For more than two decades, Tom Olsavsky has heard the same question in one form or another. The 29-year golf industry veteran, who now heads up R&D for Cobra Puma Golf, says it goes something like this: “You can’t make the driver go any farther, right? That’s the end,” Olsavsky says. “Well, no, I don’t think so because the industry keeps thinking of ways to get a little better.”
Olsavsky compared the latest and greatest driver to a new line of cars with an even better suspension and a little more horsepower. Indeed, almost without fail the major equipment makers tout their newest driver technology as being the “fastest ever” despite the fact that the USGA and R&A have set limits on various aspects of clubhead performance and the companies claim they’re already right up against those limits. TaylorMade even boasts that its M5 and M6 driver are created over the limit then injected with resin to bring them back just below it.
Does that mean we’ve finally approached the doorstep of the limits on drivers? And if not, where does driver technology go from here?
Most companies approached for this story—if they were willing to talk at all—consider this a sensitive and confidential subject matter. While they didn’t exactly roll out their five-year innovation plans for us, there were some common themes in their responses.
But first, let’s review the USGA and R&A limits on driver performance. The governing bodies began testing spring-like effect by measuring coefficient of restitution (COR, or how much energy is transferred from club to ball at impact) in 1998, and determined that the velocity of a ball hitting the head at 100 mph couldn’t have a rebound velocity of more than 83 mph. This was replaced in 2004 with the CT rule—characteristic time, or the amount of time the ball spends on the club face, measured in microseconds—which is often characterized as a limit on how much the clubface is allowed to flex. The CT limit recently made news when Xander Schauffele’s Callaway driver was deemed to be non-conforming ahead of The Open Championship. The USGA also capped Moment of Inertia (MOI, or the club head’s resistance to twisting at impact). Given these constraints—a speed limit of sorts with very diligent traffic cops—it begs the questions: Where can driver technology go from here and how will drivers eke out ever more distance? Here’s how they might.
FITTING: Equipment experts agree that golfers who haven’t been fitted are leaving 10–15 yards on the table. Fitters try to maximize driver performance based on a player’s delivery or tendencies, finding the best club heads and shafts for optimal performance. The use of TrackMan and other devices to read launch and spin have helped the fitting process, but as one industry veteran says, “I do not believe the surface of club fitting with regard to education and application has even scratched the surface.” Improved aerodynamics Club designers continue to experiment with new materials, thinner crowns, and better CG (center of gravity) and MOI results in order to improve structure, feel, and sound while limiting costs.
FACT: If the clubhead produces less drag, it can move faster during the swing. Expect to see more advanced versions of Ping’s Turbolators and TaylorMade’s Twist-Face technology, not to mention better aerodynamics through use of artificial intelligence technology such as that being used by Callaway in its design of Epic metal woods.
For the last five years, the trend has been lowering CG so drivers create better launch conditions and unlock quite a bit more distance. If a club allows the golfer to hit the ball higher with less spin, distance will increase even if ball speed remains the same. There’s also room for pushing the CT limit across more of the club face, producing more distance even when missing the sweet spot. As one former top equipment executive put it, “The OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are definitely smarter with more intellectual horsepower than the governing bodies.” Moment of inertia is another area where equipment makers have gotten close but still have room to play and increase distance.
REDUCING MANUFACTURE VARIANCE: For years, clubmakers have turned the tolerance allowed in CT measurement into a space to innovate. Most driver heads are actually manufactured to slightly lower performance standards than what’s allowed so as not to run the risk of having a random test deem their clubs non-conforming, which would lead to a recall of all their drivers. But that’s becoming less of a concern. For its latest M-series drivers, TaylorMade manufactured the clubs beyond the limits of the rules then inserted epoxy into a foam reservoir at the bottom of the club to lower the numbers. These may be incremental gains at best, but like scraping the bottom of a peanut butter jar, every little bit counts.
SHAFTS: It’s often said that the shaft is the engine of the golf club, and manufacturers see an opportunity to fine-tune shafts for improved ball speed, primarily by using new materials that create lighter shafts. Overall, the gains may be small, but Olsavsky is among those who say they are real and taken together suggest there’s still room for advancement in driver technology.
“Can I make a driver that goes 5–10 yards longer than the previous driver? If we get a couple of yards every year and the average golfer buys a driver on a 5-year cycle, he should see 10 yards with the same swing compared to his old driver.”