The 30-Year Debate!

OK....today is going to be a good one golfspies!  The topic we're covering in Edition #2 of the "MyGolfSpy Labs" is one of the most debated topics the golf equipment industry has had for the past 30 years!  But one you've never seen put through a test like we will today .  Ever since the late 80's and their gain in popularity and pro shop owners not happy with their profit margins on name brand clubs began selling clone golf clubs...golfers have always wondered.

"Can clone golf clubs perform as well as the higher priced name brand golf clubs?"

Well today you're going to find out once and for all. And I think you might be in for quite a surprise!  Today is the ultimate test: Clone Golf Clubs (vs) Name Brand Golf Clubs. This topic has been pretty taboo and heated for many reasons.  Whether you are the golfer that spent $1200 on a set of irons and feel the need to justify that expense to your friends and wife 😉  Or you are the name brand rep that doesn't allow a pro shop to sell the clone brands side-by-side your name brand product.  Or you're the website that would love to write an article like this, but worry about the repercussions you might feel from an OEM advertiser.  The reasons are many why this topic has not been fully addressed and this is one of the reasons we felt so compelled to cover it for you.  Almost every golfer has an opinion about the topic when asked...so we felt it would make for a great "labs" article.

Some Things You May or May Not Know

  • First off you might be surprised to know that in the computer industry the clone market was huge...and believe it or not names like Compaq, Dell and Gateway all started as clone computer companies.
  • Counterfeit golf equipment is NOT the same as clone equipment.  Clone equipment is within the patent and trademark limits and for the reputable companies selling clones is 100% legal.  You might also find it surprising that these clone designs are often approved by the name brand manufacturers before they are released.
  • Nickent Golf actually started out as a clone golf company...yes Nickent.  TourEdge also started as a component company.
  • A few reputable clone companies online get their product made at the same foundry that a few large name brand companies get their gear made. (Yes that myth is true)
  • There are basically 3-tiers of golf club manufacturing to make it simple.  The top-tier which has a larger capacity and better quality makes the top brand names.  The 2nd tier often makes some of the mid-size golf companies that a lot of you play but they also make some of the top components and clones for companies like Golfsmith, Hireko and Diamondtour.  And the 3rd tier generally have the smallest capacity and make some of the lower end quality equipment and clones you run across.
  • Counterfeits like we said are NOT the same as clones and the counterfeit equipment is often the cheapest and lowest quality equipment.  You may wonder what the difference is between the counterfeit vs. clone.  A counterfeit is a club design that purposely attempts to deceive you into believing it is the real thing.  For example it will look identical to the name brand model and even have the same name (ex: Taylormade R11 will be on both soles and look identical).  Clones fall within legal guidelines and do not have the same name, markings or overall design.
  • Many clone companies and component companies offer product close in quality and performance compared to name brand equipment.
  • For those that are dead set against clones...you should remember this....many name brand models are modeled after other companies designs as well.  And some use the exact same molds.
  • I will say this...often times the quality of things like welds, finishes and materials are not as good as the name brand model.  But even this line is blurring with some of the reputable clone and component companies out there in recent years.
  • Are there bad clones...YES.  Are there bad name brand designs...YES.  Are there clones that are made with poor quality...YES.  But the same thing can be said about some of the name brand models as well.  I have seen some things that would shock you about the quality of some of the BIG name brand models.

My perception of what I see around me is that golfers fall into two categories. The guys whose clones (similarly designed recreations of clubs from the big golf companies) rattle proudly in their bags, and there are the guys that wouldn't dream of playing something that wasn't made by a name EVERYBODY knows. The clone guys will tell you that the name brand stuff is overpriced and doesn't perform any better than the OEM stuff they were designed to look like. The name brand guys...laugh as they gaze at the clones with icy cold contempt.

Is It Possible?!?

After all, there is no way on this green earth that a clone with an assembled price of less than $100 ($59 head only) could outperform a club from a popular golf company with an initial price tag of $300 right?

Hmmm...we think maybe there's a chance it might....Let's go to the lab!

What We Tested

For the name-brand model we tested a "TaylorMade Tour Burner 2010". For the clone model we tested a "Heated H", which we'd classify as a mid-teir clone of TaylorMade's once popular driver.  There are better clone models of this driver, although we decided to go with a mid-tier model.

TaylorMade gets credit for the original design.  But both models tested were 460cc titanium drivers. They both feature "dual-crown" technology, and of course, a lower center of gravity for higher launch, and lower spin. Apart from obvious esthetic differences, one noteworthy point of differentiation is that the Tour Burner takes a .350 tip shaft, where as the clone (the Heated), takes a .335.

How We Tested

To make this as apples to apples as a comparison as we possibly could, we pulled the stock shaft on the Burner, and outfitted both drivers with the new Mugen Black shaft (60 gram, stiff flex) from Harrison Golf. As with our test of the Shotmaker, shafts were spined and FLO'd. Once the epoxy dried, shafts were cut to a relatively modest 44.75" inches. We took a quick reading on the DigiFlex and found only a 2 CPM difference in frequency between the two clubs. Both clubs were then outfitted with Winn PCI-TL grips.

For actual testing we used the same protocols we use for our ULTIMATE Reviews. 3 golfers were asked to hit a series of 12 shots with each driver. Two of our testers hit the Heated first, while the 3rd hit the Burner first.

RESULTS! - (Performance)

Distance For each of our 3 testers, the "real" Burner was the distance winner. But I think it would surprise most to know that only by 5.8 yards (2.2%).  For those interested in carry only, the Burner was 7.11 yards longer on average, which we think is significant.

Accuracy When it comes to accuracy the results are less cut and dry. If we simply look at the raw averages we see that the Clone was actually more accurate! The adjusted average numbers look even better for the clone as, with the 2 best and 2 worst shots removed from each tester, the clone is 3.5 yards closer to the center line on average.

Swing Speed Perhaps one of the more interesting discoveries to come out of our testing was that club head design appears to play a legitimate role in producing, or perhaps limiting club head speed. For all 3 testers, the TaylorMade Burner produced measurably higher clubhead speeds than the clone. In fact each of our testers produced average speeds 2-3 MPH faster with the Burner. Looking at the group as a whole, we found that the Burner produced swing speeds that were on average 2.39 MPH faster than the "Heated" clone.

Ball Speed As you might expect, higher clubhead speed produces higher ball speed. With the Burner, our testers produced ball speeds that were between 2 and 6 MPH faster than with the Heated. As a group, ball speeds averaged a full 3.5 MPH faster with the name brand Burner.

Spin While many manufacturers are promoting less spin off the driver, the truth of the matter is that the distance equation is far more complex than less spin = more yards. Clubhead speed, and launch angle are both significant factors in determining ideal spin. Very generally speaking, the slower the swing speed, the more spin (and higher launch) becomes desirable.

With respect to backspin the numbers are incredibly close. Not one of our testers showed more than 300 RPMs between drivers (Dan's average was less than 15 RPMs between clubs). For 2 of the 3 testers, the Burner produced more spin, however; as we've suggested, not by any significant amount.

When it comes to sidespin, the Clone generated an average of 81 RPMs less. While not a tremendous amount in raw form, from a percentage standpoint it works out to an increase of 15.7%, which when you're trying to keep a ball in the short grass, probably is a significant amount, and helps to explain the difference in accuracy between the clubs.

Launch Angle and Apex For the most part, the Burner and the Clone produced similar launch characteristics. The average difference between the 2 clubs was just slightly more than .25 degrees, with the Burner producing the higher launch for 2 of our 3 testers.

Not surprisingly, the Burner also produced the greater shot height for 2 of our 3 testers. On average the apex of each shot was just slightly under 2.5 yards higher with the Burner, which along with higher ball and club head speeds explains the difference in carry yardage between the clubs.

RESULTS! - (Subjective)

Because MyGolfSpy Labs doesn't put a score on things, rather than have our testers fill out our surveys, we simply had a discussion about the subjective aspects of our two drivers.

Looks As you might expect the Burner looks much more refined. The shape is cleaner, the graphics are more polished (dare I say professional), and the paint quality is clearly superior (our clone is already starting to show some wear in the middle of the crown, well away from any impact zone). While the TaylorMade Burner is a true glossy black, the Heated has what I'd call a medium gloss gray. While the dual-crown technology is visible in both, on the TaylorMade Burner it's much more subtle and refined. On the Heated it's more noticeable, and perhaps even distracting.

With a higher quality manufacturing process the clone design might actually work. At a distance it looks pretty sharp. Up close...ummm...not so much.

Incidentally, what we believe to be generally true is that it's not just clones, but also respected component brands where the single biggest differentiation between their product and that of the big OEMs isn't performance, but rather polish. Bigger golf companies have more money to spend on the details, and while ultimately those details many not directly impact performance, I can tell you with certainty that given two clubs with similar performance attributes, the prettier one will always sell better...even if it's more expensive.

Sound and Feel TaylorMade has a reputation for producing great feeling, great sounding drivers. And while I might argue that over the last couple of years they've taken a small step backwards in those areas, they remain largely ahead of the curve. Of course, the Tour Burner was produced before things took a slightly downward dip. The Heated, however, well...as much as I would love to tell you that it offers similar feel, I can't.

All of the testers agreed that in terms of sound and feel, the clone is miles behind the real deal. While the Burner produces a pleasant ting and outstanding feel at impact, the Heated was often described as clunky, almost heavy at impact. In my opinion this is the single greatest point of differentiation between the two clubs.

Conclusion

There are a practically infinite number of clones for every significant new driver that hits the market each year. Obviously this test doesn't begin to cover all of the combinations. Instead our goal was simply to determine whether or not a no-name clone could outperform a driver from one of the biggest names in golf. By utilizing the same shaft (cut to the same length) in each driver, we've come as close to an apples to apples comparison as we possibly can.

Looking at the performance, there isn't, in my mind, a clear winner. Some golfers place an absolute premium on distance. If that's your game, then it's hard not to argue with the 7.11 yards of additional carry (or 6.03 yards of total distance) that our testers showed with the Burner. If however, you place a premium on accuracy, though not as conclusive, there is some suggestion that the clone could be the more accurate of the two heads.

What I do believe is a reasonable conclusion based on the totality of the numbers is that there is not a significant performance difference between the TaylorMade Tour Burner, and the Heated clone. On performance alone, it's hard for me to justify spending the extra $200 (based on initial MSRP pricing).

Of course, golf clubs are about more than performance. If it was that cut and dry we'd all be playing the same club. It's not. Other factors, the subjective stuff...looks, sound, feel, etc. all play a role not only what we think of a club design, but also how we perceive performance. What proved to be reality for our testers is that despite similar performance, the differences in the subjective categories (in this particular case) are potentially enough to suggest that for some there is indeed $200 worth of improvement to be found in the Burner Tour.

As much as I preach performance first, there's only so much I'm willing to sacrifice in terms of esthetics, sound, and feel. In the case of the Burner Tour vs. The Heated, the Heated offers too much of a compromise, even at a 1/3 the money. If you have a greater tolerance for the absence of feel, or unpleasant sound (and we know many do), then perhaps it's time you stopped paying big bucks for name brand equipment, and started looking into a quality clone. Our numbers suggest a clone offers more bang for the buck.