As a new year looms large in the distance, it's often the time to take stock on the months past as well as what to expect from the future.
In golf these days, it's all about space age technology and innovations in equipment design. In fact, golf has embraced technology in the last two to three decades like never before in its entire 600 year history.
Take drivers for instance, the superstars of the golf club-set. There's a special allure about the driver. The club that usually gets things started in your game. The club that's so special you have to buy it separately.
A club that's tough to master, yet rewards its users with incredible long distance shots.
Swinging with a driver with gusto has its own special feeling, that's what probably makes it such a special club to golfers. Drivers have improved so much since the 80s that these days there are more USGA rules limiting their performance that ever before!
So when we talk about new and improved drivers, we're not exactly talking about drivers that can hit longer and harder than ever before. The focus is more on accessibility, ease of use and consistency. Pro-level golfers are always a minority. The bulk of the equipment-buying public belongs in the mid and high handicap brackets.
So most the of the drivers being developed these days, like the drivers mentioned below, cater to this huge demographic. They include models we've already covered in our various shortlists of best drivers for beginners and seniors among others:
For each and every product on the market, you'll always find a few big brands dominating the landscape in terms of sales volume as well product quality. The golf clubs market is the same. Every time you do an online search for the best golf clubs, regardless of the type of the club several names pop up consistently in the top six or seven.
Though each have their own distinct designs, the basic technology underlying the clubs are largely uniform since the USGA has quite strict limitation regarding club design. We're not saying that all the claims of superiority by different brands are plain hokum. It's just that performance doesn’t drastically differ between drivers of identical loft and specifications. You might find that one brand has clubs which suit your swing style and preferences more. And that's just about it.
Callaway: Phil Mickelson is the indubitable star for this Carlsbad, California based manufacturer. Thanks to a design overhaul and good marketing, their sales have boomed in recent years. They make everything from putters to irons and drivers, though they're especially known for the long distance capability of their clubs. The Big Bertha lineup has been very successful for Callaway.
Titleist: Their name is readily associated with golf balls, but these guys make some of the best performing clubs that cater to a wide assortment of handicaps. Titleist has the highest number of endorsements from the Top 50 tour pros. They would comfortably slot into the top 3 most recognizable golfing brand with their lineup of clubs and golfing gear.
TaylorMade: They are the golfing brand of sports giant Adidas, and that kind of clout does show in their sheer dominance of R&D in golf technology. It can even be argued that TaylorMade makes too many innovations on their clubs. A cursory online search shows that they dwarf every other brand when it comes to sheer number and variety of models they have on the market. They're especially well known for their line of drivers.
Cobra: One of the flashiest brands in the pack with their range of bold designs. Like TaylorMade, they're also owned by another sports goods giant: Puma. Their drivers sport a lot customizations and adjustable features. Cobra’s star has been on the rise in recent years, with several younger pros on the Tour endorsing the brand.
Ping: An Arizona based company with a huge fan following among professional golfers. They make some of the best clubs in the business, especially putters and irons. Ping wedges are especially popular among pros as well as amateurs alike. Though their core competency is on short-game clubs, they also have some exceptional fairway woods in their catalog.
Adams Golf: Known mostly for the exceptionally forgiving line up of fairway woods. Adams was purchased by Adidas in 2012 as part of that company’s plan to expand its golfing line-up. Though they have ranges of other clubs as well, accurate and powerful long distance woods are what they excel at. The great Ernie Els works with them in R&D.
Nike Golf: The main reason Nike is on this list is because they had Tiger Woods on their roster from the outset in 1996 (Rory McIlroy joined in 2013) and because, well, they don’t exist any more. 2016 will be remembered as the year the 'Swoosh' chose to leave the golf club business. In 20-odd years of their existence, Nike tried a lot to create a distinct brand image with bright neon shades and a lot of innovations. But none of their well-made clubs truly stand out from the rest and the brand never broke into the top five despite having Tiger Woods as their face.
Browsing for a new golf club can be an intimidating experience for newer players who are still unfamiliar with the technical lingo associated with golf clubs. Here's a short overview of some of the common terms/features you'll encounter related to golf drivers:
Clubhead Size: Measured in cc, has been limited by the USGA to a maximum of 460cc for all drivers. Most drivers in the market are either 460cc or a smaller 440cc. If you’re a beginner, you definitely need the bigger head, since it’s more forgiving. 440cc drivers are more experienced players who need more control. Manufacturers try to differentiate their drivers with different club head shapes, but as we mentioned, the benefits are not earth shattering.
Clubhead Materials: Traditionally, Persimmon wood was used for drivers. But modern drivers almost exclusively use titanium because of its very light weight and high strength. Composite heads that use lightweight carbon fiber with heavier metals like tungsten are also common. Again, any performance improvements should be marginal at best between titanium and composite heads.
Center of Gravity (CG) and Moment of Inertia (MOI): These two are very common terms brandished by manufacturers to extol the superiority of their innovations. MOI is the ability of a club to resist twisting on impact with the ball. Higher MOIs increases the forgiveness of clubs. CG is the point of the club at which it’s perfectly balanced. Try balancing a pen on your finger. The point along its length at which it perfectly balances is its CG. When CG is lower and towards the back, it increases ball spin and launches the ball higher into the air. When the CG is more forward oriented it increases ball speed and reduces spin.
Shaft Flex: An appropriate shaft flex can increase distance as well consistency. The ideal flex for a golfer is dependent on their individual swing speeds. Manufacturers provide shaft flex options ranging from the lighter ladies (L) and senior (A) flex, to the regular (R), stiff (S), and extra stiff (XS).
Shaft Length: The USGA limit for length is at 48 inches, but most manufacturers restrict their driver lengths to a maximum of 46 inches since longer drivers are much harder to control. The optimum balance between distance and control is found somewhere in the vicinity of 45 inches.
Adjustable Options: Many driver models in the market these days have several adjustable features. The three main features and their impact on the driver is explained below:
Loft: Determines how high or low the ball will fly when struck. Loft angle is measured in degrees. Altering it affects the spin, distance, height and direction of flight of the ball. The lower your swing speed (and higher your handicap), the higher the loft you need.
Face Angle: Is the angle of the clubface at the point of address. Changing it affects ball flight. If you slice the ball a lot, close the face angle. If you hook it more, open the face angle to improve your chances of better shots.
Weights: Manufacturers add small moveable weights at different parts of a driver’s head. Adjusting the weight impacts CG and MOI.
Golf club marketing strategies can make selection a nightmare for beginners unfamiliar with the common technical terms used by brands.
But once you scratch the surface, it becomes quite apparent that beyond the basics of loft, flex, shaft length and CG+MOI, the rest are just largely inconsequential, at least for the average golfer. Sure, if you’re a pro competing at the elite level, these things might make the difference between winning and finishing as an also ran.
But if you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t get caught up too much in the hype. Learn the basics, get help from a clubfitter regarding your swing and stance and you’re all set on choosing the best driver for your game.