Driving a different game – technologically, good or bad news for your game keeping up with the Jones?
In 1996, no golfer on the PGA Tour averaged more than 300 yards off the tee. In 2000, John Daly was the lone tour player able to crack the 300-yard barrier for the season. Last season, there were 26 golfers who averaged more than 300 yards per drive. And with long hitters like Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes joining the tour in 2006, those numbers figure to keep rising.
Welcome to the new PGA Tour, where power is the ultimate weapon and those that have it dominate the sport.
Over the last 26 years, the zest for distance has inspired golf manufacturers to produce a growing list of Space Age equipment that has helped golfers of all ages to "grip it and rip it."
The PGA Tour average driving distance has increased by nearly 30 yards since 1980, with 83 percent of that gain coming since 1994.
This equipment revolution has had dramatic results.
In 1994, the PGA Tour driving average was approximately 262 yards. In 2004, tour players averaged nearly 290 yards off the tee.
All one needs to do is look at the 2006 money list for the PGA Tour to quickly see how important length is to success.
Three of the biggest money winners in the last five years, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, rank in the top 20 in driving distance year in and year out.
"I didn't use technology, the advances in technology for a couple of years," said Woods, who only switched to a over-sized driver in 2005. "Guys were sacrificing some of the spins they would normally have for distance, and they have gone longer and lighter in shafts, bigger, hotter heads and obviously higher-launching and less-spinning golf balls.
"All of that equates to a lot more yardage. ... So can I actually hit the ball further? Yeah, there's no doubt about that."
While scoring averages haven't dropped as dramatically as driving distance have increased, the average scores on tour are lower because players are hitting it longer.
In 1980, the PGA scoring average was 71.23. In 2003, the scoring average among players was a full shot lower at 70.16.
Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet Company which manufacturers Titleist golf balls, calls distance "golf's great temptress."
"It's what the new golfer wants, it's what the average player needs and it's what everyone sells, including the PGA Tour," Uihlein said.
Multiple factors in increased power
Industry experts like Uihlein agree golf's transition to a power game is a result of multiple factors.
They include: improved golf course conditioning and agronomy; bigger, stronger and better-conditioned athletes; improved technique and instruction; and the increased access of use of launch monitors and other monitoring equipment.
But most industry experts, including Golf Digest Chief Technical Advisor Frank Thomas, believe the two main factors in distance gains over the last decade are primarily a result of improvements in ball and club technology.
The innovations on the club side date back to 1979 when TaylorMade introduced the first metal wood.
Throughout the 1980s, TaylorMade's metal woods gained popularity among golfers of all levels.
But while the metal woods allowed players to hit the ball farther, the sweet spot wasn't any larger than the one on the traditional persimmon woods that had been used for decades.
With a persimmon wood, or metal wood, if you hit a ball off the toe or on the heel, it cost you distance and accuracy.
That changed in 1991, when Callaway put the name "Big Bertha" on the tongues of every player in America.
The 280 cc head was nearly double the size of a normal driver and its expanded face and sweet spot provided a much forgiving ball flight, especially when shots were struck on the toe or heel.
"Big Bertha was a breakthrough because it was so much different than any other club ever made," said Larry Dorman, senior vice president of global press and public relations at Callaway. "It revolutionized how we thought about drivers and changed the game forever. Every driver that has been developed since was spawned by Big Bertha."
Callaway's Big Bertha signaled a revolution, which led to larger and larger club heads and the use of non-traditional materials like graphite and titanium.
Then last season TaylorMade introduced its r7 driver with movable weights, ushering in a new level of technology.
In the eras of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and even Arnold Palmer, golf equipment was primarily produced by craftsmen who molded and polished golf clubs by hand.
Over the last 20 years it has become an industry comprised of highly skilled engineers and scientists, many of whom once used their intellect to help astronauts reach for the stars.
Improving the golf ball
Six years ago those same engineers turned their attentions toward improving the golf ball.
According to Mike Yagley, vice president of golf ball product management for Callaway, there have been phenomenal improvements in golf ball technology.
Before 2000 there were two kinds of golf balls, according to Yagley. Tour players tended to play three-piece balls which were not as hard but provided them with more spin. Weekend players, who were looking for as much distance as possible, played a harder, two-piece ball that didn't handle very well around the greens.
The breakthrough in ball technology came when companies like Titleist and Callaway were able to produce a three-piece ball that flew longer, but still provided the handling ability around the greens tour players demand.
"People say all golf balls being produced today are traveling a lot longer, but the truth is that the balls the guys on tour are using are going longer," Yagley said. "The balls the rest of us play go just a little farther."
While raw materials have improved tremendously in recent years, companies like Callaway and TaylorMade have also done their part by developing their own unique formulas to add to the materials to make them more efficient.
A good example of thinking outside the box and creating a new formula is TaylorMade's new TP Red and TP Black golf balls.
"Our goal was to build two tour-quality, urethane-covered balls that generate faster ball speed for more distance while also offering low spin off the driver and high spin off the irons," said Benoit Vincent, chief technical officer for TaylorMade.
To accomplish that mission, TaylorMade engineers developed its NdV4 Super-Core Technology for Accelerated Ball Speed. "To make the TP Red and TP Black significantly faster, we had to find a faster core material, but one soft enough to minimize driver spin," said Dean Snell, senior director of research and development for TaylorMade and Maxfli. "We succeeded with NdV4, a neodymium-based rubber compound that combines ultra-high COR (coefficient of restitution) and exceedingly low compression.
"The result is accelerated speed, low driver-spin and soft sound and feel."
TaylorMade's engineers also developed a new pentangular di-pyramid dimple (PDP) design that gives the TP balls an ability to hang in the air longer.
"We found more distance by optimizing the aerodynamics," said Snell. "Lift keeps the ball in the air and drag slows the ball down, and it's critical to strike the ideal ratio between lift and drag.
"Many low driver-spin balls generate too much drag, causing tee shots to drop quickly from the sky. The shape, depth and edging of our PDP dimple design balances lift and drag in relation to spin-rate. ... promoting longer hang time, longer carry and longer distance."
But Vincent said he and his team didn't know they really had something until TaylorMade's marquee player, Sergio Garcia, gave the ball his blessing.
"For several years we brought Sergio prototypes and each time he would tell us we were getting closer but we were not quite there," Vincent said. "We knew we had something when Sergio put the ball in play after trying it."
Nike's Rock Ishii has the same challenge as Vincent, but he must produce balls for Woods.
Ishii joined Nike in 1998 and not long after that started working on Project Tiger, creating the balls Woods used when he switched from Titleist in 2000.
Woods didn't know a whole lot about golf ball design when he started working with Ishii, but was a quick learner.
"That was a pretty good challenge for me because when I talked to him about the project he was more like a feel player, not a database player," Ishii said. "But now he is and that's a great part for me. He's a smart guy and he remembers every single data we take."
Ishii travels to see Woods several times a year, showing him the latest in designs.
Woods tells Ishii if a ball spins too much or doesn't hold its line in the wind. Ishii takes Woods' feedback to the lab, tinkers with the design, then creates a ball Tiger and golfers around the world can use.
Recently, Ishii has been featured in Nike ads with Woods, promoting their new ONE ball’s.
"It's kind of a funny feeling," Ishii said of his new stardom. "I'm just an engineer."
Launch monitor confirms data
While today's golf balls and clubs are all more technologically advanced than their predecessors, not every ball or club right for every golfer.
The best way to produce the proper marriage between a golfer and the right pieces of ball and clubs is to hook him or her up to a sophisticated piece of equipment called a launch monitor.
The launch monitor is a high-speed camera that takes two quick pictures of a player's golf ball when it leaves the clubface. The pictures are transported to a computer, which has software that performs complicated algorithms. Within seconds, the software produces pertinent information such as the player's ball speed, ball spin, launch angle, ball dispersion, carry distance and total distance.
That information, in the hands of a trained expert, can help a player find the right ball and clubs that fit his or her game.
Launch monitors have been used by the R&D departments of all the major club manufacturers for years. That gave tour players access to their raw numbers which allows every player to fine tune equipment to their own swing.
For years only PGA professionals had access, but in the last few years public facilities have opened, giving every-day players access to the same information.
Simi Valley's Mitch Voges opened one of the first of these facilities.
Voges owns Max Out Golf in Encino. For $245, any player can find out his or her launch angle, ball speed, club head speed and every other pertinent number. Max Out's fitting system allows Voges to quickly mix and match various shafts and club heads, to help insure the proper loft, center of gravity and shaft length.
"It's like buying a suit," he said. "You can buy off the rack, and it'll be OK. But you'll look like a million bucks with an expert tailor."
Voges has stacks of file folders, which contain the names and stats from customers over the years. All picked up at least 10 yards and many increased their distance by 20, 30, 40 yards or even more.
"We can get any player more distance," Voges said. "We're giving the average player the same chance as the guys on tour get to find the equipment that works best for them.
"When you hit it farther and better, it makes the game more fun, no matter what level you play on."
By Bob Buttitta,
bbuttitta@VenturaCountyStar.com Copyright 2006, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.
Wire services contributed to this story.