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Opinion & Analysis

I did that! An interview with Driver vs. Driver winner Eric Sillies

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A $50 pair of shoes! That was the big extravagance for Eric Sillies after winning the $500,000 prize on Golf Channel’s television show Driver vs. Driver presented by Wilson. That might make him sound dull, but after talking to him recently, I’ve learned he’s anything but. I spent almost an hour chatting to him about life since Wilson chose his driver, Triton, to be the company’s flagship model for 2017.

It been more than a month since the Triton hit shelves at golf retailers, and aside from a non-conformity hiccup with the USGA (which has since been resolved) the initial reaction to the driver has been very positive. A lot of people followed the show and liked the concept, and many have been curious enough to find their way to a store to try a Triton.

Sillies isn’t privy to the current sales numbers, but he did say that Wilson seems to be very happy with the exposure so far. The feedback he’s received since launch has been mostly about how forgiving the driver is in the hands of ordinary golfers, which makes him very satisfied.

“Its always great to get direct feedback from real golfers,” Eric said. “To see trends and patterns of feedback that focus on key benefits, it translates theory into reality.”

Wilson_triton_pieces

Related: See more in-hand photos of the Triton driver

In terms of his relationship with the company moving forward, Sillies is on the Wilson Advisory Staff for the foreseeable future and will be at the upcoming PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando later this month. And in talking to him, he is a great ambassador for Wilson, mixing enthusiasm with professionalism. But for now he is back to his day job in Cincinnati with LPK, a global product design agency.

Since winning, Sillies has had a lot of press interviews and speaking engagements, far more than he ever envisaged. “Work has been great, giving me time to deal with all these commitments,” he said. “But I’m still focused on my day job.” The word grounded springs to mind when talking with Sillies.

Driver v DriverAs for the Driver vs. Driver show itself, Sillies said it was surprisingly authentic and pretty true to what appeared on people’s screens. A few of his early ideas got dropped, but Sillies is used to the iterative process involved in product design and understood that there are a lot of restrictions in play because of USGA rules.

Sillies had some concepts on a modified grip and his initial weighting idea was based on a sliding rail. He also had some ideas on innovative weighting fins to improve aerodynamics. They were built into an early prototype, but analysis by Wilson Labs showed that they had no impact on aerodynamics so again the idea was canned. And his original name for the driver, “Manta,” was switched to Triton along the way. He said both he and Wilson were very happy with the final product, which is arguably the most adjustable driver in the industry.

During the 12-month process of filming and airing the TV show, Sillies said he felt very much felt a part of the Wilson Golf team. He got to meet and work closely with a bunch of people from Wilson, including Wilson Golf’s General Manager Tim Clarke. Clarke called him first thing in the morning before the news broke about the non-conformity issue.

He also met PGA Tour player Kevin Streelman, who endorses and uses Wilson Golf equipment. “It was only when the cameras were off and I spent some time one on one with him that I found out how genuine [Streelman] was,” Eric said. “He gave me a bunch of advice and very useful feedback on my designs.”

Sillies also praised Michael Vrska, Wilson’s Global Director of Golf R&D, as a great guy and crucial to his success. “Mike and his team got the club through from the design prototyping stage to the finished product, with the rendering, design graphics, production, sales and marketing, Sillies said. “He is hugely knowledgeable and very experienced at what works and what doesn’t work.”

Sillies on Fairways of Life with Matt Adams.

Sillies on Fairways of Life with Matt Adams.

Talking about Vrska led Sillies to admit how much of a huge learning curve there was in the process, and how much stress there was in the relatively short time frame from concept to launch. Sillies said Vrska allowed him to be central in the process all the way through. “This is your club, you need to decide,” Vrska reminded him.

Sillies nearly didn’t enter the competition at all, but for a work colleague suggesting it to him. Not being much of a golfer, he relied on his product design skills honed at LPK. He had some golf pedigree, working as an intern at Dick’s Sporting Goods and designing the aesthetic direction for its 2012 Nickent golf club line. But in terms of a brand new club concept it was new ground, so he resorted to his mantra of making things better by making better things.

In the few weeks before the entry deadline approached, Sillies spent time during his lunch breaks and at night researching golf instruction videos. He had three main ideas. One was to put a white spot on the top of the club that was the width of the ball to show golfers where they should make contact.

“It’s so hard to hit a golf ball anyway that setting up well is a big part of it,” Sillies said. “I thought, why isn’t there a club that’s solving for that? So I decided to make one.”

He also added a removable piece that attached at the bottom of the club, which could adjust the weight of the club at several different points to fit a golfer’s swing. Both ideas ultimately made it to the final product.

Finally, he wanted the most aerodynamic club he could find. He said he was inspired to come up with an aerodynamic design by animals, specifically a manta ray. His driver wound up being the most aerodynamic of any on the show.

Wilson_Triton_address

Surprising, Sillies doesn’t yet have a final version of a Triton driver to call his own, but he was recently fitted and is expecting one soon. He called being fit for a driver he designed “a surreal experience.” Did he enjoy being on camera and being the center of attention?

“To my surprise, I found I loved it.” he said. “Everyone was so nice, so helpful and supportive. It couldn’t have been a better experience for me. I would encourage anyone to go through the same experience.”

So what did he think was the coolest thing in the whole process?

“To me it is being able to now go into a golf store with friends and see my driver on the shelves and knowing that people across the country are going to be playing it and thinking, ‘I did that!'” he said.

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Mark Donaghy is a writer and author from Northern Ireland, living in the picturesque seaside town of Portstewart. He is married to Christine and they have three boys. Mark is a "golf nut," and is lucky to be a member of a classic links, Portstewart Golf Club. At college he played for the Irish Universities golf team, and today he still deludes himself that he can play to that standard. He recently released Caddy Attitudes: 'Looping' for the Rich and Famous in New York. It recounts the life experiences of two young Irish lads working as caddies at the prestigious Shinnecock Hills course in the Hamptons. Mark has a unique writing style, with humorous observations of golfers and their caddies, navigating both the golf course and their respective attitudes. Toss in the personal experiences of a virtually broke couple of young men trying to make a few bucks and their adventures in a culture and society somewhat unknown to them... and you have Caddy Attitudes. From scintillating sex in a sand trap to the comparison of societal status with caddy shack status, the book will grab the attention of anyone who plays the game. Caddy Attitudes is available on Amazon/Kindle and to date it has had excellent reviews.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Joey

    Mar 1, 2017 at 11:10 am

    That would be so sweet to make tour own club.

  2. Chris C.

    Jan 24, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    The local GG now has the conforming Tritons. With one 6 gram and two 2 gram weights, the swingweight was C-6. If you go with a two 6 gram and one 2 gram configuration, you can get the club up to C-8. Does anyone recall a major OEM release with a lighter swingweight? Anything close? It is a shame that this club has been ruined.

  3. chip

    Jan 23, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Hey Mark, if you ever decide to write another article, use Spell Check and Grammar Check. That was a disaster.

  4. Ccshop

    Jan 21, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Happy someone could fulfill there’s dreams and get a product on such a competitive market. That being said, hitting the driver in person, ugly look and ugly numbers. Don’t know how successful this driver will be at the price point

  5. Chris C.

    Jan 21, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Unfortunately, Wilson’s decision to eliminate the 12 gram weights makes use of the carbon sole plate impractical. That is, unless you like swing weights lower than D-0.

  6. Dat

    Jan 21, 2017 at 2:01 am

    Good for him! Shame the USGA caused this product to be a slight downer on launch, but otherwise a decent 1st attempt at crowd-sourcing design.

  7. Fah Q

    Jan 20, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    USGA deemed it non-conforming. Therefore Wilson had to remove them from store shelves and change the design. Does he feel like he should give his money back and give it to the other guy who lost who would have won legitimately?

  8. Jim

    Jan 20, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    The show was a little contrived but overall pretty fun to see how the design process works with golf clubs. I hope the club does well but Wilson really needs to step up their marketing and endorsements if they expect any big sales. I’m a little surprised that Wilson didn’t offer Sillies a job though, especially as he is already in product design. At least he got the money for the rights to his club design.

  9. Matt

    Jan 20, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Most aerodynamic driver on the show? I know you have to put stuff like that in this article to make Wilson Golf happy, but you’re ruining your credibility. Re-watch the show and you’ll clearly see it wasn’t even close to the most aerodynamic. Did you know it also didn’t meet USGA regulations as well?

  10. Weston Maughan

    Jan 20, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    Eric is a genuine guy! I enjoyed competing against him on the show. Glad to see Streelman play the Triton on the PGATour this week too!

  11. Tom Duckworth

    Jan 20, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    I’m really looking forward to how it tests out with the golfing press. I can’t think of a driver that you could do more with to change it around to fit you and change the sound as well. Not too many drivers you can get right inside of. I just hope it gets a fair test. I thought the show was a bit underwhelming but maybe a good driver in the end.

  12. Kevin

    Jan 20, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    Hi Mark, just curious if you were able to watch the show. There was a large portion of an episode on aerodynamics, and the Triton was not the most aerodynamic by quite a bit. Just want to make sure consumers are getting the right information. Thanks!

  13. Jeremy

    Jan 20, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    So how much of the final product was Eric’s and how much was Wilson’s?

  14. TexasSnowman

    Jan 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    great personal story, but I don’t think it will sell.

  15. S Hitter

    Jan 20, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    How does he feel about the design being judged to be non-conforming by the USGA, after all the trouble that the show’s producers went into hammering that point home to all the designers during the production phases in the show?

  16. Rat

    Jan 20, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Great interview, I think he still may have ideas that could work with the Wilson Team guiding him.
    I enjoyed the show and I am in process selecting may driver combination from Wilson’s Triton. So many shafts to choose from is great and most at no up charge. AWESOME…
    How about a fairway wood design for the future?

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Opinion & Analysis

An early look at the potential U.S. Ryder Cup Team

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With the Masters and the Players Championship complete, I wanted to examine the statistics of the current leaders in Ryder Cup Points for the U.S. Team. Over the history of the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Team has relied on pairings that were friends and practice-round companions instead of pairing players that were more compatible from a statistical standpoint. This has led to disappointing performances from the U.S. Team and top players such as Jim Furyk performing poorly at the Ryder Cup, as he is ill-suited for the Fourball format.

After a disastrous 2014 Ryder Cup where the U.S. Team lost by a score of 16.5-11.5, the U.S. decided to use a more statistical approach to Ryder Cup play. According to my calculations, the 2016 U.S. Team’s pairings were the closest to optimal that the U.S. Team has compiled in the last seven Ryder Cups. And not surprisingly, the U.S. Team won 17-11 over the Europeans.

Since there are several months to go before the Ryder Cup, I won’t get too much into potential pairings in this article. Instead, I will focus more on the current games of top-12 players in U.S. Ryder Cup Points Standings and how that translates to Ryder Cup performance.

About the Ryder Cup Format

In the Ryder Cup, there is the Foursome format (alternate shot) and the Fourball format (best score). There are distinctly different metrics in the game that correlate to quality performers in each format.

In the Foursome format, short game around the green performance is usually critical. In a typical stroke play event such as The Players Championship, short game around the green performance usually has a much smaller impact on player’s performance. But in a match play, alternate-shot format the opposite has been true. My conclusion is that with the alternate-shot format, more greens in regulation are likely to be missed. The team that can save par and extend holes is usually likely to come out on top. The European team has mostly dominated the U.S. team over the past 20 years in the Foursome format, and the European teams typically are stronger with their short game around the green.

Other factors involved with Foursome play are Red Zone Performance (shots from 175-225 yards) and being able to pair the right players together based on how they each play off the tee and with their approach shots from the rough. For example, a pairing of Phil Mickelson (who misses a lot of fairways) and Zach Johnson (who is not very good from the rough) would likely be a poor pairing.

In the Fourball format (lowest score), the best performers are high birdie makers and players that perform well on the par-4s, par-5s, and par-3s. Bubba Watson makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, thus making him a good candidate for the Fourball format. The only issue with Bubba in the past is he has occasionally struggled on the par-3s. That can be resolved by pairing him with a player who makes a lot of birdies and is a strong performer on the par-3s. The reason for Jim Furyk’s struggles in the Fourball format is that he does not make a lot of birdies and is a merely average performer on the par-5s.

Note: All rankings below are based out of 209 golfers.

1. Patrick Reed

In the past, it has been difficult to get an accurate depiction of Reed’s game. He was notorious for either getting into contention or blowing up if he wasn’t in contention after the first round. He is now far better at avoiding those blowup rounds and remaining competitive regardless of how he well he performs at the beginning of the tournament. His iron play has been excellent, and since he is good on approach shots from the rough, short game around the green and he makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, he should continue to be a great competitor in the Ryder Cup format. Given his inability to find the fairway off the tee, however, I would recommend pairing him with a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

2. Justin Thomas

On paper, Thomas should be Team USA’s toughest competitor as he has little in the way of holes in his game. He drives it great, hits his irons well from every distance, has a superb short game and can putt. He also makes a ton of birdies, plays every type of hole well and rarely makes bogeys. Like Reed, it would be advisable to pair him with a player that is a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

3. Dustin Johnson

DJ is the second-strongest performer on paper. The only thing that currently separates Justin Thomas from DJ is their Red Zone play. DJ has typically been a world-class performer from the Red Zone, however, and the data suggests that his ranking from the Red Zone should rapidly improve. He struck it well from the Red Zone in his last two events at Harbour Town Golf Links and TPC Sawgrass. And with his putting performance this season, he could make for a great competitor in this year’s Ryder Cup.

4. Jordan Spieth

Spieth has the metrics to be a strong Ryder Cup performer, as he strikes the ball well with his driver and his irons while having a superb short game around the green. His only weakness in the Fourball format is his performance on the par-3s, but that is due to his inability to make putts from 15-25 feet (198th). That is the crux of the situation for Spieth; can he get his old putting form back?

A look at previous great putters on Tour that inexplicably struggled with their putter shows that Spieth is going about his putting woes the correct way. He’s not making equipment or wholesale changes to his putting stroke. He is continuing to work with what made him a great putter just like Jason Day did last year when he inexplicably struggled with the putter early in the season… and then turned it around and regained his old putting form.

The question is, how long will it take for Spieth to regain his old form? Typically, players like Spieth that have a dramatic drop-off in their putting take about a year to regain their old form. He may not regain that form by the time the Ryder Cup takes place. If he does, Team USA is very strong with its top-4 points earners.

5. Bubba Watson

Bubba is off to a strong enough year to make the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, but the best bet for him is to stick to the Fourball format given his struggles around the green. Watson’s performance on the par-5s has not exactly been remarkable, but typically he’s one of the very best in the world on par-5s and can make a ton of birdies.

6. Rickie Fowler

Fowler has not been as strong in some areas of the game such as Red Zone, shots from the rough and putting as he has been in recent years. That makes him a little less appealing in the alternate shot format, but he still has a solid foundation to be a quality contributor in either format. The upside is if Rickie gets back to his old form with the putter and from the Red Zone, he should be a top-notch Ryder Cup performer because he is well suited to perform in either team format. At this time, he would be best suited to play with an accurate driver and very good performer around the green (i.e. Matt Kuchar) in the alternate shot format.

7. Brooks Koepka

There currently is not enough data on Koepka due to his wrist injury he suffered early in the season. Koepka is arguably the best bomber in the world who is also a great putter and a solid performer from the Red Zone. The main issue for Koepka has been his short game performance around the green. That would typically make for a weak partner in the alternate shot format, but Koepka was spectacular in the 2016 Ryder Cup. His combination of length and putting may make him a formidable Ryder Cup performer for years to come.

8. Phil Mickelson

As a statistical analyst for golf, I never quite know what I’m going to get from Lefty. This season Lefty has putted superbly, but his performance around the green has left a lot to be desired.

In recent Ryder Cups, he has been a quality performer in both the Foursome and Fourball formats. His recent success in the alternate shot format makes him a mandatory candidate, however, his inability to find the fairway means he would need a partner who is very good from the rough. The data suggests that his performance around the green should get closer to his old form as the season goes along.

9. Webb Simpson

Like Mickelson, it’s always a surprise as to what the strengths and weaknesses of Simpson’s game will be by the end of the season. Typically, he’s been a decent driver of the ball that is often a superb iron player and short game performer. With the anchoring ban, he has struggled with the putter up to this season. Lately, he has been an incredible putter that is struggling a bit with the irons.

Most of Simpson’s struggles with the irons have been from the rough, so a partner who finds a lot of fairways off the tee could be an excellent pairing in the foursome format with Simpson.

10. Matt Kuchar

Kuchar could be a very critical player for Team USA down the stretch. There are potential players on the team that could be valuable in the alternate shot format if they can find a teammate to find fairways off the tee to make up for their struggles on approach shots from the rough. Historically, Kuchar has been the most accurate off the tee of the players mentioned thus far.

This season, however, Kuchar has been underwhelming in his ability to find the fairway. The next most-accurate drivers of the ball that are near the top-12 in Ryder Cup points are Brian Harman, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Kisner and Andrew Landry, and none of them have nearly the experience in the Ryder Cup as Kuchar has. If Kuchar continues to miss fairways, his chances of making the team are not good unless he’s a Captain’s pick. If he cannot find the fairway, he has little-projected value as a member of the team. He is not making a lot of birdies, and his struggles on the par-3s and does not make him a favorable teammate in the Fourball format either.

11. Brian Harman

Harman’s value is that he has fairly decent Fourball metrics and his accuracy off the tee, putting, and iron play can work well with players like Fowler, Simpson, and Kuchar in the alternate shot format.

Harman has not performed that well from around the green using the Strokes Gained methodology, however; he ranks 15th on shots from 10-20 yards. I placed that metric in there as strokes gained takes into account all shots from less than 30 yards, but 10-20 yards is the most common distance range from which scrambling opportunities occur on Tour. Thus, Harman is an excellent performer from 10-20 yards and is only losing strokes around the green due to poor performance from 20-30 yards, and those shots occur less frequently on Tour. His struggles from 20-30 yards would also explain why his par-5 performance is roughly average, as that is the distance players typically finish from the hole when they go for par-5s in two and do not make the green.

And even though Harman is not very long off the tee (147th in Measured Driving Distance), he is a quality performer from the rough and thus he does not have to be tethered to another short-hitting, accurate driver in the alternate shot format.

12. Bryson DeChambeau

Dechambeau makes for a solid Ryder Cup candidate, as he has no outstanding weaknesses in his game this season as he appears to have rid himself of the putting woes that have hurt him in the past. I think he is better suited for the Fourball format, however, given how many birdies he makes. Pair him with a strong performer on the par-3s like Rickie Fowler or Phil Mickelson and it would make a very formidable duo in that format.

A pairing with Mickelson in the Fourball format would be intriguing given DeChambeau’s excellent driving. DeChambeau could hit first and — if he continues to drive it superbly — that would free up Mickelson to not worry so much about his woeful driving and focus more on making birdies. Perhaps a Fourball pairing with Bubba would make for a situation where DeChambeau could tee off first and pipe his drive, and then give Bubba a free rip to hit it as far as he possibly can and give them a sizeable advantage over their opponents.

31. Tiger Woods

I know I said I was only going to look at the top-12 players in Ryder Cup points, but the readers would inevitably ask about Tiger anyway. Furthermore, Tiger is an intriguing candidate for the team given his current game.

Tiger has struggled in both the Foursome and Fourball format. He seems to not play that great in alternate shot. In Fourball, it appears that he plays well by himself, but he is often let down by his teammates. The Europeans have always gunned for Tiger in the Ryder Cup, and it takes a special type of teammate to deal with the hysteria of having Tiger as their partner.

There are the makings of a very good alternate shot partner with Tiger, as his iron play and putting are still really good and his short game has been incredible this season. In the Fourball format, it would be advisable to find a strong par-5 performer, as Tiger’s performance on the par-5s has not been outstanding thus far. Having said that, I could see three excellent partners for Tiger in either format.

Patrick Reed has the numbers to be compatible with Tiger’s game, and he also has the track record of living up to the moment in the Ryder Cup. Dustin Johnson is can make up for Tiger’s possible big misses off the tee and can overpower a course with Tiger. And Phil Mickelson, whose game is compatible with Tiger’s, and could provide a symbol of the old guard working together to beat the Europeans.

There are certainly a lot of compelling possible pairings for Team USA, and there is still a long way to go before we start to see what pairings are available. The European Team looks like one of the strongest in years, and with all of the potential storylines for the 2018 Ryder Cup, it could be one of the greatest Ryder Cups of all time.

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