2003: Clubmakers ‘supersize’ drivers in ’03

There is no question that 2003 is the year of the Super Driver. However, because most consumers are not Superman, they should be very careful about picking the right driver.

What exactly is a Super Driver? It is a big-headed driver – big in overall size, big in face depth, big in sweet spot, big in forgiveness.

Most equipment companies now have them, ranging in size from 300-something cubic centimeters up to 460 cc. Although some maverick driver heads exceed 500 cc, these heads are outside the size limit expected to be adopted by the U.S. Golf Association this year. The USGA already has proposed a 460 cc limit plus a 10 cc tolerance, resulting in a maximum size of 470 cc.

Manufacturers with big new drivers for 2003 include Nike, which will introduce in May a 450 cc driver to join its existing 275, 350 and 400 models. Adams has a new 460 cc driver called Redline. Titleist has been secretive about its new drivers, but it is expected to be part of the 983 family, the next step in the evolution that started with the 975D driver.

To get an idea of how driver heads have grown in size, just look back at some of golf’s best-known drivers:

MacGregor Toney Penna persimmon (1950s): 150 cc.

TaylorMade original metalwood (late 1970s): 160 cc.

Callaway Big Bertha (1991): 195 cc.

Titleist 975D (1997): 260 cc.

Now we are seeing, in the hands of the world’s best players on the PGA Tour, some drivers that exceed 400 cc. Furthermore, we see drivers with enormously deep faces (as measured from the top of the face to the bottom).

In the good old days, deep-faced persimmon drivers such as MacGregor’s George Bayer model commanded a loyal following. These drivers had a maximum face depth of about 13⁄4 inches.

Today’s titanium drivers sometimes offer a face depth as much as 21⁄4 inches.

“We’re trying to optimize the face area relative to volume,” said general manager Jeff Harmet of Cobra, whose SS 427 driver emerged as one of golf’s top sellers in 2002.

These drivers are not designed to be hit off the fairway. Many players are using longer tees to help achieve the driver’s primary purpose: launch the ball high in the air with low backspin.

Explained Dave Wood, MacGregor’s senior vice president of product innovation, “We’re a long way from the days when players would work the ball with their drivers. You just don’t see that anymore. These big drivers are designed to make field goals. Everybody wants to hit the ball high and straight.”

Indeed, it is much easier to hit draws and fades with small-headed drivers. In today’s game, though, players are primarily concerned with carry distance. The big-headed Super Driver has emerged as the carry king.

So what does this mean for consumers?

The macho-man days of using the lowest possible driver loft are done and gone. “Many of our (PGA Tour) players are using 10- and 11-degree drivers,” said Tom Stites, Nike’s research and development director. “The drivers produce less spin, the balls produce less spin, and loft is the easiest way to get the ball up in the air.”

Because driver⁄golf ball combinations are crucial, each player should try to use his own favorite ball when testing demo clubs. Worn-out range balls present the worst possible test scenario and may drastically alter the flight characteristics produced by a particular driver.

Every driver has a tendency built into it, and each golfer should take care to find the driver that best fits his game. A good example is provided by the new Callaway Great Big Bertha II and Great Big Bertha II Pro Series drivers, which exhibit different tendencies (the Pro Series version has a slight fade bias and is perfect for players who like to swing aggressively without fear of going left).

The evolution in the head size of drivers can be attributed to two factors: titanium and spring-like effect. Lightweight titanium, about half the weight of stainless steel yet with comparable strength, allowed bigger heads and thinner faces in drivers. As faces grew thinner, it became apparent to everyone that spring-like effect was a very real phenomenon.

To maximize this benefit, club designers developed larger driver heads and larger faces. Of course, the USGA became alarmed and ultimately halted the trampoline parade. With coefficient of restitution (a measurement of spring-like effect) capped at .830, manufacturers now are concentrating on factors other than distance. These factors are optimum launch angle and spin, along with forgiveness on off-center hits.

The forgiveness factor will become even more apparent in 2003. If Cobra blazed the forgiveness trail with its hit-the-ball-all-over-the-face advertising campaign in 2002, other companies are now in hot pursuit.

Take Adams, for example. When the company decided to design a new line of metalwoods, it started with the premise that the woods had to be more forgiving than anything it had previously manufactured.

The result? The first 460 cc driver from a major manufacturer, along with a line of fairway woods made of titanium rather than stainless steel.

Tim Reed, vice president of research and development for Adams, paid microscopic attention to internal weighting and wall thicknesses while designing the Redline woods. Ping was arguably the first manufacturer to be preoccupied with internal geometry. Callaway’s original Great Big Bertha was so advanced internally that almost half the players on the Tour used the driver in 1997.

Internal science, which has become a proven means of enhancing forgiveness in metalwoods, now has many disciples in the golf industry.

“Every year, consumers are buying drivers with larger heads,” Reed said, “and we wanted to go as big as possible and still allow them to feel the stability with our new driver. With drivers today, you have to ask yourself how well they maximize performance on off-center hits.”

Adams selected a Fujikura shaft with a lower torque and higher balance point than shafts used in its previous drivers. The final product, in Reed’s words, is a 46-inch driver “that is part technology, part art, and doesn’t look nearly as big as 460.”

Sophisticated internal geometry from Ping, Adams or anybody else wouldn’t mean a thing without advanced casting techniques, and titanium is now cast to extremely tight tolerances. The result: Super Drivers that in many cases really are super.

On the other hand, Superman doesn’t play golf. For ordinary citizens who don’t own a cape, it pays to be extra diligent when testing, evaluating and choosing any modern driver.

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