The Shapes: Evolution of Improvement
We are getting better. And equipment technology is the reason.
Either that or we're in the midst of one of the most curious coincidences in the 500-year history of our game. First, to the evidence about us. The USGA is unequivocal about average golfers: Despite decades of naysayers and experts alike suggesting that the average handicap is not dropping, has not dropped and never will drop, the fact is, it has. Let's say that again: The average handicap of all golfers -- men, women and children -- has decreased consistently for the past 15 years. The average handicap today is two strokes better than it was in the early 1990s, according to research provided to Golf Digest by the USGA's Golf Handicap & Information Network (GHIN). This decrease coincides with a remarkable decade of equipment innovation that has brought us titanium drivers in every shape and size, game-changing hybrids and oversize putters.
Those clubs and others like them have been introduced in record numbers the past dozen years. All because a lot of smart people have come to golf with ideas to make the game easier. Consider that the number of products tracked by Golf Datatech, an industry-research firm, has more than doubled since 1997, and equipment submissions to the USGA have gone from about 500 a year in the early 1990s to almost 2,500 in 2008. One reason for that increase is that the USGA evaluates more products for rules conformance, but all those new products and improvements can't be unrelated.
What's that, you say? Your handicap hasn't budged since the first Bush Administration? Maybe the problem is that the contents of your golf bag haven't changed. Oh, sure, we've heard the familiar protests: "I'm not good enough," "None of this stuff really helps average golfers that much" and our favorite: "I'm doing just fine with what I've got."
Not really. Or at least you could be two shots better. For those of you who need further convincing, we present the Golf Digest Hot List. Our annual equipment review and analysis has yielded 116 exceptional products in 12 categories, the most exhaustive review ever of the game's top clubs.
What we've learned over the years is that new equipment is designed to help average players more than tour players, and the engineers behind golf's new technologies can explain in detail how they're making improvement happen.
"Golfers have gotten better because new equipment helped make it easier to produce adequate launch conditions," says Benoit Vincent, chief technical officer at TaylorMade. "New equipment also has allowed golfers to maintain adequate launch conditions for bad shots and to maximize launch conditions with their best swings when custom-fit."
The game can be made easier. Not easy, mind you, but easier, and probably easier than it has ever been. (Of course, golf courses are getting longer and more difficult, so for many of us it might not seem like we're improving. But take a trip back to that muny where you grew up, and see if you aren't driving to places you did in your youth or even farther.)
Technology update. This year's technological advances go a step beyond engorged drivers and ridiculously strong-lofted irons. Drivers, for example, feature the performance properties of extreme geometries within a more pleasing, almost traditional frame. The best iron designs reflect a pattern of optimizing each individual iron within a set based on how a player might best use it. Companies, for instance, are designing 7-irons significantly different from 4-irons, even within the same set.
Most important, fitting has become nearly automatic, thanks to adjustable fitting systems and the virtual omnipresence of launch monitors. It's so vital (and no doubt related to our two-stroke improvement) that we're beginning every section of the Hot List with a golf success story based on a proper fitting.
Of course, in the onrush of the present, we sometimes lose sight of how much progress is being made. Golf has benefited from technological leaps the past dozen years, but in real time they can seem like baby steps.