At one point in the early 1980s, Dan Pohl was the longest driver on the PGA Tour, averaging 274 yards with the Big Dog. As a teenage spectator watching from afar, I only became aware of him and his prodigious drives at the 1982 Masters. He tore up the back nine and managed to get into a playoff with Craig Stadler, the eventual winner. One thing I did pick up on was that he was using a “metal wood,” and the commentators were analyzing how much this ground-breaking new technology added to his length. I mean, a metal wood! It was the stuff of tomorrow; space-age cool!
This contradiction in terms (how can a wood be made of metal?) was offset by the results. Longer, straighter and more forgiving drives (see, the message hasn’t changed that much in nearly 35 years) resulted from this Pittsburgh Persimmon driver, as one brand so adeptly named it. The sheer audaciousness of this technological breakthrough!
It coincided with the advent of graphite shafts as well. Materials like boron and graphite were enabling club designers to make shafts lighter, stronger and longer, which in turn were delivering more distance with different ball flights. It must have been a golden time for golfing physicists and engineers. No longer were driver heads hand-carved out of blocks of persimmon. These hollow metal heads were designed on computers and cast in volume production lines with high yields and consistency. They offered strength and versatility. The marketing guys were shaping up for a field day. How could they lose?
Very quickly the golf shops filled up with these new metal woods. Persimmon had been around forever and still had its place for the purists, but once Ely Callaway got on board with his Big Bertha creation in 1991, we effectively waved goodbye to wooden-headed clubs forever.
I’d made my mind up that this was the future, so I set about as a 15-year-old aspiring golfer to acquire one. At that age it’s all about the shiny stuff, right? For the previous 12 months, I was learning the game with a Ben Hogan persimmon driver, my pride and joy. It was considered at the time “state of the art” with good quality persimmon and a fancy “speed slot.”
According to a Hogan ad, the slot was a “new and original idea to increase club head speed. This is not a theory, but a fact proven by a well-known physicist!” In terms of specs it said “1” on the sole; I had no idea what loft it was, only that it had a stiff shaft. I got it because it felt nice and I went off and learned how to hit it. The biggest modification I had was putting a new grip on it. The face of the club had four screws, and when you caught one the expression “hit it on the screws” became a very memorable feeling.
The Hogan stick was dropped quicker than a hot potato when I discovered metal. I soon managed to snag my first metal wood, a Titleist PT 9-degree driver from the second-hand bin in my local golf shop. I can’t remember exactly how much I paid for it, though; yes, it was that long ago. It had a steel shaft with a gleaming silver-and-grey color scheme. Man, that head was huge compared to my old Hogan. And from the day and hour I got the new metal driver, I never looked back to a wooden driver. I was sold. I was able to really wallop that thing, and over the next couple of years I nearly wore it out. I could even pick it off the fairway very successfully when my eye was in.
I quickly added a metal three wood — first from Titleist and then from Wilson Staff — and a metal five wood from Mizuno, which was an early predecessor to the hybrid. It had a small head and I was able to hit that thing from almost any lie. It had a gold boron shaft, too. To me, it was so high tech that it almost felt like cheating.
Over the years, I gamed the later offerings from Titleist as well as the latest clubs from TaylorMade, Callaway, Tour Edge, Cobra and Ping. I’ve tried most and make a point of keeping up to date with the latest technology. But how much more technical has it become? It’s interesting that Dan Pohl’s leading stats are now laughable compared with numbers of Tony Finau, who hits it an average of 314 yards per poke. That’s 40 yards folks!
There are now titanium heads, carbon heads, composite heads, face inserts, moveable weights, speed slots, and variable lofts and lies. Launch monitor technology has given us access to knowledge and a level of customization far beyond what we once knew. My specs from 20 years ago were “8.5 degrees with a stiff shaft.” Now I can print off a sheet that looks like it was generated by NASA highlighting my smash factor, spin rates, launch angles, ball speed and what I had for breakfast. A pro can now recommend the perfectclub for me.
Over the last 10 years, the big buzz has been the spring-like effect known as Coefficient of Restitution (COR). Coupled with head size getting to space-hopper proportion, the authorities decided to step in to limit what was possible. So COR is now limited to 0.830 and the maximum club head size to 460 cubic centimeters in an attempt to “maintain the challenge of the game.”
It’s now all about materials science, manufacturing tolerances and optimizing shape for maximum speed. Scientists have access to nanomaterials that are used in aerospace construction. Callaway just co-designed their latest offering with help from Boeing! Moveable weight systems coupled with variable lofts and lies means we can tweak our drivers to our heart’s content if an effort to optimize a high-launch, low-spin, straight drive. We now also have our own custom colors and decals.
Imagine what our drivers will look like in 30 years! Oh, and then there is the “frigging golf ball”, as Jack so eloquently put it, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant!