During a 2011 presentation at TaylorMade’s headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., Mike Ferris, at the time the company’s vice president of marketing, got up from his seat and went for a walk. With about 20 people watching, he went to the front of the room and paced off steps while counting aloud, not stopping until he reached 17.
That, Ferris said, was how much farther the company’s new RocketBallz 3-wood hit the ball than the previous year’s model, the Burner SuperFast 2.0.
It was a brash and showy claim, but the RocketBallz fairway woods quickly gained popularity with pros and amateurs alike because they provided a jolt of buzz to a category of clubs that is sometimes an afterthought.
“For the longest time, I think fairway woods were sort of a dead category, just chugging along, but there was nothing that inspired consumers to go out and replace what they had,” said Brian Bazzel, TaylorMade’s vice president of product creation. “It was clear to us that from a ball-speed standpoint, there was a lot of runway.”
“I give TaylorMade credit because (RocketBallz) really started the arms race in fairway woods,” said Dave Neville, Callaway’s senior director of brand management.
According to Neville, Chip Brewer had just started as Callaway’s president in early 2012 when he was shown the fairway woods company officials planned to release. Unimpressed, Brewer canceled their production and pressed Callaway’s R&D team to further develop a prototype technology that could deliver significantly more distance, even though it meant releasing the clubs later. The result was the first Callaway fairway wood with a cup face, the X Hot, and it quickly became a hit.
Technologies such as that were once found exclusively in drivers, but not any longer. Improved manufacturing techniques, the use of multiple materials and a better understanding of the forces that control distance, spin and launch angles are helping companies produce fairway woods that are incredibly sophisticated.
The advancements in today’s fairway woods have made them so powerful they create a problem for Tour pros that most amateurs could only dream of: They hit the ball too far.
There needs to be a logical distance gap between a player’s driver and strongest-lofted fairway wood, and because today’s fairway woods hit the ball so far, once-popular 13-degree models are becoming rare on the PGA Tour. The most popular loft is still 15 degrees. But the trend these days is to take out the 3-wood and replace it with a 16.5-degree 4-wood. With the extra loft, pros can hit the ball higher and get it to stop on a par-5 green. Pros also can use the club off the tee without sacrificing too much distance.
“A lot of the move toward the 16.5-degree fairway woods on Tour comes from the fact that pros generate more speed than most avid golfers,” said Stefanie Luttrell, Titleist’s director of metalwood development. “The advent of the high-lofted 3-wood that doesn’t spin a lot is a huge opportunity for them, because we can now give them loft without excessive spin, so they have control with it. In the past, considering a 4-wood might not have been conceivable because of the spin.”
The fairway wood category is no longer overlooked. With the emphasis squarely on performance and helping players hit longer and higher shots, the innovations are sure to continue.
As Bazzel puts it, “We’re not fully at the limit.” Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Golfweek.)