Written By: Will Dron
Several weeks ago, before we learned the results of the MyGolfSpy Most Wanted Driver tests and before TaylorMade went all out advertising the SLDR, several members from the MyGolfSpy forums were sent deep into TaylorMade HQ and the Kingdom. The mission was to ask as many questions as we possibly could to various members of the TaylorMade Staff and learn about their new driver.
Since then the forums have been abuzz with Lofting up and 17-1700. You really should catch up on the conversations in the forums because it’s been controversial to say the least, but in case you’re unaware, TaylorMade thinks every golfer in the world, regardless of swing speed, should be increasing their driver launch to 17 degrees and reducing their spin rate to an “optimal” 1700rpm. That’s everyone from tour pro to the guy who takes 5 hours to play a round. Everyone.
It took us a while to absorb it in too. Initially I didn't believe a word of it. We all know there’s an optimal launch angle and backspin rate that varies based on swing speed right? Then, we started hearing it from everyone else too. From the moment we set foot in Carlsbad, California to visit TaylorMade as part of their Loft UP+ experience, this 17-degree launch angle and 1700rpm backspin kept being brought up.
"We have a patent for an adjustable club with screws at the top to do exactly what the Callaway Bertha Alpha does, but we realized no one would ever want to increase weight towards the top of a club"
What the folks at TaylorMade told us is that Loft Up+ was a bit of an accident. They released the SLDR and found everyone had to increase loft. Now, what they’re saying is that all golf companies for the past ten years had been designing drivers wrong. They focused on getting the ball up in the air and forgiveness by pushing the CG low and back on the club, which increases spin. To mitigate the increase in spin, you had to loft down. But spin could never be reduced enough and launch angle couldn’t be raised in this way. Thus, 17° and1700 RPM wasn’t achievable. This is straight from the horse’s mouth; we’ll go into this more in a bit.
Thus, golf spies MBP and WD (Dan Mann & Will Dron) and 6 forum members were invited by golf’s biggest marketing machine to attend TaylorMade events during the week of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. What was the catch? We were sent to TaylorMade’s “The Kingdom” fitting center and put these claims or 17-1700 to the test. TaylorMade also let it be known from the start that no question, other than those related to unreleased technology, was off the table. Although they kept evading one question: Why was only one Canadian was allowed to attend? Well, joke was on them, because WalkerJames, a transplanted Canadian, was also in the mix.
You can read about the initial invitation to this event here.
TaylorMade produces at best decent equipment, they’re just good at marketing
The trip came and went, and we returned to our homes. We originally started writing this piece about everything we learned while we were out there, going over how clubs at TM are designed and manufactured. When we handed our draft to our editors, Golfspies X and T, for their opinion, they told us, “No, no, no, that stuff is interesting, but the real story is how did your perceptions of TaylorMade change on this trip, and how well did they really answer the questions we asked.”
So back to the drawing board we went. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about TaylorMade? Is it the driver? Is it their overfueled marketing machine? More so than any other company in golf, TaylorMade generates buzz. Look at the blog articles on this site if you want proof. Anytime TaylorMade is in the title of an article, the number of comments shoots up.
Every golf equipment junkie has some perception of TaylorMade. Some think they are marketing whores who will say and do everything to make a buck. Others think they are marketing whores who make good equipment and know how to sell their product to make a buck.
We had several dinners with various TaylorMade employees from marketing, R&D, and manufacturing. Other than discussing future products, at no point were we ever held back in our questioning. We asked everything from product design to competitors to tour van equipment. We asked about drivers, putters, wedges, everything. We got answers to everything, even a few we weren’t supposed to hear about in advance - like the Tour Preferred Wedges or the Project (a) ball. Hell, at one point Sean Toulon, the executive VP of TaylorMade, admitted he thought the Spider Blade putters were ugly, and they needed to be updated.
But what did we learn beyond what was said?
You guys were brainwashed
This really needs to be addressed before anything else. Not only was TaylorMade open and candid with answering questions, they were open with their wallets when it came to meals. We passed around $120 bottles of wine and the final bills were huge: ribeye one night, sea bass the next. We were certainly wined and dined.
We were also fitted with new SLDR drivers with custom shafts and Tour van heads. TaylorMade knew exactly what they were doing when they invited us and set the stage for themselves. We had a damn good time there, and this wasn’t an accident.
Now, with that out of the way, lets get to some of the more common things we hear about TaylorMade…
Perception #1: TaylorMade will say ANYTHING
Probably, but they vehemently argued they and their lawyers back up their numbers across a broad range of golfers. Never one to back down, they flat out stated they were better than some of their competitors on this issue. Callaway (as you’ll find out, TaylorMade isn't opposed to firing a shot at Callaway) claimed a gain of up to 32 yards with their XHot fairway wood off the turf. That claim was based on one golfer. That’s not to say you should believe straight up everything they said. You always need to check the fine print.
Perception #2: (On a similar note) Marketing makes all of the decisions
Make no doubt about it. The marketing department is involved with every step of a club creation, right from the get go of the concept stages. If it can’t sell, then don’t bother. We were told by one of the R&D guys that they prototyped a driver head that was 10 yards shorter, but incredibly forgiving. The project never made it out the door.
Now, that said, the opposite is also true. Marketing wanted a driver with screws to move the CG between the top of the driver head and the sole. R&D responded that no one would ever do that, because who would want to add spin? So that product too, was nixed. That statement was a direct jab at the Big Bertha. TaylorMade's willingness to go after competitor's products was certainly entertaining. For obvious reasons, TaylorMade didn't miss an opportunity to trash Callaway's gravity core.
Perception #3: TaylorMade is a driver company
Nope. Drivers are the top dog, but apparently they hold onto the #1 spot for fairways and fluctuate with a few other companies in being #1 iron on tour. The irons market is a tight. Hybrids they’ve given to Adams (because they own Adams). They were also darn proud of being #2 ball on tour, having completely ceded the top spot to Titleist.
They have a decent amount of putters and were very proud of their TrueRoll inserts. That’s pretty much where it ends for putters though. They don’t see a market for milled putters. Wedges? Really, they don’t seem too invested in seriously competing in the wedge market either. It’s just too small a segment. Even their new Tour Preferred wedges are just prettied-up ATV wedges. Point is though, TaylorMade, like all publicly traded companies, needs to continue to grow, and they’re going to push into every avenue where the see value.
Perception #4: Innovation at TaylorMade is just for show
We had one guy (JBones) who was professionally fitted for a R1 driver and paid nearly $800 for it last year weeks before they cut the price by $200. He was professionally fit for the SLDR while we were there and gained nearly 10 yards. There’s a difference folks.
Perception #5: Products are released in increments, they hold back technology
This is an interesting one. The guys at TaylorMade insisted they were not an incremental company, but in the next breath stated that it will take a few years to get most golfers to 17° and 1700 RPM, so they could see each release in the next few years getting incrementally closer to that goal. In the end though, we had very little insight into what was in the pipeline beyond a prototype driver I’ll mention in the next section.
Perception #6: TaylorMade doesn’t care about how their products sound or feel
Yes and no. They admitted their primary focus is performance, but they also do a lot of testing on sound and feel. Case and point were the RocketBladez irons, which premiered the slot in iron technology, but sounded like a dying bell when struck. The next iteration, the SpeedBlades, offered improvement by increasing the thickness of the topline of the club.
The engineers create prototypes and iterate through various changes by shooting thousands of balls at each version until they’re satisfied with the sound. The SLDR, for example, was tuned by adding thin metal pipes inside the head. You can see these in the pictures of the SLDR head that was cut open. So they do care about sound and feel, but not at the expense of performance.
If you read this with the hope that TaylorMade will be releasing more forged clubs though, don’t hold your breath. The engineers there believe they can make a cast club feel the same as a forged club, because the material is the same. I’m not going to get into that debate here, but the point is don’t expect more forged offerings.
Perception #7: You have to buy in a store because stated loft can vary greatly from actual loft
We specifically asked this question. It turns out tolerances for drivers and metalwoods (as measured by TaylorMade) are within a fraction of a degree. The issue is there is no single industry standard for measuring loft, and we’re talking fairly small increments here. Look at a protractor to get the sense in how precise you need to be for a single degree of loft.
Irons and wedges do have a looser tolerance range, however; we learned a little known secret: when you order from the custom department, irons get re-measured and are adjusted within a fraction of a degree from stated loft and lie before being shipped.
Perception #8: PGA players have access to fitting beyond what the mere mortal has
Fact is, PGA players tend to know what they like. Oftentimes, a fitting for them is simply narrowing down between a few choices. Lucas Glover told us he doesn’t look at launch monitors at all. They send him three head/shaft combinations and he goes with whichever he prefers. Amateur fittings, on the other hand, often are done from scratch and are therefore far more involved. For full fittings, TaylorMade has a proprietary system to create 3D models of a person’s swing called the MAT-T system. For putter fitting they have a second system that uses high speed cameras. Unfortunately, all this comes at a steep cost for us amateurs, but it is available.
SLDR Perception #1: The SLDR driver is only for really high swing speed golfers
So, back to the whole 17-17 thing. As a reminder, TaylorMade feels that to achieve optimal launch conditions, everyone needs to reach 1700rpm backspin with a 17° launch angle. Their answer is the SLDR, and they feel the SLDR is in fact, for everyone. I’m not going to go into details about the club itself, you want read all about the actual club here:
Phil Mickelson bags the SLDR (as a side note, since TaylorMade doesn’t have a marketing deal with Phil, so they couldn’t capitalize on it when he put the SLDR in play last season)
It’s quite possible that the story that TaylorMade was surprised that everyone had to loft up was all a contrived marketing message to boost sales of a driver that was released halfway through last year. Whatever the truth is though, TaylorMade did a damn good job proving what they were preaching.
On Tuesday, January 21, the group of us attended the Loft+ Media event. This started as you can expect all TaylorMade events do. They increased distance for all golfers. Out came Justin Leonard, Robert Allenby, and then Lucas Glover. One after the other, they hit their old driver and then the new one. Every one of them increased their loft, lowered their backspin, and gained distance. None of them reached the magical 17-17, but they got closer.
Contrived right? I agree. Look at the driving statistics from the PGA Tour and you’ll notice driving distance stays more or less the same year after year. The reason is PGA players often have enough distance and optimize for specific distances, shot shapes, or how the ball lands. So of course they’ll gain yards when hitting a driver optimized for distance.
After this little demonstration though, TaylorMade attached a prototype driver to a robot to actually show what they were getting at. The robot swung the club and achieved 17° and 1700 RPM with a very average 146 ball speed (roughly in the 90mph range clubhead speed)…and knocked the ball 264 yards.
TaylorMade readily admitted they weren’t there yet, but 264 yards for the average golfer? TaylorMade says it can happen. From my experience, despite the occasional forum phenom, the average golfer can barely hit their driver 200-220 yards. The prototype technology was cool to see and very impressive because there is literally nothing on the market that can do this. Unfortunately they said they were still 2-3 years away from reaching the goal. The SLDR is just the first step.
In the spirit of this article, lets go over some of our other preconceptions about the SLDR:
SLDR Perception #2: You need enough backspin to keep the ball in the air
This is only true if you don’t have a high enough launch angle. When a ball shoots forward and stays low, it's true backspin keeps the ball in the air. If you try to hit a 9 degree SLDR when you really need a 12 degree, you’re certainly going to have issues keeping the ball in the air.
SLDR Perception #3: You need more backspin if you have lower clubhead speed
This is similar to the above preconception, but slightly different. Again, loft mitigates the need for backspin. However, the thing that fitters were avoiding with high swing speed players was a ballooning affect. The higher the swing speed, the easier it is to balloon the ball. TaylorMade’s answer is to never have enough backspin to balloon.
SLDR Perception #4: I don’t need to be fitted; I’m an average golfer and can buy right off the shelf!
Part of our trip involved a trip to the Kingdom so we could put SLDR's hype to the test ourselves. Originally, The Kingdom was created as an internal R&D facility and club-fitting facility exclusive to Tour Staff Professionals. Since 2005, however, it was opened to the public, for a price, as the ultimate golf experience. Here and now I will let it be known; The Kingdom IS golf nirvana. Yes, I think I pee’d a little when I let out the squeal walking through the front doors to the sight of our names on the big screen.
We were given a quick tour of the facilities, showing their high tech 3D analysis fitting system, putter fitting system, and club building shop where our drivers would be put together. It wasn’t a large place. Really just the size of a small home, but what we were there for was outside at the range behind the facility so we could put the whole “Loft Up” thing to the test.
We would spend the next 4 hours outside, hitting balls with our current gamers with a group of fitters watching our swings. Each one of us was matched to a head and shaft combo based on our swings. Our swing speeds were all over the place, ranging from high 90s to 120. Here were the outcomes:
Some quick notes about the fittings:
- HighFade has the smoothest swing in the world. That’s a regular flex shaft with a 104mph clubhead speed. Feel free to still call him a bitch for using an R-flex shaft though.
- JBones distance really was 304.5 #freakofnature.
- dru, MBP, Theoo, and Walker were not fitted with a LM.
- Everyone who was fitted with a LM believes it wasn't necessary. The fitter knew which shaft would work ahead of time. The LM simply confirmed it.
- We simply did not have time to confirm all numbers. However, there were multiple witnesses to confirm everything above.
- Dru had his head weight reduced by removing the weight port to get to a D3 swing weight.
- Draw/Fade setting was changed for various people.
Like Leonard, Allenby, and Glover, every single one of us gained yards. A lot of that did have to do with having professional fitters on hand. Every one of us decreased backspin way lower than previous conventional wisdom would have suggested, and they pushed us as close to the 17-1700 as they could. A year or even a month ago if someone told me I could increase yards by killing my backspin I would have laughed in his face. After this trip, it was pretty hard to not buy into 17-1700 ourselves. There’s only so much proof even the more cynical of us can take.
By this point we’ve seen the results of the MyGolfSpy Most Wanted Driver test. Does that mean you should run off and by a SLDR? Hell no. Remember that all of us were fitted. That said several of us were fitted with our current drivers and still gained yards. The SLDR is certainly worth giving a try and if you can go to a fitter, make sure they understand how to fit for the SLDR and do not use the traditional approach of more backspin as swing speed decreases.
Some final preconceptions about the SLDR:
SLDR Perception #5: Low spin makes it hard to shape the ball
This is certainly true. I used to be able to hit fade shots fairly easily, if not necessarily every time I wanted. I simply cannot hit those kinds of fades anymore.
SLDR Perception #6: Low MOI and low spin will make the SLDR very unforgiving
On paper, I agree with you. Fact is, not a single one of us could complain about the constantly straight and long shots we were getting. I was amazed just how forgiving of a driver the SLDR was. That’s not to say more MOI is not more forgiving. The results from the PING G25 in the Most Wanted test prove this, but the SLDR is by no means unforgiving.
SLDR Perception #7: Smaller heads are for better players and larger heads are more forgiving
While testing the 430 and 460 heads and asking questions, what we found out was there was only about 100 RPM spin difference between the two heads. It really came down to personal preference when choosing which head. Go with whatever gives you the most confidence.
We’re home now and several weeks later, it’s still hard not to enjoy the numbers we get from our fitted drivers and memories of teeing it up at La Costa Resort with fellow members of MGS. The members of our forum proved to be a great crew, though we never did get an answer about why only one Canadian was allowed to attend. We did find out how several of us were sober and not so sober though, so we’ll take that as a consolation prize. We also found out that the group of us could go through every single meal without pausing between questions. It must have been exhausting for the TaylorMade staff, though they did seem to enjoy it as well.
We certainly learned more about TaylorMade’s marketing message and their current club design strategy. It’ll be interesting to see how they continue to follow this plan over the next 2-3 years as they try to push everyone closer to 17-1700. In the meantime, we learned their business strategy was more aggressive than any of us had realized.
Remember the 5-year war from Callaway? It was never mentioned directly, but clearly TaylorMade is up for the fight.
TaylorMade's Executive Vice President, Sean Toulon, readily admitted the golf market was shrinking. This meant the only way TaylorMade can grow was at the expense of their competitors, and they were not shy about it. From the onset of our dinners with the crew at TaylorMade, you could tell they smelled blood with the release of the Big Bertha Alpha. On several occasions they mentioned that TaylorMade has a patent for an adjustable club with screws at the top to do exactly what the Bertha Alpha does, but (in their words), what they realized was that no one would ever want to increase weight towards the top of a club. In TaylorMade's estimation, the Gravity Core is little more than an attempt by Callaway to distinguish themselves from the crowd.
There is no doubt that TaylorMade fully intends to take business from Callaway.
So the question to Callaway, Nike, Ping, Wilson, Mizuno, Titleist, Adams (oh wait, nevermind), Cobra, Cleveland (nearly forgot about them): what are you going to do? We now have a clear cut plan from TaylorMade along with admission that they are gunning for your marketshare.