Driven – Finding The Best Driver To Suit You

It takes the right impact conditions to hit the golf ball as far as 300 yards
It takes the right impact conditions to hit the golf ball as far as 300 yards

It’s illusive.  It’s powerful.  Almost every golfer chases the “one” – that tee shot with a driver that you talk about for days, months, maybe even years.  So how do you make this inspiring moment happen?

There is no magic formula – this is not a tale of fairy dust and hope.  You can hit the ball long with the right equipment and the proper delivery of the golf club.  Notice I did not say “swing”?  The golf ball responds to pure physics, not style, although how you swing can change the impact conditions you create.

So let’s get “Driven” and take a deeper look, well beyond “buy this” and “swing hard” to understand what all goes into a great tee shot.

We’ve Come A Long Way

At one time golf clubs were close to disposable. Drivers were fairly cheap.  Golfers flipped back and forth through them without much thought for cost or expense.  Quite often it was necessary as we were all seeking to find a club that was just right for us and “fitting” was a foreign concept. You just tried as many as possible.

Now the cost of a leading brand driver can touch $500 or higher. The good news is this, we don’t need to guess at what fits us…if we are willing to take some time to get it right. The process is much more refined today than just ten years ago.  Technology and advancements in knowledge by golf club fitting professionals has taken a lot of mystery out of the process.

At least that should be the case.

Take the story of a recent trip to a large retailer told to me by a reader as an example.  Seeking a new driver he ventured into his favourite golf shop with the thought of replacing his decade old driver in mind.  He had tried a few modern clubs at recent demo days and was eager to upgrade.  It was painfully obvious that the new, larger designs were noticeably easier to hit.

After just two swings in a simulator a friendly sales person looked at the limited launch data and handed him another driver.  “That one’s too spinny for you,” he noted as the reason for the new offering.  The golfer had no time to tell him that he had barely hit the ball on the face of the first driver before he was pushed into a $550 model.  The golfer’s first swing with the second club produced a much better result, as testified by the simulator, and he was told instantly that “it was definitely the right club for him.”

Thankfully the golfer left without purchasing the golf club after his 20 minute “fitting”. 

Such a session is hardly enough to verify that a club (especially given the cost commitment) would be an effective driver to  help him play better golf.

Sadly, this is the process (or even less) that golfers often take to make a driver purchase.  And unfortunately they usually end up disappointed, only to repeat the cycle.

As an amateur golfer it is understandable that you can’t always get access to world class golf fitting like the top tour pros do but that does not mean you cannot at least heed their advice.

How about the words of world #1 player Rory McIlroy, who shared his perspective with us last summer on fitting, especially the driver.

Rory McIlroy understands the importance of the many factors that influence his ability to be a good driver of the golf ball. He related that during a conversation last summer at the opening of the Nike Fitting Center at Archerfield Golf Club in East Lothian, Scotland. (Photo: Scott MacLeod, Flagstick.com)
Rory McIlroy understands the importance of the many factors that influence his ability to be a good driver of the golf ball. He related that during a conversation last summer at the opening of the Nike Fitting Center at Archerfield Golf Club in East Lothian, Scotland. (Photo: Scott MacLeod, Flagstick.com)

“Custom fitting should make the game easier for you.  If you have the right club in your hand then you are maybe able to neutralize the bad shot you have. Whether you hit the ball right to left or left to right it sort of neutralizes that for you. It lets you launch the ball at the right angle; it lets you put the right spin on it. It makes the game just that little bit simpler. You know if you have the right club in your hand and you’re playing the right ball you’ll be able to play to your potential.”

So where do you start?  It’s not by listening to the latest ads that promise unbelievable yardage gains simply by purchasing a club.  New products, with their enhanced technology, can certainly assist your quest for more distance and accuracy but you have to have a better understanding of what you are getting into to get the most of your purchase.

Specific clubs from certain manufacturers offer options that can better suit you but outside of the subjective choice of brand, look, sound and feel, there is a lot of objective factors that are part of a proper driver fitting.

A little knowledge about these elements goes a long way.

The Terms

You hear a lot of language these days when drivers are discussed.  Often you feel left in the dark when people assume you know what they are talking about.  But words alone have little bearing on your choice of driver, you have to understand what they mean and why it matters.  In the end, the ball flight is really all you care about, right?

A perfect swing and impact with the driver and golf ball would occur on the centre of the clubface, or more correctly, at the centre of the mass.  Since this does not always occur, for the most part drivers are designed to make up for your errors, to a point of course.

When you hear instructors speaking about shot shapes occurring because of certain variables like the face angle and path of the golf club, this is usually related based on the “utopia” of a perfect strike.  Those are rare so many other things outside of that ideal impact act to change how the golf ball flies.

That has to be understood by a fitter to get you into the best driver for your game.

Word/Definition/Why It Matters

THE CLUB

Centre of Gravity (Centre of Mass)

The Centre of Gravity  (CG) is the singular spot in a clubhead that represents all its balance points.   The CG may be high or low relative to the crown or sole of the club or the face and rear of the club.

The CG is a big subject these days in drivers, especially among those that allow weight adjustments that alter the placement of mass.

A more rearward CG (with all other factors being unchanged) creates a higher spin and higher launch.  A more forward CG results in lower spin and lower launch.

The height of the CG has the biggest effect when impact is above or below it.  When you have a higher CG and you impact the ball below CG it results in a lower launch and a higher spin rate.  With a lower CG and an impact above it you get a higher launch and lower spin.   

Obviously we have golf clubs available now with moveable weights.  These act to adjust the CG of a club to promote a certain effect.  A fitter can tune them properly to best suit your swing and desired ball flight.

Moment of Inertia

Basically this is the resistance to twisting around the centre of gravity.  The higher the MOI the more reduced the opening or closing of the face occurs when a golf ball is struck off the heel (closed) or toe (open).   Current drivers have a maximum MOI of 5900 g/cm2 mandated by the rules of golf.  In most cases the maximum size driver of  460 cubic centimetres will have a higher MOI than a 440cc or 420cc model, depending on design elements.    Some golfers will choose a smaller driver with a lower MOI to take advantage of more twist and higher gear effect (see below) to help shape shots.

Gear Effect

Striking the golf ball in the centre of he driver negates any gear effect. (Photo: Scott MacLeod, Flagstick.com)
Striking the golf ball in the centre of he driver negates any gear effect. (Photo: Scott MacLeod, Flagstick.com)

This is partially why a golf ball hit off centre changes direction. When you hit a golf ball away from the Centre of Gravity the clubhead twists and causes the ball to spin back towards the CG because the golf ball and clubhead are linked together like gears, thus the name.

This is very important in diagnosing ball flight for fitting purposes.  For example, a ball strike towards the toe of the club will spin the ball left for a right handed golfer. On a very sound swing you can create a hooked shot that a fitter may think is happening for another reasons.  This is horizontal gear effect.

Vertical gear effect occurs on the top and bottom of the club face, above and below the CG.  A shot hit lower than the CG will spin the ball more (upwards technically) while a ball struck above the CG will spin less (fighting against other factors that create spin).

In many cases a fitter might diagnose a golfer as needing some other element of their swing or club changed to increase or reduce spin when in actuality the vertical strike location is the reason for the result they see.

Gear effect from a miss-hit causing an unusual shot shape leads to many issues when fitting.  This MUST be taken into account by the fitter to eliminate it as the cause of a certain ball flight.

To check if a poor strike and gear effect is causing a shot shape a fitter should use a spray on the face the shows the impact point with the ball or use a system like GEARS or Foresight with HMT that indicates it precisely.  Even a contact a few millimetres away from the CG will make a difference.

In our testing the use of face stickers to indicate contact was only good for just that, it actually acted to increase launch angle and increase spin.  It should be used to indicate contact point only.

COR (Co-efficient of Restitution)

These days a test for “Characteristic Time” is done on golf clubs but all you need to know is the Rules of Golf limit how “springy” a golf club face can be.  A golf club is designed to flex and return energy back to the ball with the driver being the most flexible.  A perfect on-centre strike on a driver that is at the COR limit will return golf ball speeds at about 1 1/2 times what the clubhead speed is.

Most drivers are maxed out these days so nothing you need to worry about here.

Shaft Length

Many modern drivers are 46” long(or even longer) to try and help the golfer create a wider arc and more clubhead speed.  Unfortunately the ability to control a long shaft may diminish the returns.  A TrackMan University Masters Thesis study by Don Irving showed that although many golfers can generate higher clubhead speeds with a longer shaft it did not always equate to longer drives. 

“The individual golfer’s ability to find the centre of the face is often dictated by the length of the club, says Irving.  “I think people are afraid that if they go to a shorter driver, they will lose club head speed and therefore distance.  It is possible that the club head speed may drop, but it is not a drastic drop and if a lower club head speed allows better impact the tradeoff is well worth it.”

Be cautious and get be sure to test drive shafts of various lengths looking to more than clubhead speed to guide your selection process.

As you’ll note in from the gear effect section…centred contact is key to controlling your shots and centred contact also promotes higher ball speeds (*note, slight toe hits can create a higher speed to a degree but have diminished returns when too far from the CG).

Shaft Flex/Shaft Profile/Weight

The overall stiffness and stiffness in various areas of shaft that affect how the attached club head reacts to your golf swing.

“Fitting for the flex is a matter of finding a shaft with the correct swing speed rating for the golfer’s clubhead speed AND transition/tempo, while fitting the bend profile involves matching the tip stiffness design of the shaft to the golfer’s point of release,” says Tom Wishon, renowned as one of the leading golf club designers and fitting experts.

There are no industry standards between manufacturers on how to designate shaft flex so it is imperative that the a golfer not choose a shaft based on a simple letter designation they see on a golf shaft.  A quality fitter will have access to the information and data that will allow them to best match up a golfer with the product that will suit their swing characteristics.

Shaft Weight

The overall weight of the driver shaft.  In graphite, this can measure as little as 40 grams all the way to 110 grams, although most driver shafts fall in the 60-80 gram range.

The shaft weight must fit the force of transition created by the golfer, their tempo, their rhythm and overall strength.  There is also a preference factor here.  The proper shaft will help the golfer have more consistent swings, impacts, and results.

Sound/Feel

This is a very subjective topic so it really comes down to the preference of the player.  For a long while manufacturers worked to make their clubheads louder to make them sound “long” but soon that reached a limit. With the current trend of using multiple materials in club heads, “tuning” the sound has become an integral part of club head design and engineering.  It’s not uncommon to hear a duller sound (often achieved through a thicker crown) in heads intended for use by “better”, higher speed players while those made for average players, slower swinging players, usually have a louder pitch.

Sound, you may not be aware, equates a lot to feel so it plays a part in personal preferences.  The characteristics of a shaft also contribute to the feel of the club, especially in regards to impact.

Shape

Head shapes are a preference in look but usually always impact how the golf club reacts to the golf ball at impact and the resulting shot. (Photo: Nike Golf)
Head shapes are a preference in look but usually always impact how the golf club reacts to the golf ball at impact and the resulting shot. (Photo: Nike Golf)

Rory McIlroy prefers a fuller profile clubhead while Tiger Woods likes a more compact shape.  Driver heads usually have a more pear type shape with a longer face and more width from front to back or a more “button” style that is shorter to the back and may have a deeper face.   Generally the teardrop styles occur in the larger heads that have a higher MOI.  Again this is a preference in look but it is often attached to other playing characteristics.  Companies like Nike Golf offer three different shaped heads in their Vapor line.

Clubhead Volume

460 cubic centimetres is the maximum while some pros will go with models as small as 380 cubic centimetres.  This choice may be a preference based on look or higher/lower stability.  Most average golfers will appreciate the larger hitting surface and stability of a larger clubhead.  Contrary to belief, a larger head does not automatically make the ball go further, although it can assist in this department by providing a straighter ball flight due to higher MOI.

Loft

The angle of the clubhead relative to the vertical centre line of the shaft in a static position.  This is very important fitting variable when it comes to optimizing the launch of the driver when combined with how you deliver the golf club.

Face Compression/Flex

While driver heads have been designed to flex for some time the overall structure for most in the past had a sole that was more rigid than the crown.  This “differential” of flex often meant strikes low on the clubhead might contribute to higher spin rates.   In testing various drivers with and without some sort of flexibility in the lower part of the driver face (this is achieved through the use of channels or some other method of lessening the structure in this clubhead area) we found that strikes low on the face on drivers with some sort of lower face flexibility did not increase in spin rate as much as those without it.  The result is not losing as much distance due to excessive spin on those with greater lower face flexibility.

This is a continuing trend and something golfers who consistently strike the ball low in the face can take advantage of.

The Impact Situation

DELIVERING THE CLUB (That’s You)

Club Speed

Launch monitors help us more accurately measure the way we deliver the golf club to the ball. (TrackMan screen capture)
Launch monitors help us more accurately measure the way we deliver the golf club to the ball. (TrackMan screen capture)

The speed the clubhead is travelling at impact with the ball.

This is a major contributor to the potential distance you can hit the golf ball depending on a wide number of variables between your clubhead design and the golf club delivery.  An easy formula for maximum potential distance is 2.75 yards x the miles per hour of your clubhead speed.   It can be closer to 3 yards per mph in extreme club delivery conditions (max angle of attack, optimal spin rate, optimal dynamic loft, etc.).

The average clubhead speed with a driver on the PGA TOUR (according to statistics provided by Trackman) is 113 mph. It is 94 mph on the LPGA Tour.

Angle of Attack

The direction the clubhead is moving up or down at impact.

An upward attack angle with the driver can help maximize distance.  This alone will not guarantee extra distance, you must factor in the loft of the club (both static and dynamic).

A golfer who swings 95 mph with a driver but has an attack angle of -5 (degrees) has the potential to hit the ball (carry & roll) of 247 yards…if they change the angle of attack to 5 degrees upward (with some club loft adjustments) they can potentially hit the ball 276 yards.  (All figures courtesy of TrackMan)

Having a fitter understand (and measure) your angle of attack is critical in fitting if you want to achieve maximum distance.

Club Path

This is the direction (left or right) that the club head is moving at impact.  While most people think of this in two dimensions (in to out and out to in) the upward or downward movement of the club (angle of attack) also has an influence of changing the true path which is not visible by the human eye.

Dynamic Loft

This is the loft of the club at impact.  It is likely different than the static loft of your club depending on how you deliver the club.  How a golfer swings will affect what loft they present to the ball when combined with the static loft.  Again, knowing what loft you deliver at impact with a driver will help you get fitted to maximize your driving distance potential.

Face Angle

This is the direction the club is pointed (left or right) at impact with the ball.

The most important factor in where the golf ball starts its flight.  Various control factors (like weight of the club, for example) can affect this and be accounted for in a driver fitting.   Most driver clubheads also offer some adjustability so this can be used to influence the starting direction of the golf ball.

Face To Path

This is the difference between the face angle and the club path.  On a centered contact this is the primary factor in determining how much the ball curves during a shot.

Spin Loft/Compression

This a term new to many but it’s become known that this is the biggest factor in determining spin rate.  It is measurement of the angle between the dynamic loft (the loft of the club actually presented at impact) and the angle of attack.

Unless a fitter has access to a proper launch monitor (TrackMan, Flightscope, Foresight w/ HMT) or a system like GEARS which can measure these two parameters it is difficult to determine if changes in spin rate during a driver fitting are due to the shaft or clubhead used or are a result of the changes in the spin loft due to variances in the dynamic loft and attack angle.

Because a reduction in spin rate (to a certain level, you need enough spin to keep the ball in the air) usually equates to a higher smash factor this is also known as compression – as in a lower spin loft equals more compression.

Ball Launch Conditions

The Ball

Every golf ball has different flight and spin characteristics, you should be fit with the golf ball you normally play.  This eliminates variables that will have an impact on your final results.

Ball Speed

This is the speed of the golf ball immediately after impact with the clubhead.

This is created by the combination of the club head speed and the impact with the ball.  Less than optimal contact will lower club head speed. Strikes on the ball that are not “flush” will result in lower ball speeds and lower potential carry distance.

The PGA TOUR average ball speed is 167 mph. The average on the LPGA Tour is 127 mph.

Smash Factor

The basic definition is the ball speed divided by the clubhead speed.  There are a number of factors in this equation but these are the key ones.   It shows your ability to transfer energy from the clubhead to the ball, obviously affected by the quality of the strike.

It shows if you are getting the most out of the clubhead speed you can generate.

PGA TOUR and LPGA Tour average is 1.49.

Launch Angle

This is the angle relative the ground that the golf ball takes off on.

It is an important factor in how high a golf shot flies and how far is goes.

Fitting will take into account launch angle and spin rate to optimize the arc of the ball flight.

PGA TOUR Average with driver: 10.9 degrees

LPGA Tour Average with driver: 14.1 degrees

Launch Direction

This is the starting direction of the golf ball flight relative to the target line.  The greatest factor in determining this is face angle at impact.   It does not affect the curve of the shot, only where it starts.

Spin Rate

How much the golf ball is spinning right after impact, normally measured in revolutions per minutes (RPM’s).   We want to control spin rate with drivers to control the trajectory.  Higher spin rates increase the trajectory and result in a steeper landing angle.  It is opposite for lower spin rates.  The rate must be optimized to match the other launch conditions.

Spin Axis

Taking wind out of the equation, this what causes the curvature of a golf shot.

If you hear a fitter start speaking about “sidespin” and “topspin” in terms of shot curvature then be wary.  A golf ball only spins on a single axis, how far it is tilted one way or the other creates curvature.  Think about it like an airplane tilting its wings, creating the curve of its flight.

A golf ball with a pure spin axis (without wind) will fly dead straight; it’s a nearly impossible shot to achieve. Relatively straight is possible.

Spin axis is created by the club face to club path relationship or gear effect from a ball strike outside of the centre of gravity on the club face.

Height

This is a measurement of the maximum height, or apex, of a golf shot.

The height is created by a number of variables but the result is that the height optimizes how far a golf ball will fly as well as the landing angle and related roll.

Height needs to be optimized relative to ball speed to achieve the best carry and roll.

PGA TOUR Average (Driver) 32 Yards

LPGA Tour Average (Driver) 25 Yards

Carry

This is the distance a golf ball flies through the air.  Players can choose to maximize carry or overall distance in a fitting, one does not always create the other.  Some players, depending on the course or conditions they play regularly may prefer to target a longer carry over maximum distance.

PGA TOUR Average (Driver) 275 Yards

Average Male Golfer (14.5 handicap) 195 Yards

LPGA Tour Average (Driver) 218 Yards

Average Female Golfer (15 Handicap) 149 Yards

Landing Angle

The angle of descent for the golf ball as it reaches level ground.  A lower landing angle will result in more roll.  That may reduce the amount of carry but increase the overall distance of a ball flight.  A flatter angle is therefore more desirable for a driver flight versus an iron shot where we want the ball to stop near the hole.

By working on other factors like launch angle and spin rates you can control the landing angle.

PGA TOUR Average (Driver) 38 degrees

LPGA TOUR Average (Driver) 37 degrees

Now What?

After wading through the content above your head might be spinning a bit; that’s understandable.  The good part is that the ability to understand all these terms and insight is the responsibility of the person who is fitting you to your golf club.

A quality fitter will have a strong grasp of ALL the elements that impact your driver selection and resulting ball flight.  They will focus in on the details that will help you hit the ball with more control and distance, as matched to how you deliver the club.  They should be able to diagnose any faults with your current club and explain all the factors that can help you drive it better with a new, properly fit, one.

The depth of the details involved in driver fitting demonstrates that when you make an investment in a new driver, and yes, it is an investment, not a gamble, the process should be a little more elaborate.

You can actually get a driver that helps you get the desired results (within your given abilities, of course) through a proper fitting process. Engineers and designers at golf companies are making some amazing products these days, it’s just a matter of matching the right one to you.

As fun as it might be to have a rotation of drivers going through your golf bag, that process of random purchases is unlikely to hit on one that is really optimal.

A proper fitting helps to lead you to the right driver.

Think about it relative to a lottery, but one that rewards you with long, straight drives.  If you could increase your chances of winning  wouldn’t you?

Do yourself a favour and get fitted for your next driver.

About the Author – Scott MacLeod is the Associate Publisher at Flagstick.com, Flagstick Golf Magazine, and Ontario Golf News. He is a former golf equipment retailer and has worked in the golf industry since the age of 15. A PGA of Canada Candidate for Membership, he is a Titleist Certified Fitting Professional. He’s an admitted “golf equipment geek”.