
Nike Dymo STR8-Fit driver with traditional shape and adjustable hosel

Where are we right now with driver design?

When you look at the actual performance of a driver, you are looking at what can be done to increase the ball speed for more distance. And that is a problem. There is a limit on COR that the USGA and R&A have adopted so that is a closed door.

Off-centre hit forgiveness is the next area, but there is a limit on the Moment of Inertia (MOI) and most of the companies have already gone right up to that limit. So you start looking at what else there is that could help.

If you wanted to increase the MOI you would have to make the head larger, but there is a limit of 460cc so that can’t be done. You could use different materials on the face to increase the COR to give more ball speed, but there are rules that prevent that, too.

You could use different materials throughout the head so that you can change the weight distribution, but that could give you a better MOI and we’re back at the existing rule.

Most of the doors that could be used by designers to create off-the-rack new technology are already shut.

golf drivers
Callaway FTiQ i-Mix has interchangeable shafts

So where do they go from here?

Adjustability seems to be the next move and the manufacturers have already started to move into areas that are very lightly related to club-fitting because it’s the one major technology that most golfers have never been subjected to.

In 2008 you had connector pieces [ including Callaway I-MIX and TaylorMade r7 CGB Max Limited] that allowed you to change the model and flex of the shaft. This year you’ve had the rotatable hosel piece [including TaylorMade R9 , the King Cobra L5V King Cobra S9-1 and King Cobra S9-1 Pro drivers and the Nike SQ Dymo STR-8FIT and SQ Dymo drivers] that allows you to change the face angle (more open or closed) and the lie angle (more upright or more flat). And that is what they have put their marketing money behind.

Why has it taken this long for it to happen?

The industry model has been to pick a series of standard specifications to go with whatever technology they have put in the head or the shaft, so they could sell it more easily.

golf drivers
TaylorMade R9 has interchangeable weights and adjustable head angle

Golfers have not been subjected to having the specs of loft, lie, length, face angle, total weight or swing weight customised just for them – unless they have it done privately. The reason it hasn’t been done is because it’s not within the business model of the big companies to be able to offer all the variations in all those important specifications, so they pick one or two.

Last year it was 'let’s change the shafts.' But that had some drawbacks because all the customisable shafts were the same length of about 45.5 inches. The heads had the same lofts and you couldn’t customise that at the same time as you were customising the shaft.

This year you can adjust the face angle but the shafts are all going to be 46 inches in length. You still have the loft that you have to buy on to the head, and you still have the same shaft with the same total weight and the same head weight for the swing weight in standard.

I don’t think you are going to see all the specs offered because there are too many models and retailers wouldn’t be able to buy them in and stock them all.

golf drivers
Cobra S9-1Pro S driver developed for those with high swing speeds.

So if there’s nothing left to innovate, what will they come up with?

Smoke and mirrors, cosmetic changes that appear to be technological changes. I’m absolutely convinced of that.

When you have five companies controlling 75% of the premium driver sales and those five in total together are more than $3billion in turnover, each one has to sell 500,000 drivers each year to make their forecasts.

You can’t sell 500,000 drivers with each one made to different loft, different length, face angle, swing weight etc. You can only pick one or two that can be altered and have the rest as standard so you can create an inventory that the retailers can stock. It all boils down to the fact that they do business by selling standard clubs off the rack.

How about changing the focus to accuracy rather than power?

I think they are scared to do that. Manufacturers have got into a situation that began about 20 years ago where they believed that the longer the length of the driver, the further you could hit it.

That’s not true, unless the golfers has a late wrist-cock release. For those who unhinge early, say midway through the downswing, it doesn’t work. They will swing a 46in driver the same speed as a 43.5in driver, so the ball goes the same distance.

One thing that is a fact is that the average driver length on the US PGA Tour, for example has been 44.5 inches for the last four years, yet the standard length sold off the rack by the manufacturers has been somewhere between 45.5 and 46.25in.

If there are any players on the planet who could potentially handle a longer driver and get more distance, it’s those guys with their better swings. But they feel that they might not hit the centre of the face as often, can’t control it as well, and so use a shorter shaft. So you have a bizarre situation where the best players in the world are using a driver an inch and a half shorter than what is sold to all the hackers.

golf drivers
ClubmakerTom Wishon at his facility in Colorado

Why don’t they change things then?

I’m sure there are people inside those companies who understand that the average player will do better with a shorter length but they are too scared to make that change.

If they made all their drivers go from 46 to 44 inches all the good players with the late wrist cock might not hit them as far, and that 20 per-cent of golfers would give negative publicity. Even though the other 80 per-cent would be better off, they wouldn’t be able to overcome that in the marketing. And they couldn’t sell both a shorter version and a longer version because you are doubling the inventory of stock and the retailers won’t like that. They are in a corner and can’t get out.

So what is the future?

I think you will see more adjustability. Supposedly Callaway has a patent that has been issued for an adjustable face where you can adjust both face and loft angle on an existing head. But they are up against the fact that a lot of golfers just don’t want to tinker with their clubs once they’ve bought them.

The average club golfer says 'give me what I need and let me play with it. Don’t give me a wrench, I don’t want to mess around with it.'

I think some manufacturers will dabble in areas related to club-fitting because that is the one thing that could make a difference. The trouble is they will never really be able to offer all the specs off the rack.

In terms of what they can stick in the club that people will be able to buy off the rack and be told that it’s going to improve them, I just haven’t seen it yet. I don’t think they have either, because if they had, they would be marketing it.

Tom Wishon is an expert in custom-fitting and clubmaker, based in Dorango, Colorado. He's a consultant to 'Golf Digest', the world's top-selling golf magazine and has written numerous books on golf equipment. For further details, visit: .

*Interview Richard Green

Tell us on the forum: What do you think of current driver development? Do you agree with Tom Wishon? Have the manufacturers taken the power as far as they can? What's the next move? Will the ball be next?