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The Shapes: Evolution of Improvement

January 03, 2009

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.

"Internally here, I call it aggregate incrementalism," says Jeff Colton, senior vice president of research and development for Callaway Golf. "It's the idea that as an R&D team, adding up tenths of yards of improvement is OK. You add up slight improvements in ball speed or aerodynamic patterns or off-center-hit robustness, and all of a sudden it becomes a large macro-effect."

Hot List 2009 changes. This relentless pursuit of innovation explains why we began our Hot List research this year with 471 candidates, each with a story to tell. Those that excelled in making improvement possible in the most intriguing and appealing ways found their way onto this year's Hot List.

Our process also has been improved in two ways: First, where appropriate, we have split a club category into two price divisions to reflect the market. As a result, we eliminated the need for Value as a criterion. Second, we've added the criterion of Look/Sound/Feel because readers aren't just interested in how the club affects the ball, but how it affects the player.


One more change:

__Our Hot List for golf balls will appear in an issue later this spring so we can review products that weren't available for evaluation this issue. It'll be our most complete examination of this segment ever.

Golfers have long been fascinated with technology as a means to improvement, but for much of the game's history new products have had no documented impact on the performance of average golfers. In the last decade that has changed significantly. Two strokes' worth of change. That's something we all can buy into, and what better place to start than the 2009 Hot List?


Coincidence? We think not. Handicap data provided to Golf Digest by the USGA (the blue line in the chart) shows a decrease in the average Handicap Index for men from 16.5 in 1994 to 14.6 in 2008 (the drop for women during this time went from 29.9 to 27.4). That coincides with the greatest expansion in golf technology in history. Annual equipment submissions to the USGA's Research and Test Center have nearly quintupled since the mid-1990s, and the number of products being tracked by research firm Golf Datatech has doubled (the red line in the chart). In 1997, there were 217 clubs and balls on its list. In 2008, there were 454, down slightly from a high of 475 in 2005.

--Mike Stachura