Brought to You by Ben Crane
To say that golf can be a frustrating game is an understatement. Most new players have an epiphany soon after they learn to make consistent contact with the ball. They quickly begin to negotiate their way around the course, and soon enough they are breaking 100 for the first time. That is a big day in any golfer’s life. Most will feel as though they have crested the mountain, and that it will be all downhill from there. The golf gods demand humility though.
Consistently breaking 100 is a different story than doing it just once. Every mid-handicapper was once a high-handicapper, and if you are either, you know what it means to hit that wall. The only way through it is to break the game down into its parts – the games within the game. We figure out that we aren’t hitting greens, so we practice our short games and learn to shave strokes that way. Learning to putt knocks chunks off a handicap, as does learning to flush an iron shot. With diligence and determination, we finally break 90, and all is right in the world.
TaylorMade M4 Driver
Players who spray it
Callaway GBB Epic
Players who wear out the sweet spot
Cobra King F8 Driver
Players with vertical swings
Callaway Rogue Driver
Ping G400 Driver
Good players with bad misses
Becoming a mid-handicapper is a point of pride for an improving golfer, and as well it should be. The game becomes much more fun for a while when you become a consistent bogey golfer who never even sniffs a plus-100 score. Breaking 90 is now routine, and every round soon becomes a quest to break post a score below 80. But therein lies a demon. In general there are simply no more epiphanies to be had for the mid-handicapper. Improvements that at first were coming in fits and starts are suddenly much more difficult to come by.
So what is it that prevents a 15-handicap from shooting in the single digits? Where do bogey golfers leave strokes on the course? The answer more often than not is that they lose them on the driving holes – long par 4s and par 5s.
Each banana ball or quack hook adds pressure to your game and shots to your scorecard. Recovery shots – especially those played sideways – tend to lag far behind the well-placed drives that scratch golfers take for granted. A few better tee shots on the long holes per round might help you shoot in the mid-80s, but what separates the low-handicapper from the bogey golfer is consistent driving. It’s not that low handicappers stripe every single tee shot; they just don’t often butcher them. But any mid-handicapper can achieve the same level of consistency.
Practice time on the range can help smooth out your driver swing and eliminate those duffs, tops and whiffs. But no amount of practice will help you if you’re using an outdated driver. Better golfers tend to replace their clubs every five years. They may clutch that favorite putter a bit longer, but irons and wedges are gone when the grooves wear out. They also lust over new drivers. Low handicappers and scratch players replace the long stick every few years because they know that technology adds yards, and shorter approaches tend to result in shorter putts.
Players using outdated drivers in the modern era are like the ones who played persimmons after metal drivers arrived. If your driver is older than the average kindergartener, you are costing yourself strokes. The newest crop of drivers is a collection of technological marvels. They have the largest sweet spots the game has ever seen and they can virtually eliminate a hook or a slice with a subtle tweak. Simply put, the easiest, simplest and most reliable way for a mid-handicapper to shoot in the low 80s is to invest in a new driver – and to practice with it.
In the past few years, there has been a veritable revolution in driver design. New manufacturing techniques have made ideas that were previously unfathomable seem commonplace. There have also been a couple of novel innovations that have transformed what in the past was the most difficult club to master into arguably the easiest club to hit. It all comes down to modern materials and golf club adjustability.
Just as hollow steel heads were a technological leap versus the wooden heads of the distant past, so modern titanium alloys and composite materials have ushered in a new era of clubhead speed. Titanium is stronger and lighter than steel, and composites are lighter still, instantly increasing a player’s clubhead speed. Carbon fiber has simplified crown and sole while enabling any shape that engineers can conceive.
By now, titanium is old hat. New drivers typically employ novel means of maximizing titanium’s unique characteristics that were impossible to achieve or simply not thought of until only recently. Today’s driver faces feature subtle curvatures and milled to precise thicknesses that push their spring-like effects right up to the limits allowed by the USGA and the R&A.
Driver sweet spots have been growing for decades, but they now extend across practically the entire face of the golf club. In most cases driver heads are no longer single pieces of hollow metal. Novel construction techniques have transformed the face into an insert in many drivers, separating it from the crown and sole and allowing for the use of even lighter materials. Designers can redistribute the weight savings to eke out whatever characteristics they want.
Carbon fiber has been a staple material in driver construction for many years now, but the newest iterations of it are the lightest and strongest materials the world has ever known. Most of today’s drivers utilize composite materials in some form to reduce the overall weight of the club. Precision welding techniques and computer aided design (CAD) allow for countless possibilities in face-body marriages.
Engineers have also learned to minimize unwanted flexing in areas of the crown and sole where bulging saps power, while still allowing flex in the face and in certain other strategic areas of the clubhead. The result is power that is more focused at the point of impact than ever before.
Another common feature in the modern driver is the addition of one or more precisely placed screws of variable weights around the sole. Moving these weights around has the effect of helping the clubface close to prevent a slice or fractionally delaying that closing to eliminate a hook – two misses that cost mid-handicappers strokes aplenty.
Moveable-weight technology is no longer in its infancy, and some manufacturers have invented other ways of achieving the same thing and chosen to eliminate it from their designs. Many of the best modern drivers still utilize this effective shot-shaping strategy, though. It is just another tool in the shed to help mid-handi cappers straighten their wayward drives.
While the combinations of space-age materials in today’s drivers are often easy to discern, the subtle differences in their shapes from the drivers of just a few years ago are a bit harder to see. Look closely though, and you’ll be able to pick out the raised protrusions or ridges that manufacturers are building into their designs. These features all have one purpose: minimizing drag by manipulating or smoothing turbulence.
Golf club engineers are utilizing technology like never before to allow their driver heads to slip more easily through the air during the swing. The CAD programs some of them use allow them to build their clubs virtually, testing them in simulated fluid-dynamics environments. Where once these engineers would have had to toil away for months doing wind-tunnel testing, they can now refine their ideas in a virtual environment. The UFO-shaped heads of modern drivers are slipping through the air like fighter jets and accelerating clubhead speeds as a result.
It may seem simple by comparison to the sorcery of CAD, but modern face stabilizing is producing fundamental improvements in driver performance. In previous generations of drivers, off-center hits resulted in severe twisting of the clubhead. Power leaks from minor misses could mean tens of yards lost. Engineers have now all but eliminated that twisting.
Many manufacturers have arrived at similar conclusions to fix the problem: vertical metal bars placed behind the clubface. However, the size and placement of these stabilizer bars is precisely mapped out on computer to make them functional without being intrusive. Off-center strikes can now feel and play no differently from those that find the exact center of the face.
Not so long ago, clubhead adjustability was against the rules of golf. The change to allow it instigated the advent of the modern adjustable hosel. While not a prerequisite for an effective driver, adjustable hosels have eliminated the confusion and pressure many golfers have felt in trying to select the exact loft they need. Incidentally, the perfect loft can change inexplicably from one day to the next for golfers at any level, but adjustable hosels make that point moot.
The rules of golf still forbid altering the playing characteristics of a club during a round of golf, but adjustable hosels allow players to make loft changes to alter shot trajectory and lie changes to tweak shot shape on the range before their tee times. In the past changes like that would have required either bending the club or bringing multiple drivers to the range and choosing the one that works that day. Now we can all be our own club fitters.
Another relic of the past that is practically extinct is the one-size-fits-all, generic shafts that used to defile otherwise great drivers. If you were lucky, that shaft might suit your game well enough for you to get by, but most golfers were forced to make swing compensations. Great shafts have been available for years, but they used to require a visit to a pro shop for an upgrade.
Manufacturers now offer their customers the best possible shafts to maximize the potential of their clubheads. In many cases these are the same shafts that touring pros use in their own drivers. Like other equipment utilizing composite materials, today’s graphite driver shafts are lighter and stronger than their predecessors.
The driver may be unlike any other club in the bag, but that doesn’t mean it should be any less personalized to your game. Choosing your driver based on what your favorite TOUR pro uses is usually a mistake, unless that pro has a swing exactly like yours. A driver is a major investment for most players, and it is one that should not be entered into lightly.
The first step in finding the perfect driver to help you get the most from your swing is to realize that you are an individual. No one has a swing like yours. We all have our own idiosyncrasies and limitations. Few players can will themselves into a faster clubhead speed, at least not substantially. It is a fallacy to think that there is a certain loft or shaft stiffness that all great players use. Rather, most low handicappers use equipment that suits their own game. You should do the same.
No specific brand has the market cornered when it comes to technology or performance. Golfers should obviously play the clubs that they like and that instill confidence. That said, the driver marketplace is quite crowded and choices abound.
The top golf equipment companies spend millions of dollars on research and development and devote countless manhours into provided players with the best possible gear. With modern CAD, there is no reason for a company to put underperforming clubs on the market, but some inevitably do. The best companies know that they would not survive if they did that, which is why it is smart to trust only those brands that have earned solid reputations over time.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way promptly. Most golfers need more driver loft than the longest hitters on TOUR tend to use. The height of a shot depends on two factors: loft and backspin. The mind-numbing clubhead speed that truly long hitters induce is simply out of the reach of the average player. The TOUR guys use lower lofts because it helps them induce less backspin on their drives, and they produce a more penetrating flight as a result.
At the swing speeds of us mere mortals, backspin is less of an issue. The typical mid-handicapper will get longer carry distance using a driver with more loft than a bomber’s driver will have. An added benefit is that clubs with more loft tend to produce less sidespin when the club’s path through the ball is not square. Straighter shots that fly farther mean less stress and shorter approaches. That’s a recipe for single digits.
Adjustability is practically a prerequisite for a great driver. Some of the hottest drivers on the market don’t have adjustable features at all. Of the ones that do offer adjustable hosels, there is variation in the amount of adjustability they provide. Some allow you to change the loft from as little as 9 to as much as 12 degrees. Others allow only one or two degrees of adjustability in either direction. More adjustability takes some of the pressure off to purchase the right loft.
The chief concern of many players who have yet to dive into the world of adjustable lofts is the reliability and toughness of the hosel. It is an understandable worry, as the hosel is critical to the integrity of the club. Adjustable hosels have been growing in popularity since Tom Wishon’s first effort in the mid 1990s. These components rarely fail.
A better reason to pause and think about how much adjustability you want in your driver hosel is the secondary effects of altering loft. For example, rotating the clubhead at the hosel to lower loft also effectively shuts the clubface a bit. If you struggle with a slice, this may be a beneficial side effect. If you’re fighting a hook on other hand, you may not appreciate shutting the face. It isn’t that hosel adjustability is a bad thing, but too much of it might be.
Offset drivers that promote a draw have long been available, as have others that have open faces to promote fades. These clubs offer remedial help for players fighting hooks and slices, but by the time they reach mid-handicap status most players can produce their desired shot shapes more or less at will.
Using such tactics has the side effect of limiting a players ability to shape shots. Draw-biased drivers are reluctant to fade the ball, and vice versa. The help may be welcome on straight holes, but when a dogleg bends the opposite way of your driver’s bias, it can stymie creative shot making.
Adjusting lie angle was once strictly the domain of club fitters and shop pros. If you don’t know, lie angle refers to the amount of lean of the shaft if the club is grounded squarely. The proper lie angle is determined by your wrist-to-floor measurement, which itself is basically a measure of height.
As drivers are rarely grounded at either address or impact, lie angle is less critical for them than for the other clubs. Still, many modern drivers have hosels that offer lie angle adjustments. If you are on one of the extremes of height – shorter or taller than average – adjusting the lie angle may help you dial in your driver for your own swing. For most golfers such adjustments are not likely necessary.
Deciding on a manufacturer and model rightfully consumes most players’ attention, but there is another piece of the puzzle that can unlock the potential hiding in that miraculous clubhead. The shaft is the engine that propels the clubhead toward the ball. Getting its characteristics right can reduce stress and may even coax a few more yards from your drives. Getting them wrong can lead to frustration and climbing handicaps.
Like loft, choosing a shaft based on what long hitters are playing is a mistake. If your clubhead speed isn’t more than 100 miles per hour, you probably shouldn’t be using a shaft with extra-stiff flex. Those shafts tend to be heavier, and they require more torque to get the whip-like effect that helps graphite shafts increase speed and produces longer drives. When the shaft flexes more, drivers produce more back spin and higher launches, resulting in easy yards.
Conversely, using a shaft with too much flex for your swing speed can cause several problems. Golfers with this issue tend to lose their feel for where the clubhead is in the swing, leading to inconsistent, off-center strikes. They also have a tendency to balloon the ball, losing yards to a rising trajectory. So resist the urge to believe that a shaft can make you into a different golfer. The right one can accentuate what you do well, but the wrong one will inevitably make anything you do wrong that much worse.
These shafts are intended for the absolute fastest clubhead speeds – more than 100 miles per hour with the driver. Few if any amateurs will benefit from an extra-stiff shaft. The only benefit for them would be having a consistent feel for the clubhead in the down swing. But the resulting low launches will steal carry distance, bringing trouble into play much more often.
These shafts tend to be the sweet spot for low and mid-handicappers. They are best for swings of more than 90 miles per hour. Golfers in that category will find a good mix of clubhead feel and launch angle with a stiff shaft. Stiff shafts normally produce a mid-trajectory flight, but low-launch shafts are available in stiff versions.
For most golfers who swing the clubhead slower than 90 miles per hour, a regular-flex shaft is usually ideal. The higher launch angles and resulting extra carry distance more than make up for any moderate loss in feel for clubhead position.
There is a bit of overlap in these shafts, which typically require the least amount of torque to produce the whip-effect benefit. These shafts also tend to be much lighter than those with stiffer flex, leading to moderate gains in clubhead speed for the slowest swingers. Clubhead location can become a mystery when using such whippy shafts, especially for those players whose swing speeds outmatch them.
TaylorMade’s updated version of its M2 driver still features one of the thinnest faces in the game, but now with a literal twist. The Twist Face adds loft on toe hits and minimizes loft on heel strikes, reducing side spin. The Hammerhead sole slot and internal bracing combine to produce a large sweet spot. The hosel adjusts only two degrees up or down from the four standard lofts, and there are no moveable weights. Meanwhile, the carbon fiber crown is the definition of modern.
In this YouTube video, Tiger Woods explains the benefit of the Twist Face design.
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Callaway’s GBB Epic driver features two titanium rods that connect the face to the crown, confining flex to the thin face. Callaway calls this its Jailbreak technology. Thanks to the use of high-tech triaxial carbon fiber in the crown, the weight of the clubhead is unaffected by the extra titanium. A sliding perimeter weight makes correcting a draw or slice easy, and aerodynamics from the Speed Step ridges helps maximize clubhead speed. The hosel allows for plus-2 and minus-1 adjustments.
This Callaway video on YouTube explains what the Jailbreak technology accomplishes.
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The forged face is precision-milled to exact thinness, and the result is a unique look. The titanium face insert has all the feel you would expect from a forged club. The face also has more curve near the crown and is flatter at the leading edge, to counteract the detrimental spin that normally results from hitting the ball high or low on the face. But more than tech, this is one aesthetically pleasing club. The aerodynamic ridges are muted, appearing like painted alignment marks on the crown, and the face milling is striking.
Check out Cobra pro Rickie Fowler talking about his F8 driver.
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The Rogue doesn’t bother to disguise its oversized head. It has Callaway’s largest ever triaxial carbon fiber crown, and it shares the BGG Epic’s twin-bar Jailbreak technology that prevents the club body from flexing at impact. Weight saved from the light crown is distributed to the perimeter. The result is a hot face on a club that is always stable at impact. Lofts are limited to three choices (9, 10.5 and 13.5 degrees), but a plus-2 and minus-1 adjustable hosel allows some wiggle room.
Even Sergio Garcia can hit consistent shots with his Rogue driver.
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Ping’s focus for the G400 is on using extreme aerodynamics and trampoline effect to maximize ball speed. The forged face delivers a buttery feel and a satisfying crack on impact. Longer front to back than it is tall, the G400 wears its heft well. The deeply set center of gravity helps the ball get airborne. But it is the forgiveness on shots hit to the extreme of the toe or heel that is the real star of the show. If you like to lash at it with sometimes laughable results, this may be the club that keeps you on the short stuff.
Watch Ping-sponsored PGA TOUR pros (including Bubba Watson) demoing the G400.
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A mid-handicapper looking to shave strokes who doesn’t have a driver like the ones on this list, is making a tough task more difficult than it needs to be. Of course, these drivers are no substitute for time on the range. Cranking a few great drives per round proves the potential is there, but consistency is the key to reaching single digits. If you can already pure it – and a middle handicapper definitely can – these modern sticks can help you become more consistent. Driver faces have never been hotter and sweet spots never larger than they are now.
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