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Lighter is better: Equipment Q&A with Nate Radcliffe, Cleveland Golf

If there's one thing we've learned in covering equipment technology over the last 20 years, it's that the smart people behind club and golf ball innovation never seem to stop coming at you with new ideas. 


Over the next several weeks we'll devote some space here to recent conversations with some of the bright minds in equipment technology to see what they're up to and where they might be taking us next. More topics to come, but for now let's start with lighter total weight in drivers.

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So much of driver innovation over the last decade and a half has focused on making the transfer of energy at impact more efficient. Only recently have there been efforts at engineering the club in a way that might help golfers swing the club more efficiently so they can deliver the club more quickly to the ball. If the same effort could produce more clubhead speed, the result could be more driving distance. One idea is to reduce the total weight of the system. Where some drivers have topped the scale at 320-330 grams, now some new drivers are dipping below the 280-gram barrier. One company pushing those limits is Cleveland Golf, and during our research for the NBC-Golf Digest Equipment Special, we had a chance to ask Nate Radcliffe, metalwoods development manager at Cleveland, about what that technology is and what it can do.


Golf Digest: What is the relationship between the total weight of the club and clubhead speed? 
Radcliffe: Well in any sport, in any athletic event basically, the athlete is gifted with a certain amount of force that they generate through their swing or whatever motion that they are doing, and so what we know, whether it's hockey tennis or any other sports, is as we decrease the weight of the equipment, it moves faster. In golf, weve looked at the weights of the components (head, shaft grip) over the years, and we've reduced shaft weights or maybe grip weights, but now, we're looking at the entire club as a system. As we reduce the total weight of the system, provided that we can maintain swing weight and the feel, we can generate much more speed with the same golf swing.

GD: What are the challenges in designing a lighter weight driver?
Radcliffe: You can't just blindly remove weight from a piece of sports equipment. In hockey or in any other the other sports where composites are used they have not only decreased the weight of the equipment, but they have stiffened it. Golf is the same thing. the better composites we have for shafts actually allows us to take out weight and maintain the stiffness or even improve the stiffness of the shaft so players are getting faster speed and maintaining control. We couldn't do that in the past.

GD: How much lighter are you making drivers, and what specfically is the impact on club head speed?
Radcliffe: Most golfers don't know what their drivers weigh, but the average driver out on tour probably weighs about 330 grams and the average driver on the market probably weighs 310-315. We're building drivers this year that are as light as 270 grams, so were talking about taking 40 grams of weight out of the driver. We think for about every 10 grams we take off, if we maintain the length and the swing weight, that players might see an average of about a mile an hour in swing speed.  So when your talking about taking out 40 grams, it's substantial to the speed. It might be four miles an hour of head speed, and that's pretty difficult for a player to generate on their own.

GD: Where are you able to save the most weight?
Radcliffe: We look at the golf club as a system, and we don't want to take weight from one place, we don't want to take it just out of the grip or just out of the head, so we are trying to keep the club in balance. So we're taking it out in a balanced manner from not only the grip but the shaft and also a little from the club head. The grip companies are coming up with lighter polymers, lighter rubber compounds that are allowing as much as 25-gram decrease in the weight of the grip, that's half the weight of the grips of just a couple years ago. In terms of shafts when we started playing graphite years back they were 70-80 grams were seeing graphite shafts even played on the pga tour that are dropping into the 40-gram weight class. It's a huge change from three-four years ago and the players are really noticing that speed.

GD: There are still plenty of heavier drivers being played. Is lightweight going to be the way for everybody?
Radcliffe: Lightweight provides a potential, but not everybody can use the lightest equipment. If you look at hockey, for example, there are still a couple guys out there that use an 800-gram wooden stick, but most players have dropped down to the 400-500 range. We think the same thing will be true in golf. We see the potential for more speed, but we know there will always be players that prefer a heavier weight. Still, we want players to have the right weight, so giving them options and having them look at different weight classes allows a player to fit themselves by feel to maximize their potential. Still, we can ask a player, "Does that driver feel light?" and in some cases they don't notice the weight of the club because we've been able to preserve the swingweight. It's a situation where because it's a swinging type of motion they are feeling the resistance to that rotational input, rather than feeling the weight of holding it as if they were weighing something.

GD: How light can we go in the future and where would the weight come from?
Radcliffe: When I first started working in the golf industry, we were making 300 cubic centimeter drivers and the walls were 1 millimeter titanium. None of us thought we would be making 460 cc with half that wall thickness. I think graphite shafts kind of work the same way. If you would have told us a couple years ago players now would be playing shafts in the 40-gram range, no one would have believed it. It's possible that we can see 30-gram shafts and even lighter grips. Grips have gone from 50 to 25 in the past year, there's nothing to say that we couldn't have 15-gram grips and 30-gram shafts in the next few years. With some basic assumptions, our analysis suggests that players can effectively gain swing speed/distance by reducing weight through about 230 grams.

GD: So you think we're on the verge of a fundamental change in driver performance?
Radcliffe: To me, lighter and longer is not a matter of 'if,' it's a matter of 'when.' In terms of time, we're really not that far removed from the days of 120-gram steel shafts in drivers. We've changed a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. Now, there are a large number of  guys on tour who are under 60 grams in their shafts, half of what they were a decade ago. We have generally seen players with smoother swings adapt quicker to the lightest drivers that we offer.That being said, we have seen surprising results with even the strongest, most aggressive swings. Like most technology switchovers, some players are fundamentally more willing to adapt and adopt than others. I am very confident that we will see players at all levels moving down in weight in the next five years. There's also a new school of thought about the swing that the driver swing is starting to separate itself from the other clubs in your bag. Teeing it up higher than any club automatically separates it, and then there's a much more forward ball position and even a swinging up on the ball. If you did that with other clubs, you'd top the ball, but not the driver. So I tend to agree that the driver swing is really becoming a different event. 
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