Op-ed: The focus on equipment has hurt golf
The marketing machine that the golf industry has become, churning out new drivers, irons sets and putters seemingly over night, has hurt the game more than it has helped it. Too many golfers pay far too much attention to what they are hitting, rather than how they are hitting what they are hitting. The focus on equipment has steered the game in the wrong direction.
New clubs bring us that excited schoolboy, Red Rider BB gun effect, but by now we all know a great golf game can’t be delivered to us in a box. We’ve all heard the saying, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”
What about fool me 127 times?
The equipment manufacturers are not stewards of the game. They are not necessarily trying to build a better golfing public any more than a clothing company is trying to make the public better dressed. They are businesses that need our dollars to be profitable. While many golf courses seem to be struggling, golf equipment companies are rolling right along, economy be-damned. “These guys are good,” is one way to say it.
The manufacturers are not offering new clubs to the market every year with the idea of improving golfers, they are simply releasing new and fresh product to the market, looking for their piece of the pie. The painful truth is that most golfers have swings that no moveable weights, supersonic shafts, or dynamic paint scheme could possibly help.
Since 90 percent of golfers don’t break 90 on a consistent basis and the average USGA handicap in the United States for men is 14.3, how badly do we golfers really need to spend that $400 on a driver, instead of on a package of lessons from a local PGA professional?
Equipment is important to the game, but equipment is not the game. The game is about impact positions, consistent contact on the clubface and how well a player can control his ball as he hits it around those 18 holes. Even a golfer who has his “ideal” equipment still needs to make good swings and hit good shots.
Finding that ideal equipment is easier said than done. The science behind Trackman, FlightScope and other launch monitors cannot be argued. The accuracy of the information of this technology is incredible. PGA Tour players and top amateurs and professionals can use these devices to dial in proper shafts, club heads, club weights, lies and lengths with amazing results. But how are the rest of us supposed to use them?
My experiences with launch monitors when I was trying to “fit” for new equipment was that they showed me when I was making bad swings. I got two completely different sets of results from Flight Scope with the same clubs on different days. One day I was swinging about the best I could swing and had really low backspin numbers combined with an almost perfect smash factor. A week later my swing resembled a one-winged flamingo’s and my backspin, launch, carry and smash factor numbers were on the opposite end of the spectrum. There was no chance for me to “dial in” any shafts or head choices. I was too busy trying to make good swings to be able to tell which equipment might be best for me.
Golfers are often expected to pay upward of $250 for fitting sessions. That $250 fee puts pressure on us to get the most we can out of the fitting. If I had based an overhaul of my equipment on either one of those days with the launch monitor, I could very well have ended up with an expensive purchase that might not have improved me at all. In fact that was exactly what the pro told me. He said it is often difficult to “fit” people into new equipment and be able to assure them that the new equipment will make them better (outdated or poorly fitted equipment aside). Sometimes all of the new equipment hype is very hard to live up to.
My experiences at demo days at my club were equally as frustrating. TaylorMade came late to the event, with two clubs to hit and only the stock shafts in regular or stiff flex to try out. The grips were almost too slick to swing the clubs and the rep brought a range finder to follow the ball in the air and “tell” us how far we were hitting it. The Titleist rep had a launch monitor that told me I was carrying the driver he gave me to try out 295-yards in the air. Maybe it meant to say 245-yards. These are just two of the examples, and I am sure that the cattle call of people coming and going to these things is tough for any company to deal with, but the process left me feeling a little unwashed.
Conventional wisdom told me to take my club testing to the golf courses to try out drivers during actual rounds of golf. Over a two-week period I used several different Titleist 910D2 and D3 driver head and shaft combinations in about 10 rounds of golf. What I learned was that when I made good swings with almost any of the combinations, it was always better than poor swings with any of the combinations. The results were the same when I tried out drivers from PING and Callaway as well. With my driver swing speed, well-hit shots with just about every club went about the same distance and with the same accuracy.
I eventually settled on a purchase of new irons and woods that Frontier Airlines lost for me on my way home from a family vacation. While I square-danced with Frontier for a few weeks on the phone, a friend of mine offered to let me use his old clubs. They were about a 15-year-old set of huge-headed PING irons, the wrong length, lie, and flex for me, and an eight-year-old Callaway driver, also the wrong flex. I had some old wedges, a trusty old hybrid, his ill-fit 15-year-old Callaway three-wood and a back up putter that had been banished to hell. I figured it was better than nothing. I proceeded to have the three best weeks of golf I had ever put together in my life. Using that crazy combination of clubs, my handicap improved a shot and a half and I shot my career best round on one of the courses I play the most. A person more cerebral than I am might have felt downright silly for all of the money I had shelled out for the new clubs a month a before.
Lost in the fun and madness of trying out new equipment was the fact that good swings, solid course management, and knowing how to execute the short game are more important than the clubs I had in my bag. I grew up in a small Kansas town, on a nine-hole golf course with no driving range. The only practicing I could really do was chipping and putting around our course’s little practice green. I used to do that for hours at a time when I wasn’t good enough yet to play on the course with my grandfather’s nassau groups. Maybe that’s why I have so much fun trying out new equipment on driving ranges now; I never got to do it as a kid. I’m sure there is a lesson for me to remember about that now, but it is eluding me.
When I see the OEMs make videos for GolfWRX describing how they improved one set of irons over their previous year’s model, I can’t help but wonder who out there it is that can really tell the difference in the performance of the heads when they hit clubs with such subtle changes. They are all the highest quality clubs, and I’m guessing Luke Donald really feels a difference between the Mizuno MP-62 compared to the new MP-64. Nick Watney can discern the difference in one model of Titleist AP2 irons over the other and there may be some nice aesthetic and functional differences between the PING S58, S57 and S56 irons. But how many guys can tell the difference and have it really matter?
That player out there who says one is way better than the other might just be looking for a way to justify that Red Rider high once again. Maybe the turf interaction or the flighting built into the head is better in one club for some guys, but if they already owned the previous sets is there really a $900 difference in the new one? The club ho in me will say that I might buy one of the sets anyway, but that’s just because a ho is going to do what a ho is going to do.
The biggest problem with the focus being shifted to equipment rather than getting lessons and honing skills is that people recently new to the game won’t have the background in golf from 30-years ago as a child that prevents the bad “arrows” we sometimes find from keeping the “Indian” from being effective. Golfers are being convinced that their bad tee shots were hit because the club head weights and face angles had been set poorly or that the shaft in their new $399 driver wasn’t good enough. They are led to believe that equipment can be bought that will “fix” their swing flaws. I asked my local pro, a PGA Tour veteran with many made cuts to his credit about a certain shaft I was interested in trying out. He looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. He told me he had no idea what that shaft was, or what shaft was in his new TaylorMade driver he was killing. He had seen me in action many times, and he was polite enough not to come right out and tell me I wasn’t good enough to need anything more than what I had.
We can all choose to spend our free golf time and our golf dollars however we choose to. It doesn’t have to make sense, especially if it makes us happy. I’ll probably buy and sell two or three different putters over the next year or so too. One of my grandfather’s old buddies that helped teach me the game back in the day told me it didn’t matter if you putted with an old sheep herders stick if you are making putts with it. Playing with Bo Peep’s stick would be a lot cheaper, but it would not be as much fun as trying out new putters. The club ho in all of us knows that. That’s why the ho wins out and buys new equipment rather than sticking with what we have for awhile and spending that money on lessons.
It’s fun to hope that the next set of irons, newest driver or precisely milled putter could be be the spark we need to produce our best rounds and Nassau-winning putts. But we just can’t kid ourselves that we wouldn’t have been able to do it with what we had in the bag three, five and maybe even eight-years ago.
Kevin Crook is a contributor for GolfWRX.com. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the GolfWRX.