The Zurich Classic of New Orleans is one of the most laid-back PGA Tour events of the season, but as I watched Jerry Kelly hit drivers on the range I could tell things were already getting serious. And it was only Monday.
Next to me on the range was Pat McCoy, who was fitting Kelly for a new TaylorMade driver. Kelly’s “gamer” driver was a 2016 TaylorMade M2, an 8.5-degree version that was only made available to PGA Tour players. For weeks, Kelly had been anticipating the release of the 2017 M2 driver. He wanted to see if it could help him add a few yards to his drives, and earlier in the day the first batch of 8.5-degree 2017 M2 drivers were made available for PGA Tour players to test. Along with the new driver head, Kelly also wanted to test one of the hottest new driver shafts on the PGA Tour. For that he reached out to McCoy, the Director of Tour Operations for Fujikura.
McCoy estimated he had fit Kelly for new golf equipment roughly 35 times in his 17 years with Fujikura. “It’s not hard to know when I’ve failed and when I’ve been successful,” he said. Standing next to McCoy, however, it felt as if the success of this particular fitting was out of his control. McCoy wasn’t fazed, though.
The fitting started with Kelly comparing his gamer to the new driver. The new driver was built to exactly match Kelly’s gamer on TaylorMade’s Tour Truck, a mobile golf club fitting facility that travels with the PGA Tour each week. Both driver heads were digitally measured and had lofts of exactly 8.5 degrees. Their lengths were precisely 45.75 inches and they had matching lie angles of 61 degrees. They also had the same D2 swing weight, a measurement of the balance point of a driver. Aside from the updated design of the club head, the only difference was the shafts. Kelly’s gamer had an Aldila NV 2KXV Blue 60TX. The new driver had Fujikura’s new Atmos Tour Spec Black 6X.
McCoy called Kelly, who turned 50 in November, “old school” in the way he tests his equipment. He began his test by hitting about 10 shots with each driver, switching back and forth every few shots. Even without a launch monitor, Kelly could tell that the new driver head and shaft were creating a lower-launching, lower-spinning trajectory than his gamer. He liked what what he saw, but he wanted to see the data on a launch monitor.
A $35,000 golf ball-tracking device called Trackman was brought to Kelly’s spot on the range. It uses Doppler radar to tell golfers exactly what their ball golf ball is doing from the time it leaves the clubface to the time it hits the ground. In doing so, it offers dozens of readings, but the one McCoy was focused on was “land angle,” or the angle at which the ball hits the ground. With Kelly’s gamer, his drives were hitting the ground at about 40 degrees, which is too steep by PGA Tour standards. With the new driver head and the Atmos Tour Spec Black shaft, Kelly’s land angle was reduced to 34 degrees, which was giving him more roll. It seemed liked a slam-dunk, but Kelly still wasn’t sold. He was concerned with his “ball speed,” the measure of how fast a golf ball leaves a driver head. It was 1-2 mph lower with the new driver head and the new driver shaft. That was costing him carry distance, but McCoy had a fix.
“What I try not to do is fit my swing into the club. “I fit the club into my swing.” — Jerry Kelly
Along with the Atmos Tour Spec Black, McCoy also had an Atmos Tour Spec Blue shaft prepared for Kelly to test. It was built to Kelly’s specifications should such a situation arise. The Atmos Tour Spec Blue is almost identical to the Atmos Tour Spec Black with one important difference: the mid and tip sections of the shaft are more flexible, which creates a mid-launching, mid-spinning trajectory. The theory was that the more flexible design of the Atmos Tour Spec Blue would create more “kick” to help Kelly improve his ball speed. That turned out to be true, but it was now a game of whack-a-mole. Like Kelly’s gamer shaft, the Atmos Tour Spec Blue increased Kelly’s land angle. Looking a little frustrated, Kelly started rotating between the three shafts — Atmos Tour Spec Black, Atmos Tour Spec Blue and his Aldila — as well as the old and new driver heads.
“This is where you just let them go,” McCoy told me.
TaylorMade drivers have 12 different hosel settings, which adjust the loft, lie and face angle of a driver in combination. Kelly was hitting all three shafts in just about every one of the combinations. In the midst of the rapid fire, McCoy turned the fitting over to Marshall Thompson, a fellow PGA Tour Shaft Rep for Fujikura. McCoy walked to the far end of the range to talk to Daniel Summerhays, who uses Fujikura shafts in his metal woods.
Every week, McCoy receives an email from PGA Tour Statistician Rich Hunt. It includes a spreadsheet with launch monitor data of all the players on the PGA Tour. The data is pulled from ShotLink and plots weekly launch monitor stats, as well as averages for the season. McCoy keeps a close eye on every PGA Tour player’s data, making him a walking encyclopedia of which golfers are driving it well on the PGA Tour and which golfers aren’t. Reviewing the data each week, McCoy noticed that Summerhays’ launch conditions were creeping toward the high side of optimal due to changes Summerhays was making in his swing. There were a few ways to approach the problem, but the easiest was for Summerhays to reduce the loft of his driver by 0.5 degrees, which lowered both his launch angle and his spin rate. After chatting with Summerhays about it, McCoy was confident that he would go that direction.
McCoy’s start in the golf industry came as an instructor. At age 20, he became an Assistant PGA Professional at PGA West in La Quinta, California, making him the youngest teacher at the time to hold the position at the famed course. He said he was quickly frustrated teaching golf because his students rarely practiced in between their lessons. That made it almost impossible for him to improve their games. He found that in most cases he could help his students improve more quickly and more permanently by changing their equipment, which made it possible for them to have more fun playing golf. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?” he said. Ultimately, that’s what led him to the golf equipment world.
McCoy’s distinction as a PGA Professional is well known on the PGA Tour, and one of the reasons he’s so popular with Tour players. Another reason is his approach, which focuses on building long-term relationships with players that aren’t tied to their interest in Fujikura shafts. PGA Tour player William McGirt has used Fujikura shafts in his metal woods for years, and he said the main reason why is his trust in McCoy. “He’s not going to put something in my hands if it’s not going to work,” McGirt said. “It’s going to be perfect. And if it’s not perfect, it’s going to be damn near close.”
Unlike the major golf equipment manufacturers on the PGA Tour, shaft makers like Fujikura don’t pay golfers to use their products. For that reason, McCoy takes a different approach to get his products in the hands of the world’s best. He maintains relationships with all the major equipment manufacturers, making sure they’re stocked with the Fujikura shafts they need. And he’s always sure to keep them fully informed of the work he’s doing with the PGA Tour players they pay to use their clubs. Not doing so could not only compromise his relationship with an equipment manufacturer, but it could also create a scenario where a PGA Tour player is getting conflicting information about what’s best for him. According to McGirt, that can wreak havoc on a Tour player’s game.
On the PGA Tour, a big-name player’s usage of a golf club or shaft can result in millions of dollars in sales for a golf equipment manufacturer. It can be the difference between a company like TaylorMade putting a Fujikura shaft in its latest driver release or choosing the shaft of one of its competitors. While Fujikura has maintained a healthy amount of business with both major golf equipment manufacturers and after-market custom club fitters for more than a decade, some shaft companies are less stable. McGirt described a situation he said he’s observed frequently on the PGA Tour, where in an effort to get a new shaft in play, a shaft rep pushed a player into a product that wasn’t right for his game.
“You can work yourself into some bad habits trying to make [a shaft] work,” McGirt said. “Honestly, I could probably get [a shaft] that performed a little better than what I’m using now, but then I’d have to get used to it. Coming down under the gun, knowing what a [shaft] is going to do is the biggest then for me.”
Wade Liles, a PGA Tour Truck Technician for TaylorMade, echoed McGirts sentiments. “We want our players to play better, not just switch to get a new shaft in play.” In Liles’ 17 years on the PGA Tour, he said he’s seen an incredible shift in the clubs and shafts PGA Tour players use. Most of the shafts made 17 years ago would be “worthless” on the PGA Tour due to advances in technology, he said. “Shaft manufacturers aren’t going to come out with the same shaft year after year,” he said. “It’s going to be a new shaft and it’s going to be a better shaft.”
McCoy estimated that it takes at least 50 different driver shaft models to optimize the performance of the roughly 300 golfers who play on the PGA Tour each season. For that reason, PGA Tour equipment trucks are stocked with dozens of shafts from multiple shaft manufacturers. They all vary slightly in materials and constructions, as well as in weights, flex and kick point. Kevin Napier, a Senior Tour Technician for Callaway, said that in some cases getting a player to change to a new shaft has nothing to do with performance at all. It can come down to a shaft manufacturer’s willingness to make a shaft in a custom paint color.
“[PGA Tour Players] remember the people who are honest with them. And when they’re struggling, they usually come back to me to see if I can help.” — Pat McCoy
In an effort to meet the needs of PGA Tour players and amateur golfers across the globe, Fujikura had released an abundance of shaft models in recent years. There was consistent feedback from PGA Tour players, golf equipment manufacturers and custom-club fitters, however, that having so many models was complicating the fitting process. Fujikura stopped getting that feedback this year, and there has also been a significant uptick in the amount of Fujikura shafts used on the PGA Tour. At the Zurich Classic, for example, Fujikura led all shaft manufacturers with 41 driver shafts in play (25.6 percent), and McCoy attributes the growth directly to Atmos Tour Spec.
Atmos Tour Spec is divided into three models (Black, Blue and Red). Each of them are available in a wide range of weights and flexes. The Atmos Tour Spec Black offers the lowest trajectory, the Atmos Tour Spec Red offers the highest trajectory, and the Atmos Tour Spec Blue fills the middle ground. All three are inspired by successful shaft designs that Fujikura has been perfecting for the better part of two decades, which McCoy said is the real reason for their success. Like other leading shaft makers, Fujikura is using the latest technologies and materials to create Atmos Tour Spec shafts, but “it’s not really about the materials,” he said. “It’s about learning what works and what doesn’t, and then why,” he said. “We’ve always made high-quality product, but it’s learning from it.”
McCoy said that unlike in years past, he’s able to explain the benefits of the Atmos shafts to PGA Tour players with ease. He doesn’t have to tell them about the new carbon fiber materials that the shafts use. He doesn’t have to explain the years of study that went into improving the way the shafts load and unload for different swings. Tour players immediately understand the black-blue-red story. Just as importantly, they trust that McCoy wouldn’t ask them to test a product that he didn’t think could help their game.
McCoy said he’s been approached by dozens of PGA Tour players who have never used a Fujikura shaft before, but now want to try one. In many cases, Atmos gave them better results. In other cases, McCoy would find that a PGA Tour player’s current shaft was perfect for them. He said he never hesitates to tell them so. “They remember the people who are honest with them,” McCoy said. “And when they’re struggling, they usually come back to me to see if I can help.”
There were 15 PGA Tour players hitting golf balls on the range at the Zurich Classic on Monday afternoon. Five of them were hitting drivers, and all five of them were swinging Fujikura shafts. One was Jerry Kelly, who was wrapping up his test of the Atmos Tour Spec Black and Atmos Tour Spec Blue for the day. Fujikura rep Marshall Thompson had showed him that he could get better results from the 2017 TaylorMade M2 driver head and the Atmos Tour Spec Blue shaft if he was willing to lower the loft to 7.5 degrees. Doing that, he got both the ball speed and the trajectory he wanted, but Kelly said would need to do some more testing at home. By this time, McCoy had returned to the fitting. “What I try not to do is fit my swing into the club,” Kelly told Thompson. “I fit the club into my swing.”
“Did you hear that,” McCoy said to me. “That’s the truth there.”