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Driver Test

We invited the leading manufacturers in golf to build a driver to the specifications of senior tour player Tony Johnstone (average swing speed 106 mph) and then we went to out to test them.

Choosing a driver is a very personal thing to all golfers. Along with your favourite putter and a couple of prize wedges, it's a club that you actually get very attached to, and one that's hugely important in terms of your ability to get the ball in play and put yourself in a position to score.

A good driver is worth its weight in gold.

The first thing I look for is the head shape – the sex appeal, if you like. It's important that you like the look of a driver. That alone breeds confidence. In that respect I'm a bit biased. I grew up with persimmon drivers and soft balatas , and I do prefer a more traditional look. A pear-shaped head, and preferably on the smaller side. I don't mind if the back of the clubhead is packed with technology – I can live with that. It's the look of the face that matters.

I like the face to be square, but then I'm a professional golfer. For many amateurs a slightly toed-in face can be an obvious benefit for its draw-inducing qualities. Personally, I'm looking for a neutral to slight fade, so I want a club that's neutral, one I can 'work'. These days a growing number of manufacturers can tweak this for you, adjusting the hosel. They have different sleeves they can put in to adjust the face angles, so there's a terrific variety out there.

For the purpose of this exercise, I supplied my current driver specs to the mainline manufacturers invited to take part and the majority have played ball, making up a driver for me. But we need to stress up front that not all manufacturers use the Grafalloy ProLite, which is the shaft I have used for a few years now, and so we're not always comparing like with like. But all of the drivers on test are available to all golfers – they are not made up on the tour van with the sort of components that are simply not on the open market.

I want to stress that point. I'm not going to tell you what a great club such and such a model is....then tell you you can't have it! The Grafalloy ProLite shaft I use suits my swingspeed (around 106mph average) and the way I 'load' the driver. It's a 65 gram shaft, Sflex. I've used that for several years now, although I have recently been testing the Aldila Voodoo shaft in a TaylorMade r9 and really like the feel and performance that gives me. (I actually have two shafts for the r9 – the Grafalloy and the Voodoo – and simply change them as and when I need a different flight. So modern technology is even helping an old fart like me!).

Set up-wise I use a standard length shaft, 44.5 inches, and don't like to see too much loft – 8.5 degrees max. I also like the grip to be a Golf Pride Tour Velvet, size 60 round, with extra layers of tape under the right hand. That feels more comfortable to me and helps me to feel and release the right hand. That's something to talk to your pro about. Most amateurs don't take grip thickness into account.

My swing & ball flight I have always tended to hit the ball pretty low, but I've also tended to be quite steep on it at impact. So I tend to launch low with high spin – a climber, which is not what you need off the tee. I don't generally get a lot of run on the ball. So I'm looking for a cub that will launch a little bit higher but with a low spin rate and – hopefully – come down at an angle that will give me a few yards extra run (the 'Vertical Descent' angle, as it's known).

And you know, I've been astonished in recent weeks and months at the difference working with this type of equipment – the Flightscope – actually makes. I could stand on the range hitting drivers all afternoon, then pick out one I think is right, only to use a Flightscope and discover that the spin and the behaviour of the ball at the end of the range is nothing like I thought. These things are invaluable devices.

No third party test can ever really help you to identify precisely the make and model that might best suit your game. But I hope that some of my observations and suggestions do help you to ask the right questions when you go to speak with your pro. That really is the key to getting fitted with the right gear. And if your pro happens to have a Flightscope system, then you're in for a treat as it's better than any golf lesson.

My current ball is the Titleist Pro V1, and the difference between that and the Pro V1x is I actually hit the Pro V1 slightly further, if anything. I prefer the softer ball for around the greens. When I was with Callaway I preferred the HX rather than the HX Tour. (The ball I loved was the Rule 35 – I nearly had a heart attack when Callaway cancelled that ball six or seven years ago. So did Monty – but I digress.)

Coming up are the results I experienced hitting half a dozen balls with each model. It was a lot of fun, and I hope that you identify a couple of models here that you get to try this summer.

Looks & feel: A little lofted (this is a 9 degree) and also a fraction toed-in, which doesn't suit me. Otherwise I like the shape of the head. The Nanospeed i model tested is fitted with a proprietary Yonex shaft, and it feels good in the hands. The club sits well and ‘frames' the ball nicely. Performance: First impressions are that I'm getting a lot of spin off the clubface (as confirmed by Flightscope), even though the toed-in face promotes a draw, which brings the spin down. A solid feel at impact and the shots were flighting through the wind quite nicely,but the launch angle was fairly low, which didn't help the carry. For the golfer looking for a high, right-to-left flight this driver – fitted with the right shaft – would be well worth looking at.

Looks & feel: I actually have the previous model, the Mizuno MX-600, which is amore traditional shape and I like it a lot. TheMX-700 (like the Yonex) is clearly geared to help golfers eliminate a slice – it is toed-in and has a relatively shallow face. The head is a little bigger than I would ordinarily go for, but it sits well and certainly invites you to hit it. Right from the first shot I was getting a big draw – no surprises there. Performance: It does exactly what it says on the tin. I would struggle with this model as my eye likes to see a left-to-right shot, and it was tough to hit anything other than a high draw. So again I can see this being a popular driver among a lot of amateur players looking to get the right-to-left shape going and achieve more distance. The acoustics are good, and Flightscope recorded good carry and ball-flight.

Looks & feel: Although the G10 is a 460cc driver it doesn't look that big and is really inviting behind the ball. I like the crescent visual (aiming mark) on top of the head. All in all a good looking stick straight out of Ping's top drawer. Performance: And the figures back it all up: this club has been made exactly to my specifications and the thing we noticed first of all was that the carry of the drives went up. I could play with this club. I like the launch off the face. And I can work the ball with this club; I can move it with a fade or a draw. It's solid across the face, and a serious sound. Flightscope: The benefits of a club that has been made to measure: not only did Tony achieve good carry with this club but the ‘Decent Vertical' reading of 37 degrees – that's the angle at which the ball falls out of the sky – is just about perfect for the ultimate combination of carry and roll.

Looks & feel: I'm told that Padraig Harrington has tested this model for his club makers,Wilson, and I can see why he might like it: this is a more traditional club, more of a player's club, and this one is perfectly set up with the Grafalloy ProLite 65 g S-flex shaft, so it immediately felt like a club I could use. It has a nice rounded head, but at the same time a square face, which I like. For someone who grew up with smaller-looking heads, this fits the bill. Performance: Excellent feel off the clubface and a great flight on the ball. The shaft feels just right for me, but the launch angle is a tad higher than I would ideally look for and it felt a touch spinny. But it feels solid and sounds good, too. A bit like the Nike SQ Dymo, this would be a good driver at altitude, where you are looking for a high launch to maximise your distance.

Looks & feel: This is a nice strong head which suits my eye. Leaving aside the bow at the back it's actually quite a traditional shape and you immediately get the impression you could work the ball with it. Performance: A slightly ‘tinnier' sound than some, but a great feel and a solid strike every time. The notable feature was the trajectory – the ‘Descent Vertical' angle was 53 degrees (the highest of the day). Ideally, Richard Blamey explained, you should be looking for a reading of around 35 degrees. This would be a good driver for me in calm conditions – somewhere like Jo'berg at altitude. It's going to give me plenty of carry, not much run (the hang time was also top of the day at 7.1 seconds). I'd be happy with this in the bag.With a little tweaking (I'd like to try it with the Grafalloy shaft), this driver could work very well.

Looks & feel: Interestingly, those lines you see on the top of the clubhead are there to assist you in taking the club away on the desired inside path – a terrific idea that would help 99%of amateurs. I really like the look of the clubface. In fact, if you cover up the back two-thirds of the clubhead the Diablo looks just like the FT9. Both get my vote. Performance: First impressions are favourable – a strong flight, nice solid sound. For me it tends towards a slight fade, which suits my eye on the tee. It doesn't feel quite as hot as the FT9 (ball speed was fractionally down) but was still one of the longest drivers I hit all day. And it gives you that high trajectory that still looks like it's just going to land and go. Again, a very ‘workable driver' – perfect for hitting the slider, which is a favourite shot of mine. Personally, I prefer the look of the FT9; a youngster might prefer the look of this. All boils down to taste.

Looks & feel: I like the fact that the face is prominent, well forward of the shaft. Because the FT9 features a fairly long head from front to back it doesn't look too wide from toe to heel. But it does look very powerful behind the ball. Performance: Sounds solid and the ball seemed to fly straight through the wind with low spin. That sort of low penetrating flight is a real bonus when you're steep on the ball like I am. Probably the most solid sounding and feeling of all the drivers on the test. I was able to work the ball both ways, which is a hugely important factor for me. Flightscope verdict: The FT9 is the lowest-spinning driver Callaway has ever produced, so the guys on tour tend to go up in loft to accommodate for that. The vertical descent angle of 35 degrees is ideal for maximising the combination of flight and roll – as it was, this registered the longest carry on the day.

Looks & feel: Again, a traditional looking pear-shaped driver from Nickent, but this time with the option of two interchangeable shafts for two distinct ball flights. UST Proforce V2 and V2 High Launch, a simple twist with a wrench doing the job. A quite nice looking head, reminiscent of the Titleist. Pear-shaped. Sits square to a fraction shut, but loft is good for me. Looks good. Performance: Quite a deep head which will inspire confidence for a lot of golfers, and I snag the base a little on the turf – there's a lot happening on the bottom of the club. Not a lot of play for me, in the stiff shaft, so we switched. Lighter shaft better. Good strike felt very good. High launch but not too climby – reasonable distance. I picked up significant distance by teeing the ball up higher.

Looks & feel: A good looking head, sort of what you get used to with Titleist. A genuine player's club, a traditional sort of shape, not too big. Like the look of it. Great aiming device on the top of the head. A club I could put straight in the bag, especially as this is fitted with the Grafalloy I like. Performance: Beautiful launch angle and flight, slide fade, but overall felt very good. Sound a little more muted compared to some – quite a solid, serious, sound, which you do tend to get from Titleist. Very consistent results. Flightscope: The carry is immediately up, ball speed up and spin moderate. Launch angle around 11 degrees and good vertical decent. This is a traditional low-spnning driver. All round good figures.

Looks & feel: By some margin the smallest head of all the drivers on test, which reflects Muira's positioning as a company that aims at the better player who likes classic shapes and values the ability to work the ball. To me, the head sits a little ‘shut' behind the ball. It also appears a little more lofted than the 8.5 degrees stamped on the sole, and the high flight would seem to confirm that. Performance:While the ball off the face feels extremely solid, it was clear within just a couple of shots that the shaft does not suit my swing. The Muira achieved the accolade of highest (109 feet) and also longest hang time (7 seconds). Distance, though was pretty good.With the right shaft (this one had too much ‘kick') and slightly more neutral face, this would be one I'd like to experiment with. I like the sound of it and a terrific feel.

Looks & feel: Settling the club behind the ball, the first thing that strikes you is the degree to which this model is toed-in, and it's also significantly more lofted than I would use.What you have to remember, of course, is that the Seve Icon from MD Golf is designed as a game-improvement club aimed at higher handicap players. This model is fitted with a UST V2 shaft, which is the standard shaft at the quoted price. Performance: A slightly tinny, hollow, sound off the face, but surprisingly solid feel and ball flight. Moderate spin rates and respectable carry. A solid performer which would work better for me with a shaft that I was accustomed to. But overall a very good performer at the price point. The overall results showed slightly less carry than the leading models, but you know it really was not that far behind.

Looks & feel: The r9 is one of my favourites out there right now. This one was made up for my and I've been using it on tour for the last couple of weeks. TaylorMade understand what better players are looking for and this is a reasonably small, traditionally-shaped head. The chief talking point surrounding the r9 is its adjustability – there are just so many combinations you can put into this baby. But I do like the look of it. The technology is fascinating. And it works. Performance: A joy to hit, I just love the ball flight with this club. It delivers a relatively low flight, very neutral, easy to work in either direction. Both the clubhead speed and ball speed are up at the upper end of the table – which just goes to show how you can maximise performance with professional custom fitting. I hit my longest carry of the day with the second ball.

Looks & feel: This was one of the big surprises on the day – the Nicklaus Dual Point retails for a significantly lower price point, but you'd never know it. I really like the look of this head, it's a traditional driver with a gently rounded face. Sits well behind the ball. I would add an aiming mark on the top. Performance: A little on the loud side – not ear-shattering – but produced a good launch angle and the ball felt solid off the clubface. The data reported 2,800rpmspin, 10.8 degree launch. [This was fitted with the Grafalloy ProLaunch as opposed to the ProLite –maybe I've been using the wrong shaft all these years!]. A really pleasing launch angle, and a neutral flight. Again a club I feel I could work with a quality flight. For the money, just shows how good the modern clubs are today. Flightscope: Respectable distance – carry is just 6 yards behind the Callaway FT9, and shot dispersion was very tight.

Looks & feel: I really like the look of this Cobra model, with its retro-style shape, a smaller, traditional-looking head, with a notably deep face (a shallow face version is also available). The black face is unusual, but contrasts well with the white lines and this helps you to centre the ball at the set up. Performance: The Cobra S9 was fitted with a Grafalloy ProLite shaft, and it felt good. I knew just looking down at the deep face I would fade it...and I did – with a pleasing launch and a solid, reassuring sound. Flightscope registered the flight as being a little spinny, but the couple I nailed seemed to sail through the wind, regardless of the spin and high launch. This is an all-round professional club, though in this guise the 9.5 degrees was too high for me. A lower loft and a different shaft would change the flight overnight.

Looks & feel: The obvious design feature of this driver is the pronounced elongated head from front to back. But again, if you cover the rear two-thirds of the head, the face is reminiscent of quite a few of the more traditional (and more expensive) clubs in this test. Stamped 10 degrees on the sole, to my eye looks a tad more. Performance: In just three or four balls I didn't even notice the elongated head shape – I was more interested in the flight, as this one goes. A fairly high launch but good trajectory. I can shape it but I found that I lost a fair bit of distance doing that. But when you consider the price point – sub £150 – it's a great performer. Flightscope: Low spin – 2,800 – and very healthy carry. Even the mishits achieved a pretty good distance, so this is a forgiving clubhead.

Looks & feel: First impressions are that this is a fairly bigheaded driver, though with good clean lines and a square clubface, which I like. No aiming graphic on top of the head, which is something I do prefer to see and would add. Performance: Feels good and sounds good, but I can feel the shaft ‘kicking' at the bottom, at impact, and the result is a high flight, and a draw shape. The shaft – a Snake Eyes proprietary model– is just a little too soft for my liking. The beauty of dealing with the Golfsmith outfit, of course, is that they specialise in custom-fitting and so you would have your choice of the leading shafts on the market. I would be interested to see what the results were with the Grafalloy 65g Sflex that is my regular choice, as the head itself feels very solid. This is a tour-standard driver competitively priced.

THE TOP PERFORMERS BUT ONLY BY A WHISKER

The TaylorMade r9, the Titleist, the Ping G10 and the Callaway FT9 – these are the drivers that topped the overall stats table. Which just shows that at the premium end of the market you do get what you pay for.

The surprise, however, is just how closely these manufacturers are being pushed by the other companies. That, to me, says everything you need to know about the state of play in modern club-making. All of the manufacturers these days are using quality components and – rather like the car market – it's actually tough to buy a poor model.

At the premium end you will always be paying for R&D budgets and promotion on tour, that's the way of the world. But isn't it interesting that of all the drivers tested, the four models that came out on top, for me, are probably the ones you would have nominated as being 'tour-standard'. But, most telling of all, they were also the clubs that were made up exactly to the specifications I requested, while the ones just behind – such as the Cobra S9, the Wilson Smooth, the Nicklaus Dual Point and the Benross Innovator – were all made up for me. In other words, they were all fitted with the shaft that I know suits my swing characteristics, they featured the loft that I like and the grip was built up to give me the feel I am used to.

The only conclusion to be draw from this is that if you are really serious about your golf you get in touch with a pro or a retailer who can offer you this type of analysis and a full custom-fit service. You know, the shaft really is the key. At the end of the day, all of the figures that you see on the accompanying Flightscope read-outs relate to my swing characteristics, and have no bearing on your game. Our intention has not been to identify a specific club that will work for you, rather to highlight the questions and the issues you need to address when buying a new driver. So get down to your pro shop, and tell them TJ sent you!

DECIPHERING THE NUMBERS

Richard Blamey tells you what to look for to optimise performance

As more and more golf professionals invest in radar based equipment that tracks the ball in flight, so there's a greater opportunity for you to invest in real game improvement. Once you have identified three or four models that suit your eye, Flightscope (or Trackman) analysis will help you to fine-tune your selection as it provides valuable data on the key performance factors of spin, ball speed, launch angle and the Descent Vertical' measurement (the angle at which the ball falls to the ground from it's apex – ideally 35 degrees) that determines the overall combination of carry and roll.

Ultimately, it's a case of using this technology to get real consistency off the tee. These days, with manufacturers offering so many different shafts, and the facility to alter face angles, loft and lie, or change the centre of gravity to get a spin bias, there is just so much scope. And one thing this exercise will certainly do is make your bad shots better!

For the amateur golfer it's about optimising launch angle and backspin. These numbers are a factor of your clubhead speed and the way you strike the ball (and indeed the type of ball used). Loft and clubhead design are the key features you need to match up with your speed and favoured type of shaft/flex to optimise these numbers. Another important number is ball-speed – the speed of the ball off the clubface. Increasing your ball speed gives you the potential for more distance, and this can be achieved via experimentation of shaft and clubhead. The tour average is around 115mph clubhead sped, a launch angle of 10-11 degrees and around 2,000- 2,500 rpm. Optimising launch and spin will maximise your carry and distance potential.

So you have your work cut out!


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International.

Golf International


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