Drive Time

By staff June 1, 2007

The large hunk of colorful metal grabs my attention even before the door closes behind me at the Pro Golf store off Bee Ridge Road and Tuttle Avenue. Golf junkies don’t need much to spike adrenaline levels, so as I make a beeline for a rack filled with drivers, I figure these square-headed monsters might just be my next fix.

They are the latest models in a technology boom that has added power and accuracy to our games, whether you tee it up at Bobby Jones Golf Club or belong to The Concession. By now, you’d think the engineers and rocket scientists at Nike, Callaway and other equipment companies (yes, I know of several people in the industry whose talents were previously employed by NASA) would have exhausted the laws of aerodynamics and physics, not to mention cost, in allowing you to hit it longer and straighter.

But the quest on all counts continues to be unquenchable. The marketing gurus know most golfers will spend like a party-hearty Enron executive to try out the latest trends. It’s simple consumer psychology: Gotta have that next big thing. Why do some women keep going on shopping sprees at Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus? The same reason I’ve bolted past three sales clerks to get my hands on the Nike Sasquatch Sumo Squared and Callaway FT-i drivers that, at first glance, defy all conventional wisdom when it comes to hitting a golf ball.

Rising like a redwood tree in a forest of golf clubs, these drivers look like somebody unhooked a microwave oven and attached it to a broom stick. It’s an unwieldy visual and has a funky feel, sort of like swinging one of those top-heavy plastic toy baseball bats you might have had as a kid.

These aren’t cheap toys, either. Nike, which calls the Sumo the “ultimate driver for distance, forgiveness and accuracy” on its Web site, suggests a retail price of $479. Callaway, which cleverly markets its model as “The World’s Straightest Driver?” (note the question mark), sells for $499.

Still, there’s a certain cachet and style that must be maintained. And since I missed the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, I need to know: Is it really hip to be square?

No matter. It’s new. It’s shiny. And there’s also the possibility I can buy a better game and shave strokes off my score—a desire I appear to share with other Sarasota golfers.

Glenn Murray, head pro at the Ritz-Carlton Members Club, formerly worked at the Nick Faldo Golf Institute in Orlando. His clients there included mostly resort guests and tourists, a considerably different demographic than the one that greeted him in the Sarasota area.

“Here, there’s more of a [country] club market. More people play regular games,” Murray says. “The Sarasota golfer is definitely somebody who’s chosen golf as something they want to spend time doing several months out of the year.”

Translation: Gimme whatever cures my slice.

But unlike in recent years, this round of driver wars has been especially fueled by hype. Due to United States Golf Association limits, the face of the club can’t be larger than 460 cubic centimeters, so manufacturers are basically maxed out on size.

Taylor-Made introduced the moveable weight technology about four years ago in its R 7 line, in which interchangeable screws allowed you to shift weight to the toe, heel or back of the club. Other companies have had weight bias built into their drivers at the factory.

There are only so many ways to move around a few grams inside a club head, though, and it seemed the rocket scientists had painted themselves into a technological corner.

Ah, but there’s always a way out when you wield a slide rule. Indeed, altering the shape appeared the next logical step. “That’s what the club companies do,” Murray says. “They’re marketing machines. They create loyal disciples of golfers that have to have the latest and greatest.”

Sarasota appears to be the perfect test market for anything golf. With approximately 100 courses throughout Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, players thirst for a way to swat better shots around their favorite layout. Sarasota County’s affluent golfer has the means to try the latest and greatest. If it doesn’t catch on here, it might not fly very well elsewhere.

“It’s a market that can afford to change drivers every few years,” says Jimmy Wright, director of The Concession Golf Club.

“Almost everyone is looking for that particular club,” Wright adds. “When something new comes out, there’s a feeling and excitement that ‘This is the one.’”

Still, area players have already proved savvy consumers when it comes to the square-headed drivers. Steve Meyer, who owns and operates four Pro Golf stores in Sarasota, Venice and Bradenton, says customers quickly scooped up the higher-priced Callaway FT-i, buying nearly 50 of the drivers during a three-week period when the square club heads debuted in the first quarter.

“Word is that the Callaway is a little longer [distance] than the Nike Sumo,” says Meyer, who’s been in business in the area for 21 years. “It’s turned out better than I ever expected.”

Murray has hosted several demo days in which golfers swing various clubs. When it came to the Sumo and FT-i, people responded like they were in the produce section of the grocery store, holding each item up for scrutiny and checking for ripeness. There was a lot of curiosity, Murray says, “but nobody had made the jump of putting it in their bag. It’s like it’s still in the trial phase.”

Nike has Tiger Woods on its endorsement staff, but he so far has stayed away from putting the Sumo Squared in his bag. Phil Mickelson plays Callaway clubs and didn’t hesitate to put the FT-i in play at the Masters in April. Mickelson won the 2006 Masters using two drivers (one for fades off the tee, the other for draws) and tried a similar philosophy this year.

“The square one goes 20 yards longer than my regular one,” Mickelson said prior to the tournament. “So when I need distance, I use the square one. And when I try to hit little low shots or work it around the trees, I'll use the regular-shaped driver.”

Regardless of superstar testimonials, Meyer, Wright and others have doubts about the market longevity of the square heads among amateurs. Titleist entered the fray recently with a somewhat triangle-shaped driver, but Taylor-Made, Cleveland and Ping have not announced any plans to follow the trend.

“It’s more of a fad. The look of that club takes a lot of getting used to,” says Wright, who ran his own retail store, the Wright Approach, in Sarasota for about five years. “But they’ll have some success with it.”

That same scenario applied to me when I took the Nike and Callaway for test runs. As the Golf Digest magazine experts (and Pro Golf’s Meyer) found, the Callaway club seemed to be the longer of the two off the tee. That was when I was able to garner enough confidence to take a full swing with them.

Wright was right, too. Standing over them, both square heads look as clunky as the latest trendy women’s heels. The clubs felt uncomfortable on the backswing and downswing, what with the sheer size of the metal head creating sort of a drag through the air.

Meyer had warned me not to expect the ball to fly as far as with some other conventionally shaped drivers. “It’s not a distance story. It’s a direction story now,” Meyer says. “They’re telling you these clubs are more forgiving on mis-hits and you can hit it straighter.”

Indeed, professionals speak all the time of lining up squarely to the ball and your target. Literally, that’s what happens with the Nike and Callaway. The square shape of the club helps fix your alignment and points you in a straighter line down the path of your swing.

Obviously, there are other important factors. Like talent and skill. And the flexibility and length of the club’s shafts.

“The club companies don’t guarantee exact specifications in their shafts,” Murray says. “Manufacturers build drivers for the majority of people, not for individuals.”

Murray, Wright and any club pro will tell you to avoid the impulse buy and get properly fitted, which entails basically the same process as having a pair of pants altered by a tailor. Just ask your wife if she’d wear a dress from Saks or Neiman’s that wasn’t hemmed properly.

Wright recalls how business typically surged on Mondays at his store with people wanting the same clubs they saw the PGA Tour pros play that Sunday on television. “Golfers are all into how far they hit the ball,” Wright says. “That’s all we talk about. We’re all falling into that same trap. We watch TV and see these guys hitting those 300, 350-yard drives. We’re so in tune with what we see the pros hit on TV.”

The shelf life of square-headed drivers likely will face the same attention span in Sarasota and other upscale markets. “If the pros don’t use them,” Wright says, “they’re not going to last very long.”

Or until the next best thing hits the local stores.

Sarasota's Tom Spousta was national golf writer for USA Today.

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