Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Is golf equipment worth what they're charging?

There are a lot of issues that people have with golf. Too slow. Courses are too hard/easy.  The game is too expensive.  All valid concerns sometimes - but I think we have ways of combatting all of them, even down to the smallest nitpick.   Still, golf equipment is at the forefront of the complaints. $500 for a driver? $2500 for a putter? $200 for a golf bag? $50 for a dozen balls that are going to get lost anyway? It's crazy!

The equipment industry has no shortage of pricey items.  From Scotty Camerons that go for upwards of $2000 to sets of irons and "fitting experiences" in the tens of thousands.  Honma even released gold plated clubs!!! Most of these things are more like collectors items than actual gear - and i get that. Everybody wants to have a piece of history or something that they can say "yea i got that" but how much of golf equipment is REALLY worth the cost and how much is a name?  Let's think about this -  is it innovative? Is it manufactured efficiently? Does it perform? Is it THAT much better than what came before it? All very valid questions.   The overwhelming answer however is NO.

Let's look at drivers.  Persimmon heads were the latest tech in the 70s and early 80s.  Thats what they had. Then along comes Taylormade with their steel head "pittsburgh persimmon".  Suddenly, the face is hotter, the weight can be positioned better, and the club LASTS LONGER.  WOW. that's innovation right there.  Worth the price of admission to be sure.  A while goes by and nobody can better the idea other than to make it BIGGER. New innovation. Showed jumps in ease of use, more distance, better sweetspot and more ability to address the club as a canon made to launch the ball as far as possible.  Then comes titanium.  Then comes multimaterial (Failed). Then comes adjustable hosels. Then comes adjustable weight and multimaterial again.  What do all these things have in common? They were innovative at the time and capitalized on new technologies to provide increases in performance.  So where are we now?  On the runway of fashion.

Drivers now are more about looking good than they are about performance. I know you feel you hit that neutron stick farther than your old driver but it's not because it's better. It's because it's FIT better. The technology has revolved around making the clubs prettier rather than getting new technology in them. Some are under the guise of "better feel" or "better sound".  Whatever man.  Is having a club that's a little more tinny sounding than last year's model worth another $399 to you? If it is - then you have too much money.  Rick Shiels recently did a comparison of the last 5 years of clubs from 3 of the biggest OEMs in golf.  The data collected showed there was less than 5 yards difference between them on average.  5 yards, in 5 years. The kicker is - it wasn't even like 5 years ago was 5 yards shorter than this year, it was all over the place.  This is because OEMs are worried about staying relevant and not about pure performance. This leads them to create clubs that underperform in the guise of something that's "revolutionary".

 In this game, you need to have something that catches people's eyes. Something that says "hey we're not just sitting back and counting money, we're actually working on new stuff".   Some come out with new clubs every 2 years, some come out with 2 new clubs every 6 months - but most are still making money and paying pros.  It's a hustle, and YOUR MONEY is the prize. Not one of those drivers is worth the premium you're paying for it. You're better off finding an older driver for hundreds of dollars less.  Still - let's look at some clubs that I think ARE worth the scratch because they're doing something different and the performance backs it up:

Air Force One Golf.  There's not much to talk about here because they don't have a huge line - and that's what makes them good.  AFO has 2 drivers (pro and MOI), fairways, hybrids, 2 lines of irons (AFX and AFX Pro) and a line of wedges.  That's it. Their business is Super Game Improvement or High performance, easy to hit. The thing they do uniquely is Nitrogen charging their clubs.  AFO makes their clubs, puts the weight where they want it, then shaves the face of their woods, hybrids, and some irons down to danger level. After that they pressurize the club with nitrogen, providing weightless support to the face and increasing the forgiveness and getting as close as possible to the maximum limits set by the USGA.  It's brilliant, because it's weightless, unlike some other brands that are pumping elastomers and polyurethane into their heads.  Using nitrogen increases discretional weight and makes a nice POP sound when it's hit. Lofts are increased and weight is lower for the same height. I've never hit a ball as far as i have with the AFX GI irons. If distance is where it's at for you - give them a look.

Directed force putters.  This company revolves around their Reno putter and the proprietary and patented system of weighting and design which allows it to remain square to the putting stroke automatically. It's a potential game changer for every player and definitely shows the technology they say is in the club.  Pricey, yes, at $400 per club but that money is directed into the club itself. Obviously it's not a name. They are very exacting with their tolerances, and obviously the technology speaks for itself as no other putter does what their putter is capable of.

PXG.  Odd to find a bigger manufacturer on my list of "worth it" clubs. Especially one that is one of the more expensive players in the business. Still, PXG has gone onto something with their irons. Specifically the weighting system. By using their Elastomer inside, they free up discretionary weight to make more ports on their irons.  This can really help dial in not only swingweight, but keep that CG where you want it - and look good doing it.  In golf fitting, there is always give and take. You add something somewhere, something else will change and you need to compensate for that.  PXG has done that and kept the club smart looking. I admire that. No wonder it appeals to so many. I wish i had that capability when building and fitting.

Taylormade.  OH shit, OEM #2.   The reason TM is on this list is because of their M1 weighting system.  There have been iterations of what is ultimately one of the most adjustable driver systems in golf over the last 10 years.  The SLDR, the R11/1/15, R7 -  everything revolving around changing the weights and CG of the driver.  It's my personal opinion that the M1 has done it the best so far.  Even with PXG and their circular weight ports, the capability of the M1 to adjust to the golfer is amazing.  One drawback being the single cog sleeve where the entire shaft has to change orientation.  The M1 has the capability to be the lowest and most forward CG of any driver -relative to neutral axis (independent testing)  and still has the capability of being changed to the most forgiving - almost making the M2 obsolete?  They have something special with their rail weights - that most other OEMs have been trying to copy.  Couple that with the  now common multi-material construction and you have a pretty nice weapon.  Of course, it's hit or miss (no pun intended) as some people can't stand the look or the sound of the newest M1. Likewise other clubs.

It's not rocket science - it's harder.  Its' working within parameters to develop and manufacture a product that needs to both appeal physically and through performance enough to perpetuate the system in an EXTREMELY competitive environment.   People often ask why don't I design a driver, or a putter, or irons and why did I stay with wedges?   The answer - Because i don't want to get caught up in the distance races.  Wedges are for scoring. They need to feel good, launch predictably, and spin controllably.  It's a classic shape that is found in nearly every manufacturer and theres' no new technology needed.  It's a "working man's" tool and that's what i like. In my opinion, we've seen what we're going to see out of the golf club until the USGA changes it's parameters. What you see above are my pick for the best bang for your buck in the their tech department.

Gone are the days of cheaper clubs. Muscle back Blades and cavity backs - the most basic and common designs among clubs - are now often more expensive than technology packed "game improvement" irons.  They say things like "tour" and "pro"  and they're not.  They shouldn't cost more than multi-material irons with more steps and more innovation, but they do. Because they look prettier and have prestige associated with them. Truth is, they're relics.  People gravitate toward them because of "feel" and workability and that's fine, but no reason to pay an ultra premium for that. Afterall, isn't that what a golf club is supposed to be? Something that feels good and performs?    Those same people trust drivers that have more technology than their car put into them and don't worry about the pure feel and workability of the humble persimmon anymore.  Did you know - independent testing showed that theres' a 6 yard difference between a persimmon driver and a modern one when comparing apples to apples?  It's not the new materials, it's what they allow engineers to DO with those materials to create a better club. longer shafts, lighter heads, more forgiveness. Having a  big headed driver is not enough - the technology has to provide something extra or else it's just another big headed driver.  Same with irons. Same with putters. Smoke and mirrors and a new sticker on the back.  Take a good hard look at what you're getting for your money. Not just the head - but the shaft, the grip, and the service as well.  They all go together to get the best performance out of your equipment.  If it's not a jump in performance, then use the money and take a lesson - or get a bottle of bourbon. Same result right?

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Shot-Shank Redemption

"How often do you look at a man's shoes?" - the line famously delivered by Ellis "Red" Boyd during Andy Dufresne's last moments as a guest at Shawshank Prison.  I'm sure that most of you retifists lose it over a new pair of Jordans, or need to have a nice pair of going out shoes but that's beside the point.  How much do you really think about your shoes in golf? We may look at the style, name, or comfort of them - even the spike pattern since that's what matters most, right?  What if I told you the reason you shot 85 on tuesday and 99 on wednesday is laced up and matches that Ricky Fowler flat brim perfectly?

So I decided to do a little bit of scientific method throughout my season. After a few WTF rounds of golf and having my wonderful low single digit handicap turn mid, I needed to find out what the hell was going on. Not paying attention for the most part, just marking down everything about my round in the notes. What pair of sunglasses I wore, pants or shorts, how early I got there for the tee time and even the shoes I had worn after each round.  At the beginning, I thought I was honestly wasting my time. I was grasping for straws and I remember thinking to myself there's no way that any of this would be costing me strokes. I can tell you, they most certainly did. Turns out - my shoes were killing my score. No knock on the brand, because I do really like the spikes, but I use 3 pairs of footjoys. 2 pairs of FJ Energize - 1 white/ 1 black and 1 pair of FJ Contour - Brown.  I bought them like anyone would - to match my golf attire when needed. A shoe is a shoe, right? Honestly, I bought the contours because generally I wanted something that I didn't have to change at the course and could just go right out after - Thinking golf shoes were golf shoes. I looked at my notes and noticed something peculiar....

On days that I practiced with a shoe, then golfed the next time with that same shoe I tended to shoot relatively well. One of my best rounds came on the third day of wearing a particular type of shoe in a row. In each instance, I noticed that when I changed from Energize to Contour and vice versa, my score ballooned significantly. Sometimes up to 10 strokes and my ball striking went to hell. Granted, this was not at the forefront of my mind when playing the rounds. I was just playing my game and trying to score.

Slowly a pattern began to emerge.... When I switched shoes, my swing just felt out of sorts for a while. I couldn't figure it out. Nothing was different and I JUST played. I wasn't rusty, but there was no fixing it until the 10th hole or later.  There were even outliers in the rounds where I had changed shoes but my game didn't change. Was it all in my head? Am I just a crazy, neurotic golfer who blames things like shaft label placement and ball marking technique rather than his own swing? I needed a drink.

I glanced over things again and eventually I caught on. Turns out, the Energize are almost 1/2" higher than the Contours. This put my weight a little more neutral at address, since I tend to lean backwards naturally with my weight shift (Thanks, Dr. Scholl's contraption at walmart!). This means that the Energize were actually a better fit for me in terms of posture and weight transfer. It wasn't something I could necessarily feel, but it's something I could compensate for EVENTUALLY when it wasn't there - which was the case. When I changed back to the flatter, more casual Contour style, I needed to consciously change my weight displacement or at least allow for it. This is why it took a good bit of time during the round, or a practice session, to get my bearings.  But what about the days when I changed and I was ok??? I took another sip and thought harder and realized. INSOLES. 

Remember that Dr. Scholl's thing I was talking about? Well it's there to help you choose what insoles are right for you. I have back troubles and can't really walk on hard surfaces for a long time without stopping, stretching, and at the very least saying "ow".   This was because of that rearward CG of mine, and I was putting all the shock and weight on my heels, sending the feedback right up to my spine. Insoles cured that, and I had put them into the Contours when I walked the course making them about 1/2" higher (probably more like 3/8). Closer to the Energize - which felt good enough NOT to put the insoles in. I didn't put them in when I took a cart, or if it was particularly soft out. EUREKA!!! How could I be so dumb?!

Is this a complete study of the subject... no, not by a long shot - BUT you may want to do a little experiment of your own. See which shoes you play best in and what kind of specs they have. Every person will be different, just like using a particular golf club, but you might find that you can actually shave a few strokes wearing a certain type of shoe. There's a lot of talk about stability in the golf swing and the golf shoe, but how much do we really think about the height and balance of our golf shoes?

A couple years back - in a campaign that I believe continues to this day - Shoe companies like Adidas were saying you needed to be as close to the ground as possible. They touted thin soles and "more interaction with the turf".  Sounds good on paper, but we all know that there's only one thing that can keep you stable in the golf swing - balance. Proper weight displacement is 100% the key to a good setup and starting point for the swing. Perhaps it's time for the Carrie Bradshaws of the golf world to take a look in their closets and ask "Does my collection of golf shoes love me as much as I love them?"