Getting more distance of the tee is easy right?
Getting more distance off the tee is easy right? Well, golf companies sure would like you to believe that...they have us feeling as if the equation is as simple as...longer drivers = longer drives. Not so fast cowboy! As recently as the early-90s, most standard off-the-rack drivers were 43" - 43.5". That number has since jumped up to around 46". But, remember humans don't evolve that quickly...we aren't getting taller but clubs sure are getting longer. So the question we wanted to answer for everyone ..."Is Longer Really Longer?"
A Sanity Check
If you've ever read anything Tom Wishon has written about driver length, or spoken to your local fitter about the topic, there's a curious statistic that you've probably encountered.
Think about that for a second. The very best players in the world, guys who hit the sweet spot on their driver as easily as most of us would hit water after falling from a cruise ship, guys who routinely drive the ball to distances that some reading this would need two swings to achieve are playing drivers upwards of 1.5" shorter than what most of the rest of us have in our bags right now.
Last season (2010) the majority of drivers we received for testing were outfitted stock with 46" shafts. While there were exceptions, only one driver we've ever received for testing was shorter than 45.5" (Titleist), and that was more than countered by another that actually measured in at 46.5"!
Somewhat surprising considering the distance race the big OEMs are engaged in; for 2011 - and from what we've seen from the 2012 lineups - many OEMs have backed off driver length every so slightly (we're seeing more 45.75" than 46" shafts), but I think most would agree overall shaft lengths are at historic highs. As you'll see below, many golfers custom order clubs well above stock lengths. What they probably haven't considered is that in all likelihood, their games are suffering for it.
All of this begs the question; Are the Pros shorting themselves distance by playing shorter drivers, or have the rest of us, driven by the compulsive need to gain the fabled 10-15 More Yards, completely lost our minds?
How Did We Get Here...and Who Can We Blame
While it would be easy to blame the OEMs for the never-ending demand for more distance, the reality is, while the golf companies perhaps give us tools we don't need, they do so only because we asked for them. It's our prevailing willingness to accept the flawed equation that shaft length = clubhead speed = ball speed = distance ... ALWAYS that has most of us hitting out of the rough much more often than we should be.
To get a better idea of how pervasive the "longer than the Pros play" driver phenomenon actually is, we asked TaylorMade to provide us with some details about their custom orders from the last several years. While it's not surprising that the most popular order, even among custom orders, is for standard length (45.75"-46") drivers, what I found most shocking is that TaylorMade receives orders for drivers 2" longer than standard at a rate of 2 to 1 over drivers 2" shorter than standard.
And while their most popular non-standard order is for drivers cut 1" below standard length, TaylorMade still ships 2 drivers at 1" above spec for ever 3 1" below. In fact, over the last 3-4 years, TaylorMade has received nearly as many orders for drivers longer than standard length as they have for drivers shorter than standard.
When you examine these orders, what you find isn't a case of the OEMs pushing longer drivers on consumers; you can make the argument that it's the consumer demanding longer shafts from the golf companies.
To get some perspective on the madness, we asked seasoned club-fitter and Director of the New York Golf Center's Custom Shop, Josh Chervokas what he generally recommends to his customers. Here's what he had to say:
I rarely fit anyone into a driver over 45" and often I build them shorter, I just did a 43" build. People want to hit it farther but what we see in fittings is that clubspeed is useless if it cannot be turned into ballspeed. People have a harder time centering the ball in the middle of the club and so they get lower and lower smashfactors as the club gets longer.
The suggestion is that the average golfer would actually benefit more from playing a shorter driver. We've heard this same sentiment echoed time and time again from basically every fitter we've ever come in contact with. And yet despite a chorus of respected professionals telling us otherwise, the overwhelming majority of golfers are still bagging drivers longer than most club fitters would recommend.
While golfers should probably shoulder the bulk of the responsibility, the OEM's aren't completely without blame. When you look at current product lineups, it's actually the high-MOI, ultra-forgiving clubs...the ones designed for high handicap golfers (guys who struggle to produce consistent swings) that come stock with the longer (46" shafts). High handicap golfers have basically been conditioned to believe that longer drivers provide more distance, and ultimately fit them better. Clubs designed for better players often come stock with slightly to significantly shorter shafts. What's up with that?
On the off chance that Tom Wishon, Josh Chervokas, and basically everyone else who earns a living fitting golfers for their clubs might be wrong, we decided to put together our own little test to determine how much is gained (accuracy), and how much is lost (distance) when golfers are willing to trim a couple of inches off the big dog.
The Test Equipment
To provide the shafts for our tests we contacted UST-Mamiya. They agreed to provided us with 4 of their new Proforce VTS Shafts (2 - 65 regular flex, 2 - 75 Stiff flex). Though we didn't undergo a full shaft fitting for this test, we were very interested to get our hands on the new VTS, which introduces what UST-Mamiya calls 3D Fitting.
While shaft torque has largely been an after-thought the Proforce VTS lineup includes torque as a key part of the fitting equation. Every weight/flex combination in the VTS lineup is offered with 3 distinct torque options. No longer does heavier and stiffer necessarily mean lower torque.
As it turns out, the pearly white color scheme of the VTS also looks positively sick with the head we chose for this test.
To provide the heads for our testing we reached out to TaylorMade to see if they'd be interested in participating. Since our test involves multiple shafts (multiple flexes, multiple lengths) it was important for the sake of consistency, simplicity, and expedience that we were able to quickly swap out shafts while using the same head for every shaft. TaylorMade's R11 heads coupled with their Flight Control Tips matched that need perfectly.
While we sometimes find the marketing a bit over the top, TaylorMade's implementation of adjustability is almost without argument the most complete and user friendly on the market today. The simple fact that TaylorMade makes its FCT tips available for purchase by the consumer was a substantial factor in why we chose to approach TaylorMade first. Quite frankly we think every OEM should make their adapters available to the consumer. As it stands right now, TaylorMade is the only big OEM that actually does*.
We had planned to have our resident club builder help us out with shaft assembly, but when the team at TaylorMade volunteered their Tour Department to handle the assembly, we were happy to take them up on the offer.
At our requests, shafts in each flex were cut to 43.75" and 45.75" inches. We asked that each pair be frequency matched, and that the neutral bend point of each shaft be aligned to the standard/neutral position of the Flight Control tip.
The Testing Process
To test distance and accuracy, each of 6 testers was asked to hit a series of 12 shots with both the 43.75" and 45.75" drivers. In a perfect world testing would have been blind to eliminate any possibility of the placebo effect, however; let's be honest...you'd have to be some special kind of oblivious not to notice a 2" difference in driver length.
To balance things out as much as we possibly could, half of testers hit the longer driver first, the other half hit the shorter first.
After the 12 shot sequence was completed, impact tape was placed on the driver face, and testers were asked to hit an additional 5 shots with each shaft so we could observe quality of impact.
To calculate our averages and develop other conclusions we selected the best 10 of 12 shots from each tester at both driver lengths. Best was determined by calculating a total point value based on a simple formula of total distance minus yardage from the center line. This is the same equation we use to determine driver performance within our standard review process.
As we do with all of our reviews, we've provided all the pertinent details of our tests. The "Group Performance" tab contains the Virtual Driving Range which shows the details for each of the 10 shots we recorded for each tester at each length.
- Solid circles represent shots taken with the 45.75" driver.
- Hollow circles represent shots taken with the 43.75" driver.
- Each shot is color coded by golfer.
- We have provided the capability for you to filter shots by both driver length and golfer.
- Hovering over any point on the Virtual Range reveals every detail about that shot.
- The Group Performance tab also shows group averages for Distance and Accuracy, Clubhead* and Ball speed, Spin, and Launch Conditions.
- Clicking on the Individual Performance Tab reveals similar information similar to the graphs on the Performance tab. Sortable by golfer and shaft length, this tab provides a head to head comparison of key shot data at the individual tester level.
Interpreting the Data
>> Carry Distance
With the 45.75" shaft, our testers averaged 233.75 yards of carry compared to 232.35 yards with the 43.75" shaft. That's a difference of only 1.4 yards.
Examining the data on an individual level shows that 5 of 6 testers, as one might expect, produced more carry with the longer driver. However, of those 5, only 2 were more than 4 yards longer with the 45.75" driver. Each of the remaining 3 produced less than 2 yards more carry on average. Our senior tester carried the ball an average of 4.9 yards farther with the shorter club.
>> Total Distance
With the 45.75" shaft our testers averaged 247.65 yards compared to 247.15 yards with the 43.75" shaft, leaving a total distance gap of only ½ yard.
Looking at the data on an individual level reveals some interesting details. Two of our testers proved to be longer with the 45.75" driver (3.9 and 5.7 yards). One tester achieved an identical average with both clubs. The remaining 3 testers actually produced greater average total distances with the shorter (43.75") shaft.
Our senior tester showed the greatest discrepancy; his distance actually increased by 5.7 yards with the shorter driver. The other 2 testers posted more modest gains of .1 and .8 yards.
To better understand how distance numbers can remain relatively consistent despite a 2" discrepency in shaft length we need to examine the key factor in determining distance; ball speed.
As it turns out, some testers produced better ball speeds with the shorter driver, while others maintained higher numbers with the longer driver. Looking at the averages, our testers as a whole produced a relatively insignificant .55 MPH more ball speed with the longer driver.
Those 2 testers that showed higher ball speed with the longer driver produced greater clubhead speed. Most importantly, they were able to be efficient enough in doing so. Individually their ball speed with the 45.75" driver was 2.8 and 3.0 MPH faster than what they produced with the shorter driver.
For each of our other 4 golfers, however; the greatest average ball speeds were achieved using the shorter driver. In each case the speed gains were more modest (1.8 MPH, 1.1 MPH, .5 MPH, and .1 MPH), but they are increases none the less.
The argument for playing a shorter driver has never been about distance. The suggestion as I've always interpreted it is that a shorter driver will be more accurate, and because you're better able to control the club, and find the sweet spot, more often, average total distance could actually increase. For us, the argument for a shorter driver is really an argument for accuracy, and that's information we were most interested in obtaining.
As a group our testers were 4.63 yards (28% closer) to the target line with the 43.75" driver. With the longer shaft, our testers averaged 16.6 yards offline, compared to only 11.97 yards offline with the 43.75" driver. Looking at testers individually reveals more detail. Our senior tester actually showed the smallest accuracy gain (.1 yards). This isn't altogether surprising considering that his total yardage was significantly shorter than any other tester.
While a 2nd tester showed a relatively most improvement of 1.5 yards, the remaining testers showed accuracy improvements of between 4.9 and 10.4 yards or (63% more accurate)!
As expected, the 43.75" driver proved to be substantially more accurate. And while I wouldn't expect that most golfers would see a 63% improvement, moving the ball an average of nearly 5 yards closer to the center line is almost certainly going to save a couple of strokes over the course of an average round.
So...Should You Cut 2" Off Your Driver?
Well, our data (and the years of experience from reputable club fitters all over the globe) suggest that the majority of golfers (yes you too) would absolutely benefit from playing a shorter-shafted driver. Not only will accuracy increase (our tests show by a whopping 28%), our numbers also suggest that any distance loss would be very minimal, and there's a chance you could actually increase your total distance as well.
Whether cutting 2" is the optimal number for you is impossible to say. Maybe for you it's .5", maybe it's 2.5". Maybe stock is perfect. These are questions that a knowledgeable club fitter can help you answer and is yet another example of why it's absolutely imperative that every golfer serious about improving his game be custom fit for his equipment.
Now, before you decide, make sure you're fully aware of the effect the change will have on your driver's swing weight. Cutting 2" off the shaft will dramatically lower the swing weight of your driver (with our sample head, the difference was about 7 swing weight points). Some golfers will actually find they prefer the lighter feel, some may find the club harder to control, and many probably won't care one way or the other(especially if you become 28% more accurate). If you have a head like the TaylorMade R11 you can easily change the moveable weights to bring your driver back up to a comfortable level. Clubs like Titleist's 910 have weight ports that can also be adjusted (by the factory). And of course, there's always good old fashioned lead tape. Be advised, adding additional weight to the head will soften the flex (~1 CPM per gram of weight added).
Swing Weight issues aside, the raw data says you probably should cut some length of your driver, but few things in this game are absolute, and there are certainly some mitigating factors. Not surprisingly, it was largely our mid-to-high handicap golfers who showed the most improvement with the shorter shaft. Though not true of our lowest handicap golfer, 2 of our single (or near single) digit handicappers actually lost upwards of 5 yards with the shorter shaft. We also observed that golfers with a flatter swing plane also showed less benefit from the shorter shaft.