Our equipment editor's search for the best driver for an average woman golfer
I hadn’t seen my mom play in a few years. Living 700 miles apart, Covid and, well, life, worked against us teeing it up. She’s now 87 and she came to golf only in her 60s as a way to spend more time with Dad. She still plays once or twice a week, along with her daily walks, yard work and other chores that make her seem way fitter than I feel at nearly 30 years her junior. She has fun playing, but I wanted to see if I could get her a little more distance off the tee. Considerate son? Yes, but mostly equipment geek doing a little experimenting.
My thought, because I overthink things, is that with almost no forced carries on her home course and generally fast and firm conditions, she might be better served with a driver that has less loft, rather than more. The prevailing wisdom, one I’ve tested multiple times over the years, is that with slower swings, more loft is always a better thing. While a Golf Digest test a few years back showed some evidence that a little less loft could be better for average men, it’s darn near club fitting gospel that more loft is the best way to achieve the ideal launch conditions of high launch and low spin, which produce the most distance.
One example: Titleist has multiple charts in its fitting manuals that show how more launch tends to produce more distance at every speed. For example, a tour player with a 15-degree launch angle will produce 10-15 yards more distance than one with an 11-degree launch angle. The advantage decreases as you go down in speed, but it’s always there.
So why would I deign to question the prevailing wisdom? I kept looking at how far Mom’s tee shots rolled after they landed. Yes, they weren’t carrying very far, but just like we saw at the Open Championship, flatter landing angles on those tee shots led to balls rolling out dramatic distances. Unlike Cameron Smith, Mom wasn’t getting 100 yards of roll. But hers was still significant.
Would she get more total distance with a lower launch, a flatter landing angle and more roll? I consulted the experts and plugged some numbers into Foresight Sports ballflight simulation model. Turns out, as Mom has often reminded me, I’m sometimes only half right, which usually means I’m wholly wrong.
Craig Zimmerman is the general manager at RedTail Golf Center in Beaverton, Ore., which has been a Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter every year since the program began in 2011. He thinks slower swinging golfers, which includes most average women, need more loft than not only they’re currently using but even more than what might be available.
“We strongly believe that carry distance is more important than ‘roll out’—even in the firmest of playing conditions—to create the most total distance,” Zimmerman said. “To this end, if you had your mom playing with a 15- or 16-degree driver I think her total distance would be greater than if she were playing with a 12-degree or lower lofted driver, no matter what the conditions. Moreover, her dispersion will be much better with the higher lofted driver as well.”
While Mom might have been getting 20 to 30 yards of roll on those shorter carry tee shots, she was still leaving some total yards in the bag. Maybe 10 or 15. In fact, Zimmerman thinks most women don’t generate enough clubhead speed to justify even the 12-degree driver Mom currently has in her bag. Being so close to Nike headquarters in Oregon, he still has a tough time beating the ancient Nike SQ driver (circa 2006) when a woman comes in with the old “Sweet 16” version and its 16 degrees of loft.
Messing around with Foresight Sports ballflight simulation model showed me the numbers in clearer terms. Often, average women’s speeds are much slower than you’ll find on a typical distance fitting chart. With clubhead speeds in the 70 mph range or slower, the typical senior woman might only be generating 100, or even 80, miles per hour of ball speed. But even at those speeds, if a player can launch the ball at 15 degrees, she’s going to produce more total distance than if she launches it at 10 degrees, and certainly more than if she’s launching it at 7 degrees. According to the Foresight model, it’s at least 4-6 yards of difference and maybe as much as 14. Maybe that’s not all that much to be excited about, but on a 300-yard hole it can make 6 net 4 more of a realistic possibility.
It’s important to remember that the loft on your driver isn’t the only thing responsible for launch angle. The launch angle is the angle the ball is leaving the clubface after impact. It’s affected by whether you’re hitting down on the ball or swinging up at it coming into impact. An upward swing might allow a player to use a little less loft, but not always. A session with a good fitter should get that sorted out. Angela Aulenti, a teacher and clubfitter at Sterling Farms Golf Course in Stamford, Conn. who’s fit countless women golfers over the years, believes the way the driver is delivered is key.
“Some people male or female, add loft,” she said. “That's when less loft really works and then they get the optimal roll. Also, some drivers launch higher and some shafts launch the ball higher. In my opinion, all of the above needs to be taken into consideration.”
Aulenti makes an interesting point. Nothing in fitting is ever completely set in stone. Individual players need individual answers.
Ben Giunta, founder of The Tour Van, a Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter, works with a fair number of slower swingers who play their golf on the fast and firm conditions in the Arizona desert.
“They’re more concerned with hitting the ball as hard as they can and getting the ball to the roll,” he said. “They can’t maximize their carry and still get the roll. So you really have to look at what people’s limitations are and how to optimize given the condition.”
So it seems there are two potentially viable solutions for my Mom. More loft or possibly slightly less loft. That’s why getting on a launch monitor is crucial. Average golfers, not just women, need to embrace the technology of fitting by the numbers produced on a launch monitor. In addition to showing you the total distance, today’s machines will reveal both the angle the driver approaches the ball and the angle the ball lands. Don’t be fooled by tee shots that bound along the ground like a dog chasing a rabbit out of your backyard. It’s the right mix of carry and roll that produces maximum distance. In our research with the Foresight Sports ballflight model, it was true that the lowest launch angles produced the most roll, sometimes even twice as much roll as the higher launch angles. But the longest drives came when more than 80 percent of the total distance came through the air. In other words, 20 yards more roll won’t make up for 30 yards less carry. But that ideal mix isn’t always obvious, and rarely is it universal.
The general truth is that for slower swingers, more loft will provide more benefits and cause fewer problems than less loft. The more specific truth is that I need to get out there and find Mom a 16-degree driver and maybe a 10-degree driver to try (I think I know a guy). As she likes to say, most recently after discovering she now could stream movies on her iPad that she saw in theaters when she was 10, “You learn something new every day.”