You're getting seduced. Distance sells these days, because it's sexy. And multiple savvy club manufacturers are bombarding you with ads for their new and strong 3-woods. They're forgiving. They're faster. They're longer. Hell, they might even be able to replace your driver, right? Well, hold on. You may not want to believe everything you hear.
This new lot of woods is impressive, no question. Will they get you more yardage? Undoubtedly. Can they zero in on a target more often than your current 3-wood? Probably. But do they have a place in your bag? Maybe not. And here's why.
Cleveland CG Black
THE PROBLEM WITH 3-WOODS
Most golfers use their driver off the tee, and get whatever amount of distance with it they can. It's the longest club in the bag, and the most forgiving. Its clubhead is the largest, and if it was built since Obama took office, it has an internal weighting scheme that helps tee shots get airborne quickly, find the fairway more often, and land with some lively bounce and roll. One thing that driver can't do well is hit the ball directly off the deck. Some better golfers use their drivers off the fairway when they need a huge shot, and can master that rare feat with ease. But for the other 99 percent of us, we don't even put that option in the realm of possibilities. Instead, we resort to the fairway wood or hybrid.
And in many cases, that means we pull out a 3-wood for the most possible distance. But results can be dicey, as "it's simply the longest-length club with the lowest loft that you can hit off the ground–a challenging combination for anyone," says Gary Glaser, PGA, general manager at The Crossings at Carlsbad (Calif.).
And in fact, while the 3-wood can help you reach or close in on a distant target, many golfers can achieve only low screamers with it–those shots that rocket off the clubface about 15 feet up in the air all the way. And they think that because the ball seems to run for a mile that they crushed their shot the most possible yards. Experts say they missed out on an opportunity there: Had the golfer instead used a slightly higher-lofted club with a slightly shorter shaft, say a 5-wood, the launch conditions would have generated a shot that actually surpassed the distance of the 3-wood.
Three-woods are tough to hit because they're now built more like older drivers, with their large heads, low CG and low spin... –Eric Lohman, PGA, Director of Golf, Oak Creek Golf Club
Why is that? It comes down to several factors, according to some of the country's top golf instructors. "Most people I teach can't hit a 3-wood off the deck, because the lies are so tight and the grass is so nice and short," says Susan Roll, award-winning PGA instructor at Carlsbad Golf Center in Carlsbad, Calif. "There's just not enough loft on the club. And most golfers don't have the swing speed, so the physics of it just don't work. You don't have the speed, you can't get the lift, and the ball just doesn't stay in the air as long as it would with a 5-wood. Loft is your friend. Most people hit the 5-wood longer than the 3-wood. The 3-wood still feeds the dream of distance. We all have hope on that good day or good shot that we can hit it farther than ever. And that dream still lives, and we sell a lot of 3-woods for that reason. Most of the time, I say that your go-to club is your 5-wood in any situation where you're not in a perfect, fluffy lie. You can probably get some more distance out of it."
Grant Rogers, PGA, director of instruction at Bandon (Ore.) Dunes Golf Resort, agrees, adding that several other factors hinder your ability to master the 3-wood from the fairway. "The lie of the ball in the fairway is one of the most important things to consider before trying a 3-wood shot," says Rogers. "Most golfers should try something else if their ball is above or below their feet or if the ball is in a bad lie in the fairway. The ball position is also really important. Golfers will crash into the top of the ball with their 3-wood, if the ball is too far back or too far forward in their stance. Golfers can also get into trouble with their 3-wood if they're trying to hit their shots long. Taking a smooth swing with a 3-wood and hitting the ball solid is a better idea."
TaylorMade RBZ Tour
PROS AND CONS OF THE LATEST LOT
Enter all of the new 2012 models that promise to help ease the burden. For one, the clubhead sizes are generally a little bit larger than game-improvement counterparts from the past–TaylorMade's RocketBallz is 200cc, Bridgestone's J40 is 190cc, and Tour Edge's XCG5 is 185cc. "We know that the average consumer struggles with fairway woods," says Corey Consuegra, Bridgestone Golf's marketing manager of ball fitting and golf clubs. "A larger head shape inspires confidence and also allows us to move weight around inside of it, which translates to a higher ballflight. The technology of the club helps get the ball up in the air."
The latest lot of strong 3-woods are also more aerodynamically shaped, to help generate more clubhead speed and thus more distance. For example, Nike markets its speed-oriented VR Pro Limited model as "a 3-wood that delivers the ball speed of a driver," says Gidge Moody, Nike Golf's product line manager for golf clubs. The 3-wood has a shallow face, nice contours, and the company's "Compression Channel" slot in the sole that helps add pop to your shots. Competitors have made their own efforts to increase clubhead speed through shaping, to boost distance.
Then there's the matter of weighting and center of gravity. Some companies are placing the weight low and forward, so that a ball sitting low can get airborne quickly. Others say they're situating the CG low and deep, to achieve the same goal. Regardless, properly located weighting and CG in any given clubhead can get you trajectory and ball speed–two things that have generally lacked in 3-woods over the years, unless struck perfectly. And you'll also see the use of lightweight shafts with tip stiffnesses that help increase ball trajectory. The shafts aren't really any longer than in the past, but they're more smartly made to accomplish the task.
Still, not everyone is sold on the fact that the latest lot will make things much easier. Dom DiJulia, a renowned Top 100 PGA instructor in Philadelphia where he owns the Dom DiJulia School of Golf, says, "Off of the turf, the larger head and reduced loft make the club nearly unplayable for all but the most highly skilled players." Eric Lohman, PGA director of golf at Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, Calif., is another nonbeliever. "Three-woods are tough to hit because they're now built more like older drivers, with their large heads, low CG and low spin," says Lohman. "They require a precise hit most likely off of a perfect lie. The easier the utility clubs have become to hit, the harder 3-woods have become to hit. They're more like a 2-wood or driving wood. And the more yards they claim to produce are almost negligible to the average golfer. Only highly skilled golfers will hit them farther, while most golfers will hit them worse unless off a tee or from a perfect lie."
However, other PGA pros see the opportunity here and want to embrace the new technology. Virgil Herring, PGA, director of instruction at The Golf Academy at Westhaven in Nashville and a teacher to several Tour pros, believes that the latest explosive 3-woods will likely be good for golfers "who don't generate clubhead speed over 85 mph. Getting them that extra launch angle will help them carry the ball longer in the air. Also, specific types of players who swing over the top, say three to eight degrees out-to-in, could also benefit"we will put all options in front of the player and let the (launch monitor) tell us which club provides them with optimum carry and launch. There are thousands of options to choose from, and we track each variable."
Then there's the matter of refreshing distance gapping, particularly for golfers who've stayed with a comfortable 3-wood for more than a few years while upgrading their other woods. For them, it may be time to upgrade. "New drivers are probably 15 yards longer than they used to be, and new hybrids are about 10 yards longer," says Tim Reed, vice president of research and development at Adams Golf. "But 3-woods have stayed the same. So we've wanted to pump up that distance, to fit the new bag. One of the things that's held the 3-wood back in the past has been if you get too much spin, it slows the ball down. And if you hit it too low, it doesn't go as far. So another way to increase speed is through the face–getting higher launch with a lower spin, to make it fly better. Our new 3-wood hits the ball higher."
Typically 3-wood shots hit off the ground spin more and fly lower. So when you perfectly strike one off the tee versus off the ground, you get better launch and ball spin–to the tune of "one to two miles per hour more, which translates to three to six more yards per shot," says Reed. "The (crown and sole) slots on our new Speedline Fast 12 3-wood are going to increase ball speed and give you high launch. It's easier to hit. It's not just speed we're giving golfers, it's a change in the efficiency of launch conditions."
Adams Speedline Super XTD
A DRIVER ALTERNATIVE?
The tee box is another controversial area for the new 3-woods. "Hitting it well off the ground is probably more important than hitting it well off the tee," admits Marty Jertson, a senior design engineer at PING. "But many golfers consider their 3-wood to be a versatile tweener club that they can use off the fairway and tee."
So will you necessarily benefit from the latest models on the tee box? Perhaps, depending on the level to which you struggle with a driver. They're definitely confidence builders for those of you in a tee-shot slump. "They're great for anyone who has control issues, anyone who has maxed out on driver loft and is still hitting too low for their needs, and anyone who may need a slightly shorter-length driving club," says Glaser.
DiJulia agrees, recognizing that "a player who struggles off of the tee stands to benefit a great deal from a switch to a more forgiving, strong 3-wood as a driving club. While that player may be concerned about losing distance, he may very well have a longer driving average with the strong 3-wood, based on hitting more shots solid and based on the reduction in curve from the higher-lofted 3-wood. He'll give up yards on the longest drive versus the longest 3-wood, but the average will have a lot more impact on getting the ball in the hole in less shots."
Some new models will no doubt tempt you to leave your driver in the car trunk. For instance, Tour Edge's new XCG5 3-wood has one of the lowest lofts around–11.5 degrees, reminiscent of 2-woods from years past. "It's great off the grass, but it can be used as a driver replacement off the tee for extra control on tightly lined fairways–compliments of the shorter shaft," says Jay Hubbard, vice president of marketing for the company. "And its weighting makes it easy to get the ball airborne."
It's great off the grass, but it can be used as a driver replacement off the tee for extra control on tightly lined fairways... –Jay Hubbard, Vice President of Marketing, Tour Edge
But even the latest 3-woods probably still aren't adequate all-out replacements for drivers. It boils down to the fact that by its sheer size, the driver is physically more forgiving than the 3-wood, says Nike's Moody. "That said, many players feel more comfortable swinging a shorter-length fairway wood than a driver on the tee box," says Moody. "Our fairway woods are very forgiving, the large face area and low CG make it a perfect combination for getting the ball up into the air with control and power on off-center hits. A possible drawback is the shallower face height; when hitting a ball off of the tee, some players may find it easy to get under the ball and 'sky' the shot."
For 2012, TaylorMade debuted the much-hyped RocketBallz 3-wood, with promise that the 15-degree version will surpass your old 3-wood by at least 17 yards. "We think most people will hit their driver 20-30 yards farther than their 3-wood off the tee," says Tom Olsavsky, senior director of product creation at TaylorMade. "Like always though, if you have low launch conditions, the 3-wood gets closer to the driver. For shots off the tee, a driver is much better than a fairway wood, though, given that it's fitted properly to your swing. The driver's face area and head inertia is huge compared to even a larger-faced RocketBallz 3-wood."
The company truly hopes and expects you to hit its RocketBallz 3-wood farther, as it may well cause a ripple effect on your purchase decisions. "In many cases, we think people will want a new driver after they get the RocketBallz 3-wood," says Olsavsky, who adds that TaylorMade is prepared for that predicament. "Our new R11S and RocketBallz drivers will help produce more distance than your old driver by 10+ yards."
Tour Edge XCG5
Believe it or not, all golfers don't crave maximum distance. In fact, many better players don't want their 3-wood shots traveling as far as their tee shots. They know their shot direction is more likely to go astray, as the club is less forgiving. Instead, they want a ball advancing a consistent, predictable distance down the middle. So are these new, strong 3-woods for this type of golfer?
"The answer really lies with the player," says Nike's Moody. "Most everyone wants more distance from every part of their game–outside of putting–and the majority of metalwood sales over the last few years have gone to those products that have delivered more distance. I don't think we have come close to the limit yet where the majority of consumers want us to pull distance back. It's also not uncommon for better players and touring professionals to want to hit every club in their bag a specific distance. But as a percentage of total golfers, they are among the precious few who are satisfied with their distance."
TaylorMade's Olsavsky thinks that when you get a fairway wood that's longer and easier to hit, it's hard to turn away the extra distance. "Even though good players say this, they will likely still change to RocketBallz," predicts Olsavsky, who has personally experienced that phenomenon with the company's Tour pros. "Initial Tour exposure suggests that some longer hitters will change the specs by going to a slightly higher loft than normal, since the RocketBallz spins lower than traditional designs. Shorter hitters on Tour are going all in. And many are looking for a driver with some added distance, to keep the gaps reasonable."
The entire scenario is reminiscent of better players initially not gravitating toward hybrids, roughly a decade ago. Now you'd be hard-pressed to find a Tour pro who doesn't play at least one. And club manufacturers are hoping that the same destiny plays out with the revival of the 3-wood.