It seems we're hearing more these days about elite golfers eschewing the driver for the new 1-iron-like driving irons and their fast-flexing face technology. These "driving irons" give better players a valid option when choosing precision over power off the tee. But average golfers need to think twice before making that choice.
"The driver is still the best chance for golfers to generate clubhead speed," says Alan Hocknell, senior vice president of research and development for Callaway. More clubhead speed means more distance, and today's drivers also offer better stability on off-center hits than any other club in the bag. "The biggest shift in the golf bag in the past 15 years," Hocknell says, "has been how the driver has gone from being one of the most feared clubs to being one of the most usable by average players. For mid- to high-handicappers having difficulty keeping the ball on line, these drivers are going to help them."
The right driver can also boost confidence unlike any other club. Take TaylorMade's new optional black version of the R1. "For some, the black driver fits their eyes better," says TaylorMade's Tom Kroll. "They're more confident, and there's something there that gets them better results."
Still, the driver isn't always a smart play for certain golfers. Good players with above-average clubhead speed, for example, sometimes face the choice of distance or accuracy, aggression or, well, safety.
Enter the driving iron, which can provide improved accuracy and control because of its shorter shaft. At some PGA Tour events, more than 10 percent of the players carry a driving iron, especially on tight, fast courses like Merion, site of this year's U.S. Open. Some tour pros even carry them instead of fairway woods. In addition to providing more ways to work the ball or hit low shots, modern driving irons offer benefits designed to increase ball speed and launch angle. Among these are special high-strength steel faces that have a springlike effect near the USGA limit, plus hollow construction for improved forgiveness. The slightly higher center of gravity on driving irons is designed to avoid the excessively high launch angles or draw tendencies that good players with faster swing speeds might find in modern hybrids or fairway woods.
"The launch is lower in relation to other hybrids, but it's not low relative to an iron," says Matt Neeley, design engineer for Adams, describing the company's new Super DHy. "This is a transition club for the better player." Still, a high CG in a low-lofted club is a tough combination, says Craig Zimmerman, general manager at RedTail Golf Center, a Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter. "These clubs are more difficult to create loft with and, in general, average players do not benefit from a more boring, lower ball flight," he says.
A driving iron is an option if your clubhead speed is more than 95 miles per hour and you launch the ball high. If you don't, and you're playing a hole where a driver might bring danger into play, there are alternatives, says James Leitz, director of golf at Pinewood Country Club in Slidell, La., a 100 Best Clubfitter.
"Most golfers would do better with a 5-wood because the shaft is longer, and it produces more clubhead speed than a driving iron," he says. "This would produce more ball speed and spin that would keep the ball airborne longer."
The driving iron is a special tool for special players. Your choice off the tee should be the club that puts you in position to play the rest of the hole. For some, it's precision. For most others, it's power.