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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How Much Has Technology Changed the Game?

I have a new friend named Bob (if you see any comments from market-maniac, that’s him) who just discovered my blog and has been reading some of the older stuff. We had an enjoyable conversation over the “Why Tom Watson Almost Won” post I did. He didn’t agree with me—I don’t have a problem with that—but it got me thinking about how the “bomb-and-gouge” game has influenced weekend golfers. So I’d like to spend the last two or three days of 2009 looking at just how much the game has really changed over the last few decades.

Bob is a true purist, who still plays with persimmon woods and forged blades. (One of the best players I know still plays with them; trust me, you don’t want to challenge these guys! They can hit the ball pure.) He hates the way technology is making the old courses less challenging to the pros, and he’s afraid that pure ball-striking is becoming irrelevant now that players routinely drive short par-4s. He’s not alone in those fears, not by a long shot.

But I don’t think the picture is as bad as all that. I believe good ball-strikers can still compete, win, and even dominate the modern tour. And I’d like to show you the 2009 stats, as well as some other facts, that demonstrate a simple truth: We weekend golfers have trouble improving simply because we are judging ourselves by an unrealistic yardstick. Hopefully, we can develop some more realistic criteria that will help us improve our games more quickly next year.

The first thing we should look at is the technology itself. Has it really ruined the game? Is it responsible for the ridiculous distances some players are hitting the ball these days? Or is there more to it than that?

When I wrote the post “Could Bobby Jones Have ‘Cut It’ Against Today’s Pros?” (which Vince Spence so kindly included in his “Best of” year-end list), I quoted some of Jones’s own notes about his experiments with club design. In 1923-24 Jones built a modern-sounding driver design from persimmon and what I now believe was a bamboo shaft (I believe Vince may be responsible for that tidbit as well!), with which he hit a standard 1920s golf ball as far as 340 yards. Given the specs of the driver, I’m guessing a lot of that was roll… but that's no different from today. Still, it reminds us that design and technology aren’t the same thing; better design can give us improvements even without better technology. With 110+ mph clubhead speed (many pros can do this and, remember, Jones has been put at 113), drives over 300 yards don’t require special technology.

But how do you develop that kind of clubhead speed? The easiest way is to create a bigger swing arc, and the easiest way to get bigger arcs is… bigger players. Here are your 2009 top 5 driving leaders:
Robert Garrigus 5' 11"
Bubba Watson 6' 3"
Dustin Johnson 6' 4"
Tag Ridings 6' 1"
Gary Woodland 6' 1"
And here are your top 5 in the world rankings:
Tiger Woods 6' 1"
Phil Mickelson 6' 3"
Steve Stricker 6' 0"
Lee Westwood 6' 0"
Padraig Harrington 6' 1"
Padraig’s a bit of a shocker to me. I just didn’t realize he’s that tall!

Tall players have longer arms, so they have bigger arcs, which can mean increased clubhead speed even without extra strength. (Granted, some tall players don’t hit it farther, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to do so.)

I don’t doubt that improvements in technology have given us a bit more distance. I suspect most of that comes from the golf ball, but not as much as most people think; maybe 15 yards, I’d guess. Club technology has allowed us to lose less distance when we hit it off-center, but that’s not the same as increasing our distance; players who hit it pure generally won’t gain much. (Yeah, I’ve seen that commercial where Nick Faldo claims he’s hitting clubs 25 yards farther. But how do I know his club specs are the same?)

And that’s the last piece of the puzzle. Today’s 9-iron isn’t the same as the 9-iron of 30 years ago. Here’s the simple truth: Today’s 9-iron is yesterday’s 8-iron. Today’s 9-iron has a shaft that’s 1/2-inch longer (1 inch if it’s a graphite shaft) and 4-6 degrees stronger loft. That’ll make you anywhere from 10-20 yards longer without any other technology change beyond a graphite shaft.

Give that club to a taller player who’s done a strength training program optimized for golfers, and he’s 30-35 yards longer even without a high-tech golf ball. Technology hasn’t ruined the game, folks; our best are just getting bigger and better…

But from a scoring standpoint, not as much as most weekend players think. We’ll look at that tomorrow.


  1. Keep looking through club manufacturer's web sites for club specs. There are companies who's modern 9 would be a strong 7 iron 30 years ago.

    Don't stop at irons - today's 3 woods, and even some 5 woods, are bigger than drivers of 30 years ago. Driver lengths have gone from 43 1/2" to 47" and even 48" in some cases - with shafts that are lighter by as much as 60 grams over what was used 30 years ago. And this is without the added power of the 460cc, titanium heads.

    I agree with you on the centrifugal advantage of height - but there have been tall and short players throughout history. Some of the little guys have been able to boom it out there with the best of them. Ian Woosnam always springs to mind and the battle he had with Greg Norman on the practice tee at Augusta National. They saw the new fence installed to keep John Daly from spraying balls all over Washington Avenue (it didn't work as well as they had hoped, by the way) - and decided to have a go at the fence themselves. Woosnam made it over the fence before Norman.

    Bobby Jones was only 5'8" tall and he was reported to be able to hit 300 yard drives with the technology of his day.

  2. You're right on with all your comments, Court. My current 7-wood was called a 5-wood back in the mid-80s.

    Again, it all just goes to show that technology isn't as big a deal as we make it out to be. It's definitely had an effect, but not nearly what the naysayers would like to believe. I believe most of the technology effects are matters of lighter weight components, as you pointed out. In any era, if players bother to learn how to use their equipment effectively, they can do some amazing things.