May 28, 2009

Time Warp

A recent test proved current clubs let players swing faster than vintage clubs ever could. The reason why may surprise you

When Chad Campbell recently tested an old driver and ball, his drives were some 44 yards shorter.

When Chad Campbell recently tested an old driver and ball, his drives were some 44 yards shorter.

They ran a little experiment on the range last week at the HP Byron Nelson Championship. They found an old wooden driver, some old golf balls and a new pro and his new equipment.

In a shocking turn of events, the test revealed the new stuff is better than the old stuff.

Now, no one is all that surprised to find that a MacGregor Byron Nelson model driver from the 1950s doesn't hit the ball as far as today's titanium models. That's what Texas writer Curt Sampson saw when he trotted around the driver to tour players on the range at last week's event. But the launch monitor numbers from one of those testers pose some interesting questions regarding just what component of modern technology has been driving the distance surge among the game's elite. It might not be exactly what you think.

First, a history lesson. Driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased from the early 80s, when persimmon drivers were the primary club (around 260 yards) to today when the primary driving club is titanium (about 287 yards). It's important to note that the club today is not only nearly three times the volume of those wooden heads, it also features a bigger and springier face, as well as a not insignificantly lighter and longer shaft. There's also the question of the golf ball, of course. The ball has gone from a high-spinning sphere filled with rubber windings to a solid core ball with multiple layers that are used to keep spin low on those high-speed driver impacts.

So to recap, the modern ball is geared to fly smarter and faster off the driver, while the modern driver delivers more speed to the ball. No, duh.

Of course, that's exactly what we see with the numbers from the old vs. new test. Adams Golf supplied GolfDigest.com with some of Chad Campbell's numbers in the experiment as analyzed by the Trackman launch monitor device. The test included hits with the old driver and some old Titleist Tour balata 100 golf balls, as well as hits with Campbell's current Adams A4 driver and current Titleist Pro V1x balls.

Campbell averaged 291 yards with his current setup. When he switched to the old Byron Nelson persimmon driver but kept the current ball, his average driver was 37 yards shorter. When he switched to the Tour Balata and the old driver, he hit that combo 44 yards shorter.

It is easy to focus on the hotter ball and the bigger head in this test (to say nothing of the half a football field distance difference), but the numbers make one thing patently clear: The modern combination does promote a more efficient set of launch conditions for a tee shot. The old combination for Campbell tended to launch the ball lower and with dramatically more spin. Low launch and high spin is a good way to hit the ball shorter. By comparison, Campbell launched the ball a degree to a degree and a half higher with 25 to 40 percent less spin in his current driver-ball combination.

But jumping above all the data is one clear benefit that has nothing to do with ball or titanium clubhead: Campbell simply swings the modern driver faster. His swing speed with the old Byron Nelson driver, a 43-inch steel shafted model, hovered around 106 miles per hour. Switch to the modern graphite shaft and the swing speed jumped to 113 miles per hour. That speed increase could account for some 15 to 20 yards of improvement all by itself, independent of springier faces and lower-spinning balls.

The effect of persimmon versus metal golf clubs

Another history lesson: Let's remember that the swing speed set for the old Overall Distance Standard test, established in 1976, was 109 miles per hour. This speed was determined when USGA researchers set its swing robot to hit a 280-yard drive. Turns out 280-yard drives 30 years ago were not the standard by any means. Few if any players routinely hit the ball 280 yards, and the leaders in driving distance average had numbers that hovered in the mid-270s.

Now, of course, swing speed has dramatically changed. For example, the USGA swing robot now functions at a speed of 120 miles per hour. More importantly, though, the average swing speed on tour is now 111.5 miles per hour, or faster than the fastest tour speeds were 30 years ago. In fact, 133 players on the PGA Tour now have an average swing speed greater than 109 miles per hour.

It is worth theorizing that a larger percentage of the improvement might just be attributed to the shaft's effect on swing speed. Today's modern shaft usually weighs 75 grams or less, about half what the steel shaft on the MacGregor Byron Nelson driver weighed. But the 200 grams on the end of that shaft is the same force on today's heads, although the weight is better distributed. The faster you can swing that mass, the more it can improve your distance. Moreover, shaft technology has elevated to the point where the same stability that better players with faster swings found in steel shafts years ago is nearly the same today in graphite shafts that weigh half as much.

The effect of persimmon versus metal golf clubs

Dick Rugge, the senior technical director of the U.S. Golf Association and the man who oversaw the change of that organization's golf ball overall distance standard test in 2004 to a modern titanium driver and a faster swing speed, says the experiment, though limited, seems consistent with what his team at the USGA's Research and Test Center believes is happening with modern equipment.

"The results agree very closely with our own in-depth testing with a larger number of professionals (and amateurs) hitting their own modern driver vs. a persimmon driver," Rugge said.

"The reduction of swing speed is also not surprising. Compared to modern drivers, the wooden club is probably about two inches shorter, about two ounces heavier, and has such a small head and sweet spot that great golfers have to slow down their swings. 'Hitting it on the screws' used to really mean something."

Though the USGA has been conducting research on shorter golf balls for the last three years, that project has not yielded any announcement of a proposed rollback in the golf ball in the way groove performance was rolled back late last year. Rugge simply says today that the research project is "ongoing." For now, Rugge believes that current research suggests that the ball need not be singled out as the root cause of distance in the modern game.

"Our testing showed me that the majority of PGA Tour distance increases attributable to equipment have likely come from changes in the driver, not the ball," he said.

It's not clear whether one set of numbers and a few swings through history on the range of a PGA Tour event last week confirm that idea or call it into question. But isolating the effect to either club or ball seems impossible. Rather, today's club-ball system seems to exceed the sum of its parts.