August 23, 2007

Golf tech: Tight fairway? Hit your driver

Thanks to modern technology, the conservative strategy of 3-wood off the tee might not make sense anymore.

It was like someone had asked LPGA Tour player Christina Kim whether she would rather putt with her sand wedge, holding it in her teeth. Hit 3-wood off the tee? Why on earth would anyone do that? The conservative strategy of gearing down with a 3-wood off the tee to keep the ball in play just doesn't make sense anymore, at least in this tour professional's eyes.

"You've got to love the driver," Kim says. "That's the club I started playing with, and it's the one I always pound. I just don't hit 3-wood off the tee very often.

"My driver is far more accurate than my 3-wood."

That statement doesn't necessarily have to be true to be a powerful indication that the technology advantage of the driver might be fundamentally changing strategy off the tee, and not just for tour players but for you, too. A Golf Digest test of 20 average golfers ranging in handicap from 3 to 20 showed that there was relatively little difference in accuracy between 3-wood and driver tee shots, despite the typical 3-wood being about two inches shorter and having about four degrees more loft than today's driver. And with a distance advantage of more than 20 yards with the driver, the test suggests that average players might want to rethink their attitude toward the 3-wood (see page 107). The debate isn't that black and white, of course. For instance:

Is the average player as well-fitted to his 3-wood as he's fitted to his driver?

Is the 3-wood in most average golfers' bags as technologically advanced as the driver?

Or is it simply the case that average golfers just aren't very accurate with any longer club, and so the driver's extra distance makes it, for lack of a better phrase, the lesser of two evils?

Our testing showed a slight benefit for the 3-wood over the driver for better players with faster swings. This reflects what we often see on the PGA Tour, where players choose the 3-wood or even a hybrid off the tee as a position club because the driver simply brings more trouble into play. It also falls in line with the idea that average players (for example, players who swing less than 95 miles per hour with the driver or hit the 7-iron less than 150 yards) mis-hit shots much more than tour players. Most mis-hits you make with a driver will be playable. Make that same move with a 3-wood, and you might not hit the ball at all.

Some designers will tell you that the most technologically advanced 3-woods are better than their predecessors in many of the ways that today's 460-cubic-centimeter drivers are better than those perfect blocks of oil-hardened persimmon from the 1970s.

"From an average-player standpoint, our current 3-wood is a way better club both off the tee and from the fairway than any fairway wood of a dozen years ago," says TaylorMade's Tom Olsavsky, senior director of product creation. "It's just that nobody cares as much. They essentially look the same, so there's no big story there."

Still, a number of 3-woods have gotten larger, and some have faces with springlike effect or coefficient of restitution (COR) readings equal to the U.S. Golf Association limit of .830, just like drivers. Says club designer Tom Wishon, who has two fairway woods in the Wishon Golf line that boast maximum springlike effect: "Even though we cannot keep the off-center COR as high on a fairway wood in relation to the center as we can with a driver, it is still a fact that if you start with an .830 in the center of the fairway wood, the off-center hits are still going to be pretty darn OK."

Traditionally, the increased loft of a 3-wood helped neutralize the effects of excessive sidespin, but sidespin control is what today's drivers are all about. They're designed with a heel-biased weighting to launch shots with less slice spin, and newer drivers with a higher moment of inertia (MOI) stay more stable on off-center hits. Does this make drivers straighter than 3-woods? Some believe it's getting closer.

"One of the main reasons the old 3-woods worked is that the extra backspin made the ball more stable as it went whatever amount off line," says Tom Stites, Nike's director of product creation. "In the old 3-woods you did not see much of the results of sidespin because the extra backspin drowned it out.

"Now the modern driver has less face twist plus less sidespin. Less does not need to be drowned out."

In other words, the 3-wood's benefits as a driving club might not be as necessary anymore. And the modern driver's primary benefits (better launch conditions across a greater area of the face) are nearly overwhelming compared to the 3-wood.

"Today's drivers, while long, are lighter and easeir to swing, and I think that helps with control as well," says Jeff Colton, senior vice president of research and development at Callaway Golf. "Their overall weight is extremely light compared to what it was 15 to 20 years ago. There's no question that the penalty in drivers has been reduced substantially through technological gains and has maybe diluted the differential between the 3-wood and the driver."

BE AGGRESSIVE?

Intuitively, the suggestion to bomb the driver all day seems excessively aggressive. We've all seen or experienced the wildly off-line tee ball, or even the persistent slice, with our big, new drivers. But a wild miss with a driver isn't going to be miraculously cured by putting a 3-wood in your hands. As for the persistent slice, there are plenty of drivers designed today to correct any undesirable ball flight.

Of course, the average golfer isn't generally known for his inclination to make the conservative play off the tee. In short, the driver has a certain sex appeal. No one regales the grillroom with tales of a straight-arrow 3-wood off the tee at No. 14.

To be fair, there is no immediate evidence suggesting that top players are more accurate with modern drivers. As a matter of fact, the best players in the world are hitting about the same number of fairways in 2007 as they hit in 1997 or 1987, for that matter, give or take half a fairway a round.

Clay Long, an accomplished amateur player and a club designer for the past four decades, has tracked the driving statistics. "If the new drivers are so good, why isn't the tour hitting at least as many fairways as they used to?" says Long, who designs clubs for Nicklaus Golf, among others. "They ought to be tearing up the sprinkler heads down the center line. But I don't think anyone on tour thinks he's as straight with his driver as he is with his 3-wood. I know I'm not."

What we are suggesting, however, is that the accuracy advantage that the 3-wood might have once had over the driver for average players has faded. "From a middle-handicap's standpoint," says Long, "he might hit a driver with some loft as good as and longer than a 3-wood. But a driver that easy to hit probably is giving up some distance."

Long and others actually think there is some merit to carrying two drivers with different lofts and shaft lengths, or even what he calls a fairway driver that might have a slightly smaller head and an inch shorter shaft. Stay tuned for more on that.

A DIFFERENT SWING?

It comes down to what club enables the player to square the face at impact. Olsavsky thinks the problem for some players isn't mis-hits all over the face, but that the face is wildly open or closed: "If your typical miss goes out-of-bounds, then it's not going to be a matter of how forgiving your driver is," he says. "It's not a forgiveness issue when your face is that open. No amount of center-of-gravity location or head stability will help you there." Still, the modern driver just looks so much easier to hit than the 3-wood. Says Bob Thurman, global director of research and development for Wilson: "You've got a huge hitting area on a club that produces lower spin. It's just hard to miss it."

But there is a contrary view that the bigger-headed drivers encourage sloppiness. "We golfers can hit the ball an inch-and-a-half or more off the center of the face with our huge drivers today because subconsciously we know we have such a large face and thus more room for error," says Wishon. "But put that 150cc fairway wood in our hands, and we somehow manage to tighten things up." Callaway's Colton says that the shorter shaft on 3-woods can help improve some players' angles of approach into the ball. A shorter driver shaft could have a similar effect, but, Colton admits, not many players fit the driver based on control first.

Others suggest that current drivers and hybrids are molding the swing in a certain direction, but the 3-wood has failed to progress as rapidly. "There's such a big difference in the mass properties of the two clubs," says Tim Reed, vice president of research and development at Adams, who estimates typical 3-woods have lower MOI numbers than current 3-irons and hybrids. "If you start looking at the driver and the hybrids or long irons, they require a certain amount of inertia force to rotate them. If you look at the 3-wood, it's not even in that class. You've learned how to hit your driver, which is larger, and you've learned how to hit your hybrids, which are more stable, and it's like the 3-wood has fallen out of the feel of the rest of your set."

Reed's point is that the distance between the clubhead's center of gravity and the center of the shaft axis is more consistent between driver and hybrids or long irons. That distance on the 3-wood does not follow the same progression, which creates a different feel. Moreover, if you were to make the 3-wood truly in line with the development of the driver, it might be 250cc, which might make it better off the tee but not so good off the fairway. The dual nature of the fairway wood's responsibilities forces it to sacrifice performance either off the tee or from the fairway, or more likely, both.

Wilson's Thurman raises another intriguing point. "Our research shows that so many average players hit their 5-woods off the fairway just as far as they hit their 3-woods," he says. Of course, if 3-woods get bigger heads and longer shafts, they would get even harder to hit off the fairway. Maybe the average player's lowest-lofted fairway wood shouldn't be a 3-wood anymore. Maybe it's time for the return of the 4-wood. Colton says there is some anecdotal evidence of interest in a 4-wood/ 7-wood combination instead of the traditional 3-wood/5-wood.

Still, when it gets right down to it, strategy off the tee isn't only a matter of center-of-gravity location or clubhead size. It's about something connected to the other end of the club.

Says Olsavsky, "It all comes down to confidence. The fact is, if you're hitting the driver well, you're going to want to hit it all day."



TOUR SURVEY*

With today's more forgiving drivers, should amateurs hit driver off every tee, or is 3-wood sometimes the better play?

Driver 94% / 3-wood 6%

  • Survey of 33 men's tour pros, including 10 major-championship winners