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The Future of Golf Technology

Dec. 24, 2013     By     Comments (16)

Is golf technology in a rut? I discuss how we got here and a little of what the future holds.

Thrash TalkIn my line of work, we talk often about technology stagnation. We often find that new products hitting the market have only slight improvements from the products offered a short while ago. The market then becomes extremely competitive, prices drop, and growth becomes a thing of the past. The most recent example is the personal computer market. Many people feel today that there is little incentive to by a new computer. I feel the golf industry is very near to a similar rut.

This came to me while playing golf a few weeks ago. All three of the guys in my group had R11 drivers in their hands. R11 is almost three years old and TaylorMade has released so many new drivers since then it begins to spin your head even thinking about it. But for the most part these new drivers were not driving my golfing buddies to ditch the old driver and switch over to the new ones. I asked them why the newer drivers hadn't tickled their fancy. They mentioned the improvements just didn't justify the price tag.

I think for the most part these guys were right. Other than minor innovations like movable weights, there is very little to drive new club sales when it comes to drivers or even irons for that matter. It really makes you wonder if golf technology has reached a "tipping point" where we are not going to be able to get much more bang for our buck. If this is true what does the future hold for golf companies?

If we look to the history of the driver during the transition from hickory shafts to steel there was a lull in the speed of innovation as well. Steel shafts were introduced in the fifties and held a position in the golf industry until graphite took over in the nineties. The drivers during this time were made of persimmon and had little innovation has well. The steel headed driver did not make its introduction until the late seventies early eighties depending on who you ask. From this point innovation took off like a rocket. The transition from steel to titanium was very fast. Titanium has been around and the main material used in drivers for close to fifteen years. There has been some work by golf companies to create composite drivers where they fuse carbon fiber with titanium, but for the most part titanium is the standard.

Mizuno Irons

Titanium itself went through a great deal of innovation mainly around how thin the metal could be manufactured allowing the head of the driver to become massive but at the same time lightening the clubhead so we can swing harder and still have a very large sweetspot to hit. The last gasp from the clubmakers was to paint the clubhead white in an effort to make the clubhead appear larger and give the golfer a feeling that the club is even larger.

So the question now is what happens from here? If it is like other industries I suspect we will see some consolidation. We have already started to see this. It began with the sale of TaylorMade to Adidas and a sale of Cobra to Puma. Then more recently Adams being bought by TaylorMade, Titleist's sale to Fila, Cleveland Golf to Srixon these are an indicator that the market is shrinking. Consolidation is a sign of a very weak market. The interesting question is; do guys like Callaway and PING survive? Can the medium size companies who do not have the giant big brother clothing giant behind them be successful in this competitive market space? We still see a few small companies trying to break into the market such as BombTech and others, but the going will be even tougher for a small guy.

Consolidation by in large is a bad thing in my opinion. It reduces the number of options we as consumers have at our disposal. Less opportunity means we will pay higher prices for less innovation. Basically we will pay for marketing. I would rather my dollars go towards research and development and not advertising. Tiger and Phil make plenty of money on the golf course, why should they get more of my money each time I buy a new driver.

The balance in all of this is how do we allow for technology to blossom but not lose the game to technology. The USGA struggles with this question. They have done things like limiting the clubhead size, limit the spring effect on the face, all to try and curb technology and keep the game, well a game. Sadly this effort will limit what golf companies can do and will hurt us as consumers. They will all be forced to make the same thing and then only the large will survive.

Photo credits: © David Dusek.

Discussion

  1. WUTiger says:

    Michael,

    Good and timely column - something I’ve wondered about ever since I went to the GolfWorks club assembly school.

    As far as a technology rut, we need to remember that some innovations are just old things coming back around. For example:
    • Hybrids. Not an invention of the early 2000s. These are descendents of the bulldog, an 18-25* trouble club from early 1900s. Bulldogs had tiny heads – about two golf balls in width, but could get your ball out of the fluff quite nicely.
    • Oversized clubheads on irons. Popularized in the 1990s… but, I carried an old mashie-niblick (PW) from the 1930s that had a clubhead the size of the palm of my hand. Blade was only ¼” thick, and it could get out of junk up close.
    • Steel-headed woods. Reincarnated in late 1980s. Aluminum-headed drivers with hickory shafts were popular in the 1890s.

    As far as future technology goes, I applauded my brother’s purchase of a TM Burner 2.0 driver last year. But, I warned him to hang onto his early bubble-shafted Burner FWs – I’m betting TM resurrects the bubble shaft as the next big thing.

    Now, are we in a technology rut, or just hitting technology plateaus: It’s harder and harder to make any major gains. You have some “science fair” incremental boosts that come down the line, but the average golfer may not buy them unless they offer a big gain in distance or accuracy.

    The marketing guys tell us that the 2015 Whizbang FW goes 10 yards farther than the 2014 model, which – if I remember right – went 20 yards farther than the 2012 model. As far as technology goes, I’d say that custom fitting offers the most gains for the average golfer whose swing has stabilized. The custom fitting may or may not point to new technology.
    Also, consolidation is afoot. Consolidation within an industry means, primarily, that the industry is maturing. The book Golf Club Design…. (Ralph Maltby and GolfWorks) shows golf club specs from the early 1980s, and lists various club models from 18 companies. This is before the arrival of the Three Cs: Callaway, Cleveland and Cobra. Now, we’re down primarily to the clusters you (Mike) cited in your column.

    Besides looking at weak market, also give some consideration to excess capacity. Companies collectively can make more clubs than can be sold, so you have a shakeout. Struggling companies go out of business or get bought up by larger firms. The same thing happened in the auto industry, just a few decades ahead.

    Will consolidation cost us innovation? Well, a company has to stay in business to be innovative. It’s kind of like the personal computer in the early 2000s. Except for special-purpose uses, the PC had pretty well become a commodity. Last year’s screamin’ machine was this year’s status quo.

    All said and done, golfers face the same old challenge of sorting out true technological gains from marketing hype.

  2. shihtappens says:

    How has eBay (and the online retailers who leverage it) changed golf tech?

  3. WUTiger says:

    Posted in Michael Hepp's review: "Steel shafts were introduced in the fifties and held a position in the golf industry until graphite took over in the nineties."

    Historic note: Perforated steel shafts were introduced in 1902, but didn’t work very well. The development of the seamless steel shaft in the 1920s made steel practical. During the 1930s, steel pretty well pushed out the hickory shafted clubs.

  4. @WUTiger Thank you for the well thought out comments. I agree on the steel shafts. My father told me he remembered getting his first steel shafts in the fifties. He is gone now so I couldn't ask him again before writing the article.

  5. Shambles says:

    Steel shafts were a very much needed development and were eagerly accepted as a replacement for Hickory. Hickory softened with use, which necessitated stocking replacement sets made to your personal preference and also limited practice a bit. Steel was more stable and only needed the finding of a matching set, which was more difficult than it sounds, for the sensitive touch. One of the reasons that steel so easily replaced the Hickory shaft once it came close enough to good. :)

    Shambles

  6. liquor box says:

    I would like to see a standardization of club lofts and their respective iron number.

    Over the years the loft of any given iron has decreased to allow each new model to have a longer distance.

    As for driver technology, even though it is laughed at by the majority and had painful adverts, PowerBilt Nitrogen usage seems to be a technology that actually makes some scientific sense to me.

  7. @liquor box - Why?

    Clubs with the same loft don't necessarily launch the ball at the same angle. Center of Gravity and other facts of club design (particularly the shaft) govern such things. So what benefit would there be to standardizing lofts and numbers?

  8. liquor box says:

    Erik

    I want some way of being able to tell if a club actually adds distance compared to another club that is essentially the same.

  9. Dave40 says:

    Maybe shaft technology is where the future lies. Graphite shafts today are much better than 10 years ago. I think there is still room for improvement in graphite shaft technology. Getting the torque numbers down on lighter graphite shafts is still a technical challenge.

  10. @liquor box - Standardizing the loft and numbers won't achieve that. Musclebacks could very well hit the ball farther as their CG is higher and they'll produce a lower launch angle. Cavity backs reduce backspin with a lower CG. Loft is not the sole determinant of launch angle or distance. Far from it.

  11. t fish says:

    For me I've found that fitting improves the club more than any thing.as for standard lofts they go only as far as you hit them . But through bending loft lie adjustment to set yardage gaps throughout the bag. You can create the perfect set of clubs. Sense adjustability has been brought to fairway woods and hybrids even they can be adjusted to create improved yardage gaps. The use of launch monitors becomes very useful in this app. I think that one must include the shaft options as we'll there are so many shafts available today that will I'm prove performance. As far as I can see this is vastly overlooked in today's golfer . Some will spend 500 dollars for a driver and over look a shaft upgrade that will bring the new driver to life for them. The shaft plays a critical role in the launch angle as well as the cg. Example I was hiring my driver with an upgraded shaft but still launching it to high 16-17 degrees by changing to a shaft (the same model ) only 10 grams heaver in a tour spec model brought that launch down to 13-14 degrees and added 15 to 20 yards in distance.

  12. fastonkeys says:

    Good article... I still contend that the best way to "grow the game" is not through the senseless recycling of equipment but rather improved playing skill. If people invested a fraction of the money they've spent on "new equipment" on appropriate game improvement many symptoms of the current landscape would change for the better. And, you can put custom fitting into this category as well, per above. The shaft technology is the only area I can envision moderate/consistent improvement continuing... the fact of matter is, the equipment landscape has been over-saturated with crap, gimmicks, and senseless product life-cycles ... that's simply not a model that can scale infinitely - and now the toll price is being paid.

  13. loonsailor says:

    The reason that equipment isn't improving is that it already performs at the limits allowed by the rules. The ex-CEO of a major ball company assured me that they could provide a ball that would add 20-40 yards to my drive, but the rules prohibit it. Even he said that all balls are pretty much alike, because they all operate at the allowed limits, the same can be said of clubs. I can't buy a driver that would help me out much, not because the mfg's can't or don't want to make it, but because the rules are written so that Tiger can't use a driver that he can hit 400. Bifurcate the rules, and it assure you that we'd experience a flurry of innovation. Until then, I (a 62 year old duffer) will continue to use gear with performance limits designed to control the elite pros. Sigh.

  14. gbdoc says:

    To begin with, I don’t think technological development will stop in golf, any more than it’ll stop anywhere else. Of course, I don’t know where it’ll go, but I’m sure it’ll happen.

    But the more important question for me, as a golfer, who is neither owner, executive of, or shareholder in any golf equipment manufacturer, is: who cares? All the clubs we have today are fine, and we can all have fun playing with them. We don’t really need bigger and better stuff, marketing hype notwithstanding. If all development stopped today, golf sales might shrink some, but it’ll still remain a significant market, certainly better than, say, than lacrosse, so production and sales will continue. The fun of golf is playing golf, and isn’t primarily dependent on playing with the newest development. Of course, this is a bit at odds with the fun of the business of golf. Different strokes for different folks.

  15. bugeye says:

    I second gbdoc's excellent comment above! Well said Sir!

  16. bugeye says:

    The comment of loonsailer above, points brilliantly toward a solution for equipment manufactures, what a great take and the phrase ''Bifurcate the rules', brilliant!
    Boy, there are some smart people in here!

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