This is Season Two of the 460cc driver era. Nearly every major company has produced at least one - and up to three - drivers that have maxed out at the USGA/R&A arbitrary limitation of 460cc, plus or minus 10cc for manufacturing tolerances.
So you would think that maybe since size can't be used as a point of differentiation anymore, perhaps it would get harder to tell the competing drivers apart, or that maybe they'd start to get cheaper. Well, guess again. A new batch of drivers is standing apart from the crowd, and doing so at some rather high price points.
Ironically, the company that gets the credit or blame (depending on whether you're a consumer or a retailer) for bringing the prices of drivers down - TaylorMade - is at the forefront of the new wave of higher-priced drivers. From their introduction in the mid-1990s through 2000, titanium drivers regularly commanded street prices in the $400 range. Some ultra-popular models, like Callaway's Biggest Big Bertha, even sold well above the $500 mark.
TaylorMade helped to change that earlier this decade with a two-pronged approach of shorter product cycles (more frequent product introductions) and more aggressive price-cutting on older models. Instead of bringing out a new $399 driver every 18-24 months as was the industry norm, TaylorMade started hatching new driver lines every year or so - with minor model changes in between to goose sales. When the new products came out, the older products were aggressively discounted. The result was also two-pronged: there was downward pricing pressure on drivers, and TaylorMade eventually took over the No. 1 market share spot in the metal woods category from longtime rival Callaway.
In the last couple years, very few drivers have launched with a street price higher than $299, and a good number of last year's hot drivers can be found at the $199 price point. Only a few companies - TaylorMade, Callaway, Titleist - could afford to have a $399 driver on the market and count on it to move quickly.
But this year, some retailers are moving the needle back toward the higher end of the price spectrum. And TaylorMade is the company leading the way. The company's new r7 425 and r7 460 drivers are both retailing for $399. But the Tour Prefered (TP) version of the r7 425 is commanding nearly double at $799. The difference? The TP version has a more advanced Fujikura shaft and 12 weight cartridges instead of four in the standard version, and a different face angle and head cover. Despite the big price disparity, the r7 425 TP is still a very hot commodity. And so are last year's TP offerings, the r7 Quad TP (marked down to $499) and the r5 Dual TP ($599). With the non-TP versions of last year's drivers also on the market (the standard r7 Quad is now $299 and the r5 Dual is $249), and clubs like the 580XD driver still doing in the sub-$200 price range, TaylorMade has a remarkable range of products across nearly every price point.
Other companies have decided to step up in price and take on TaylorMade at the higher price points. MacGregor's new MACTEC NVG2 Tour driver is taking a page out of the Tour Preferred playbook, offering a Fujikura Speeder shaft as stock and selling at $449 (the non-tour version is at $299). Meanwhile, Titleist's new 905R driver is expected to have a $429 price tag when it hits the retail racks.
Callaway's FT-3 driver has been a big seller at $399 for both tour and non-tour versions, and it has held at that price point since hitting the market last July. Cleveland's hot new HiBORE driver has just arrived at retailers sporting that same $399 price tag, while Nike's SQ Tour driver is fetching $349, if you can find the in-demand driver (the standard version is $299).
The higher price tags are clearly for the products that are most in demand, and that sport tour-related upgrades in terms of exotic shafts and tweaked specs. They offer an air of exclusivity to golfers who love to feel like they're playing what their tour heroes are using, and also offer an option to the "stock shafts are crap, I'm just going to reshaft it with a $250 shaft" crowd. These higher- priced items still only account for a relatively small piece of the driver pie, look for them to become more prominent if golfers decide to indulge their driver appetites with more expensive treats this year.