By Tony Covey | Follow Tony on Twitter

The End is Near

The fairway wood isn't dead yet...but it sure as hell looks like it's dying.

Yes, I've heard of RocketBallz, but in this case, Stage 2 means terminal. Never mind Speedline, Adams should call their next fairway wood the Flatline. Why call them fairway woods at all? Calling them panda woods seems more appropriate. Extinction is all but certain.

I suppose TaylorMade, and Callaway, and Nike, and just about everyone else with a new for 2013 fairway wood  would disagree, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

The Surge

There's a strange phenomenon that sometimes happens as terminally ill patients near the end. In the hours before they flatline they experience a surge of energy. They are renewed, they are vital, and then they are gone.

And yes...I first learned about the surge while (not) watching Grey's Anatomy. Personally, I hate the show, and basically watch it by accident when my wife watches it, but I definitely don't like it. It totally sucks. That is my official story. And I'm absolutely sticking to it.

Where fairway woods are concerned, after barely breathing for the better part of a decade, The Surge happened last season. With the release of RocketBallz TaylorMade reinvigorated a market segment golfers had largely stopped caring about. Lured by the promise of 17 MORE YARDS, golfer suddenly found themselves energized to do something they hadn't considered in years; buy new fairway woods.

And they did...by the truckloads. Lots and lots of truckloads. For its efforts TaylorMade raked in something in the neighborhood of a gozillion dollars, and set record sales numbers...again.

This season, the beeps aren't what they were a year ago. Sales, like the heartbeat of the fairway wood, are slowing. We're inching closer to the end.

Beep...Beep...Beeeeeeeeep_____________________ (pulls the plug so we can all mourn in silence).

Reality Setting In

You can say what you want about TaylorMade...hell, I've said lots of things about TaylorMade, but you'll never hear me call them stupid. They must have known that the momentum from the original RocketBallz wasn't wholly sustainable. You just gave me 17 more yards (actually in my case it was 37 yards), I don't really need 10 more...not from hardest to hit club in the bag, and not from a club I just replaced last year (unless it's the driver...in which case...sure, 10 more yards sounds fantastic).

Callaway for its part must have believed the same with the XHot fairway. Maybe there's a little noise to be made. Give Callaway some credit for reviving, the 7, 9, and even the 11 wood, but a full-on lighting strike isn't happening two years in a row.  Not with a fairway wood.

Even the most promiscuous of club hos doesn't replace his fairway woods every season.

The point is, even if nobody expects to sell a freighter full of fairway woods, you still have to put something on the shelves. Their presence alone shouldn't suggest that the consumer actually wants them.

When I picked up the game, a 3 wood and a 5 wood were practically mandatory for every golfer on the course. Those days are over. The 7, 9, and 11 woods are bordering on extinction (Callaway's XHot could prove to be the last of the species), and even the 5 wood is just barely clinging to life. Some golfers (including your's truly more often than not) have abandoned the fairway wood altogether, and an increasing majority rely on just a single fairway wood to get them through their rounds.

Ideally they never have to use it.

More often than not it's a 3 wood. For some it's a 4 wood. Beyond that...well...there's probably nothing beyond that.

Fairway woods are an evil of dwindling necessity.

Neglect, Hybrids, and the PGA Tour

So how did we reach a point in time where the once mighty fairway wood is slowly going the way of the jigger? The way I see it, you can't point the finger 3 places; neglect, hybrids, and the PGA Tour.

NEGLECT

Blame the golf companies. While perhaps not for lack of trying, for the better part of a decade engineers and designers conjured up what basically amounts to zero innovation on the fairway wood front. At the beginning of last season when I spoke to Benoit Vincent, TaylorMade's Chief Technology Officer, he told me that revolutionizing the fairway wood has been on his to-do list for 10 years, and RocketBallz was the first time in a decade his team had achieved the goal.

10 years. That's a long time to without any significant technological breakthroughs (real or imagined), and TaylorMade certainly wasn't alone. The golf companies inadvertently conditioned golfers to believe that fairway woods were the ultimate equipment commodity. They're all they same. They haven't changed in years.

We'll make your drives go farther. We'll make you a better iron player. Have you tried the new hybrid? Check out the grooves on these wedges.

The fairway wood...don't bother. What' s the point?

In a decade we can give you 15 drivers each better than the one that came before it, but a fairway wood...meh...stick with what you got.

And that's exactly what most guys did...it's what most still do. I can't count the number of times a reader has told me that nothing on today's market can touch the Titleist he's had for the last decade.

HYBRIDS

About the same time that fairway wood futility was setting in, hybrids/rescues began to emerge as viable alternatives to long irons. As golfers became more and more comfortable with the idea of no longer bagging difficult to hit 3 and 4 (and in some cases 5, 6, and 7) irons, many started to wonder if it might be possible to replace those even more difficult to hit fairway woods with lower lofted hybrids.

Questions flooded forums, "Can I replace my 5 wood with a 2 hybrid?", and as golfers experimented many learned that what little they lost in distance by switching to a hybrid, they more than made up for in accuracy. There's always something to be said for swinging on plane and hitting the ball with the center of the face. Who needs this 5 wood?

Keeping up with growing consumer demand, manufacturers focused more of their attention on the emerging hybrid space. In many cases, higher lofted 3 and 4 iron replacements were accompanied by 19°, and then 18°, and then 16°, and now 15° hybrids. Hybrids are no longer designed just to replace irons. Hybrids are being designed to replace fairway woods, and with 15° offerings, one could argue they're being designed to render the 3-wood obsolete.

Given the distance increases companies are achieving with rescue clubs, we could be one well-designed 13° hybrid away from the extinction of the 3-wood.

Now if I'm being completely objective, it's impossible not to notice that today's modern long hybrid aren't much different from yesterday's fairway woods. Only a few CCs and ½" or so separates the modern 15° hybrid from the 3 wood of a decade ago.

You can call them whatever you want, but the clubs themselves simply aren't that different, but hybrids have the benefit of reputation. They're easier to hit. Fairway woods...they're hard to hit. Scrap 'em if you can.

THE PGA TOUR

Whether you define the shape of influence as a pyramid or a sphere, the single greatest retail influencer remains the the PGA Tour. And those tour guys, they've done a piss-poor lousy job of selling the consumer on new fairway wood technology.

It's not that Callaway's XHot marketing has been totally ineffective, or that TaylorMade hasn't gotten some attention with their #IER campaign (Johnson Wagner saying "Mustache-IER" is funny), it's that despite supposed advancements in technology, guys...lots of guys on the PGA Tour continue to win with what the manufacturers would have the rest of us believe is obsolete technology.

Looking back from this year's WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral to last season's Masters, no fewer than 15 wins (and that doesn't include multiple winners like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy) are credited to guys carrying something other than the latest fairway wood technology. And we're not talking about guys who are just a little slow transitioning from last year's model to this year's model. We're talking about some seriously old, antiquated, find-it-for-thirty-bucks-or-less-on-eBay gear.

Those winner's bags include such classics as Titleist's 980F and 906F2, TaylorMade's Burner, Nike's SQ Sumo, and Callaway's famed FT-i.

And then there's Cleveland staffer Charlie Beljan. He won without a single fairway wood in the bag (he carried 15° and 20° hybrids).

If the best players in the world - guys for whom a single shot can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars - aren't finding the performance gains to justify an upgrade, why should the average joe drop upwards of $300 on a club he can't hit straight anyway?

The Future of the Fairway Wood

I've been predicting the end of fairway woods for years, and yet they keep limping along. Truthfully, I probably got a little ahead of myself (what can I say, I'm a visionary) and TaylorMade's success with the RBZ last season admittedly forced me to bump my time table back a bit. I'll begrudgingly accept that it's probably not time to pull the plug on the 3 wood just yet. It's not going away any time soon (if ever), but the 5 wood is on a life support, and most everything else...let's just say they might not outlive the Javan Rhino.

As long as the tour guys keep playing something of the 3 wood variety, I suspect golfers will continue to occasionally buy new 3 woods, but despite best efforts from Callaway, TaylorMade, and anyone else who thinks they've got the next IT fairway, we're unlikely to see another year like last year any time soon. Golfers will revert to their old habits, and that means fairway woods will only get replaced when it's absolutely necessary. It's probably better that way.

They're all the same right? You stick with what you got, and I'll keep not watching Grey's Anatomy.

Join the Discussion

We want to know (share with us in the comments section):

  • Do you upgrade your fairway woods frequently, or are you one of those who clings to the familiar?
  • When was the last time you put a new fairway wood in your bag, and why did you do it?
  • If you're one of those guys who bags a so-called "obsolete" model, what 's in your bag now and what would it take to convince you to replace it?