The carousel of equipment change recently entered its annual period of overdrive, and it is important to keep up, as Tour validation is proven to lead to pro shop sales. Golf Monthly’s Jake O’Reilly gives us an update, exclusively for GOLF RETAILING
The off-season break is like an extended Christmas for golf equipment junkies, and the 2013/2014 off-season didn’t disappoint, with highlights including Callaway’s biggest driver launch in a decade and new balls from TaylorMade and Nike to challenge the dominance of Titleist’s Pro V1.
Just like the enthusiastic amateur, the world’s best players are keen to find a competitive edge, and have spent the winter testing, comparing, and finally upgrading.
Some tour players have made even bigger changes, altering not just the model they play but the manufacturer too, with notable moves including 2013 BMW PGA Championship winner Matteo Manassero from Titleist to Callaway, and four time Major champion Ernie Els from Callaway to Adams Golf.
Here is a run-down on some of the latest switches, including the new gear that has helped turn Rory McIlroy’s fortunes, and the new irons that helped Jason Day capture his first WGC title in February.
Generally, the most common changes Tour players make to their bags in the off-season are to their woods. This is because new innovations are most common in this area of the golf bag, and players daren’t risk being left behind in the all-important driving distance and accuracy statistics.
This year, the biggest innovation and subsequent changes came following the launch of TaylorMade’s SLDR driver. The stampede of player switches is down to a new theory on centre of gravity (CG) positioning that places the CG closer to the face, and TaylorMade promises this has allowed its engineers to drastically reduce side spin for improved accuracy and distance. While this new position reduces spin, it also decreases the initial launch angle, so the vast majority of professionals and amateurs will need extra loft to maintain their optimum launch angle.
Among the converted include Sergio Garcia, who won the Thailand Golf Championship with his new SLDR driver, Stephen Gallacher who defended his Dubai Desert Classic title with it in play, and Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, who have both won their first WGC titles with the low spinning SLDR in their bags.
Another big driver launch that opened the floodgates for change is Nike’s VRS Covert 2.0. First Rory McIlroy claimed a dramatic win in the Australian Open using the club, which has a larger and longer clubhead than its predecessor for extra forgiveness, before Ross Fisher then dominated the field in the Tshwane Open to claim his fifth European Tour win. World number one Tiger Woods, who is notorious for only playing clubs he has maximum confidence in, has also already upgraded.
Another launch that has drawn a lot of attention is Callaway’s Big Bertha Alpha, which has a new Gravity Core that allows players to adjust their CG position. This option has already led to Open champion Phil Mickelson saying it’s the best driver he has ever hit, allowing him to tame his famously high spinning flight into a penetrating arc. Others joining the American in playing the Alpha include FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai champion Henrik Stenson, Branden Grace – who has since racked up two top-10 finishes – and Matteo Manassero, who chose the driver on joining the Callaway stable over the winter.
Another new, more classic looking driver is PING’s i25, which has displaced Lee Westwood’s G25 and Louis Oosthuizen’s Anser. The i25 features new racing stripe alignment lines, which have proved so popular that Bubba Watson asked for them to be applied to his infamous pink driver.
Another big player move was that of four time Major winner Ernie Els, who joined Adams Golf and wasted no time in putting its equipment in play. The Big Easy now carries two Adams Tight Lies fairway woods (15° and 16.5°) and two Adams Pro Mini hybrids (20° and 23°), which he adapted to very quickly en-route to coming fourth at the WGC Match Play in Arizona.
Els’ switch from Callaway to Adams Golf also saw the South African change his irons to a new prototype XTD Tour model. Els worked with Adams’ team of designers to reduce the offset and sharpen up the rounded edges to get a look at address that he describes as blade like, but with the bonus of extra forgiveness.
Another player who switched brands, and therefore the irons he plays, was Marcel Siem. The former Mizuno man will now play Wilson Staff’s FG Tour M3 irons in the quest for his fourth European Tour title.
The biggest iron introduction ahead of the 2014 season undoubtedly comes via the new Tour Preferred family from TaylorMade. A string of the brand’s biggest names immediately upgraded, including Dustin Johnson to the bladed MB model, Sergio Garcia to the muscle cavity MC and Justin Rose to a combo set containing the more forgiving CB long irons and the more workable MC short irons. Jason Day was one of the legions to put the new irons straight into his bag, after which he won with the MC irons during an exciting battle with Victor Dubuisson in the final of the recent WGC Accenture Match Play.
While driver and iron switches may grab all the headlines, it is often the short game that can be the difference between winning and losing. Two players who are grateful for the chance to upgrade their short games during the off-season are George Coetzee and Scott Stallings, who both won in the opening weeks of 2014 with Titleist’s new Vokey Spin Milled 5 wedges. The wedges were developed by Master Craftsman Bob Vokey with input from Adam Scott and Jason Dufner, and come with more custom options than ever before. The progression from SM4 to SM5 was particularly welcomed by Stallings, whose steep angle of attack and preference for a creative short game is catered for by adding bounce and by a custom sole grind.
There have been fewer changes in the way of putters on Tour, as most golfers prefer to play something they know they are comfortable with under pressure. That said, a few movements from brand to brand did lead to a couple of notable changes, including Manassero moving to an Odyssey Versa 330 mallet, and Els ditching his long putter in favour of a new, short Yes! Cali Mid counter-balanced model. Counter-balancing was the hottest trend of 2013, after golf’s governing bodies confirmed anchoring would be banned as of January 1, 2016. Counter-balanced technology helps replicate the feel of anchoring, and Els is such a fan that he has ditched his long model two years early.
Changing balls is one of the biggest risks a Tour golfer can take. They are the sole piece of golf equipment used on every single shot, good or bad. Rory McIlroy has been raving about his new Nike RZN Black, while Jason Day loves the consistent hop and stop of the new TaylorMade Tour Preferred X, which has replaced the Lethal. Jim Furyk put his trust in Callaway’s HEX Black Tour when he shot a 59 last year, so the new Speed Regime 3 has a lot to live up to, with Furyk joining a host of Callaway staffers to have upgraded in 2014.