Bigger, faster, stronger….longer. That might as well be our adopted cultural motto. This doesn’t just apply to sports, mind you. People have always been very quick to pull out the measuring tape to compete with others in most ways, shapes and forms.
The measure of a person always seems to be measurable, doesn’t it? Or at the very least, more about the catchy sizzle then the substantive steak. This isn’t even a very recent phenomena. Our desire to reduce ourselves to this dates back to our origins. Not that we need to go back that far, but one certainly doesn’t need to think hard to come up with a few examples.
Baseball fans might remember Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux telling us that “chicks dig the long ball” in a famous 1990s commercial that spoofed on the popularity of the home-run-hitting Mark McGuire, as oppose to their brand of crafty pitching. How about the Cadillac CTS-V commercials in 2010 detailing the exact times its car was able to circle the famous Nurburgring circuit in Germany in order to call it the world’s fastest production sedan? To this day, I wonder how many CTS-V owners drive their car in such a manner, or if it would have mattered if their car had come up a few seconds short of a BMW M5 in the commercial. Would they still have bought it?
Want to go back further? How about the railroad and mining tycoons of the Guilded Age, trying to outdo each other by building the world’s biggest houses. Or before that, European and American naturalists and archeologists arguing over which side of the pond was more manly by comparing how big the respective fossils they found were (yes this actually happened, and actually involved Thomas Jefferson). Golfers want to hit the ball further then their friends. They just do. Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) know this, and for the past few years, they have been selling clubs to us has been like shooting fish in a barrel.
But the questions we want to ask, or should be asking ourselves is: Why do we believe we are going to hit the ball longer? And are distances really increasing to back up OEMs claims and promises?
First, why do we believe the claims? Well, we believe because we want to believe, and because what we see on TV can be a bit confusing. With a drive, the average golfer hits the ball roughly a bit longer than the length of two football fields. If we are to focus more closely on males between the ages of 18 to 49, which for many markets is the target consumer, I’m going to guess that would go up a little bit. I don’t have exact facts to back this up but I’d certainly think 220 yards is reasonable to guess.
If you were to ask the average golfer from that bracket, he would probably tell you that pros hit the ball 300 yards regularly, and based on that they’d probably think he is way behind their potential for how far they can hit. Naturally, he’d be wrong. Pros don’t hit the ball 300 yards regularly, in fact my colleague just printed that the average PGA pros carry distance carry the ball roughly 269 yards. Think about that for a second. Joe Couch-Potato hits the ball within 82 percent of the average pro. Ummm, isn’t that pretty good?
If I can humor you for a second with tales from my youth, I could tell you that I was a fairly athletic teenager. I ran track for my high school team, and was a decent junior baseball player. The fastest I ever threw a baseball when clocked was 73 mph, and the fastest I ever ran the 100-meter dash was in (if I remember correctly) 12 seconds. Neither is that terrible. I’d venture a guess that most people couldn’t top either, and both those marks are about the same percentage off the average pro as your average drive compared to a golfing pro. What would you tell your friend if he told you he was going to buy new shoes so he could get closer to the 10-second 100-meter dash? You’d probably tell him he’s crazy.
Further diluting things is total distance, which is completely irrelevant. The courses amateurs play are completely different then the ones pros play, and total distance is all but meaningless. Every 340-yard drive you see is suspect, because the fairways the pros play are similar to the greens the average golfer plays. Again, if I can tell you tales of my own exploits, my carry distance with driver is very similar to the average pro, roughly 265 yards. I can tell you that I have had days where I’ve averaged more than 300 yards off the tee when playing hard and fast courses, and days where I’ve hit balls that have stuck in the ground. Carry distance is all that matters really. Next time you play your local municipal, imagine how much further you’d hit it if the fairways were as hard as the greens. Pros can get 50-plus yards of roll, remember that.
Iron shots aren’t much more reliable, because not a tournament goes by where the casual fan will see a pro line up a shot and hear the announcer say, “Here’s Kuchar, hitting 7-iron from 195,” and naturally the thought process is that pros absolutely murder their irons. This again is a bit of a misnomer, as all announcers really have to go by is the word of the players caddy, or an educated guess. And it’s not like caddies are always going to tell the truth; why not make his pro seem superhuman?
Another important data point is the release the pros get on greens, so be sure to pay attention to where the ball lands. It’s not uncommon for a pro to hit 5-iron to a 225 yard par 3. Notice that a lot of times, the ball lands on the front of the green rolls to the back. The pro might be carrying it 200 yards as oppose to 225. Still long, but not ridiculous. Chances are that you hit the ball further comparatively then you believe you do, and new clubs might not really change that.
The second question is: Are people really hitting it longer then they did? OEMs definitely want you to think so. It would be easy to pick on TaylorMade or Callaway, who seem to be at the forefront of the cold war of distance, and I will try to minimize the finger pointing. But both are engaged in campaigns of convincing players there are several yards to be found. TaylorMade in 2012 had its much publicized (and successful) “17” campaign, based on the premise that players would gain 17 yards by switching to its Rocketballz 3-wood. TaylorMade even had its players wear soccer-style jerseys on the course during last year’s WGC event at Doral promoting this, truly a first in golf marketing (note: the campaign was nixed mid round by the PGA Tour).
Callaway has responded by signing every big hitter this side of Art Sellinger to its staff, and airing ads where Alvaro Quiros smacks balls over the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. I can only imagine what they have in store for uber-driver Jamie Sadlowski! But the question really is, despite the theatrics, are players really hitting it further?
Distance numbers for amateurs are tough to come by. But not so much on the PGA Tour, where one would think technology would be just as beneficial. In 2012, Bubba Watson led the Tour in driving distance at 315 yards, Charlie Beljan was second at 311. In 2010, Robert Garrigus led the tour at 315 yards, and Watson was second at 309. In. 2008 Watson led the tour at 315 yards. Garrigus was second at 311. What about 2006? The one and only Watson led at 319 yards and J.B. Holmes was second at 318. Wait? Were people longer in 2006? Or what about in 2004, when Hank Kuehne set the still standing record of 321 yards and John Daly was second at 314 yards, a number that would have still ranked second in 2012?
This is before adjustable-lofted drivers, full acceptance of 460cc heads, speed slots and most other features you see listed as performance attributes of 2013 drivers. With all the supposed advancements, why aren’t we seeing evidence on the tour? Sure, more people are hitting it further these days and averaging 300 yards, but you could just as easily argue that is a case of simple Darwinism than equipment, as a result of the “Tiger Proofing” of courses (think about it, if all food in the world was on 10-foot shelves, chances are humans would have a higher vertical leap 100 years from now right?). But the longest guys don’t seem to be driving it further. To take it even a step further, in Jack Nicklaus’ “Golf my Way,” he says his driving distance was “250 and up.” This was with a sub-43-inch steel-shafted driver, wound balls and wooden heads.
How far would Nicklaus carry the ball with a 45-inch graphite-shaft, a modern titanium driver head and a Pro V1X? Probably Watson long, and these are all advancements that are a decade old right now. Fact is, Nicklaus could’ve probably changed nothing other than his golf ball and he would’ve carried as far as the average pro does today, or at least very close. So how far have we really come?
Irons are another fun discussion. I recently bought a set of refurbished Ping Eye2 irons and plan on using them in the 2013 season. The pitching wedge is 50.5 degrees. Read that again! My new pitching wedge is almost two-degrees weaker than my Mizuno JPX-800 gap wedge! When I started playing golf roughly eight years ago, most pitching wedges were around 46 to 47 degrees, and now in 2013, it is common for them to be 44 to 45 degrees. The loft of my first ever 7-iron (a Tommy Armour 845 Silver Scot) was 36 degrees, as compared to my last 7-iron, a Mizuno JPX-800 which was 32 degrees. That’s over a 10 percent difference in lofts! Taking that a step further: I could hit my last 7-iron 165 yards and my original 7-iron 150 yards with the exact same swing!
These are important things to remember when considering an iron purchase. Next time you hit clubs in the store further than your original set, make sure to check the specs. To come back to Jack Nicklaus’ yardages, in “Golf my Way,” he claimed he hit his 7-iron 140 to 155 yards, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But remember his 7-iron was really a modern 8-iron at least, and at worst relatively close to a 9-iron! Suddenly his yardages with a wound ball don’t seem so bad! So again, how far have we come with technology? Or really, is it more a clever way of selling?
Another random thing I remember from my youth was a Fox Network special where a masked magician revealed many of magic’s secrets. At the relatively anticlimactic end, he said that he did it not to shame anyone, or make himself famous. He did it to push other magicians to come up with new material, to force them to come up with new tricks. I wish we as consumers would force that upon golf manufacturers. I wish all golf publications and reviewers would mention things like loft and shaft length in their reviews, but many do not currently do that.
Golfers everywhere have spent $799 for new irons under pretenses they might not understand, and ended up with a 4-GW set that performs the exact same as their previous 3-PW set. It’s time we stopped whipping out the measuring stick and forced golf manufacturers to come up with something that really benefits us. This will not happen until golfers out there truly understand what is being sold to them and how flawed their basis of comparison is. Until then, OEMs will continue to feed us distance promises that don’t quite jive. I hope, in my most ambitious sense of optimism, that this can start us along that path.