When Joe Vacek asked me to meet him at Golf Galaxy in Plymouth on January 2—to look at the newest equipment for the coming season—I was a little surprised that the store was even open. After all, many retail businesses were closed in observance of New Year’s Day, which had fallen on a Sunday.
So, it was not surprising that Vacek, who is the store’s general sales manager, and his coworkers were the only ones around when I showed up. But we’d barely begun talking about “this year’s driver”—an updated version of the TaylorMade r7—before Vacek became distracted, glancing repeatedly at two men who’d come in and started putting on the store’s practice green.
“That’s Tim Herron,” Vacek explained, nodding his head in the direction of the unassuming figure knocking ball after ball at the hole under the close scrutiny of his instructor. Herron, a Minneapolis native, is a top performer on the PGA of America tour.
The fact that Herron, who earned more than $2 million on the PGA tour last year and has won more than $12 million since turning pro in 1993, was getting putting pointers from his instructor Gerald McCullagh on a day when most people were taking a day off, is testament to how hard even the best golfers work to shave a couple of strokes off their score.
None of the new equipment is guaranteed to lower your score, of course. But even once-a-week hackers are buying into the benefits of better tools. More golfers are serious about improving their skills, which means they no longer simply buy what Tiger uses and hope for a fraction of the results.
“People are doing their research before they come in and try things out,” Vacek says. “They realize there are more choices than ever in terms of equipment, but they’re intent on spending their money on that new-and-improved thing that will truly improve their game.”
Golfers focus so much on the clubs they’re swinging that they forget what they’re standing on all day, Vacek says. What’s more, a golfer’s swing depends on the stability of the lower half of the body. The Adidas Tour 360 golf shoe has sold extremely well since it was released last fall. It features a combination of technologies that provide stability and support. Independent forefoot and heel elements help keep the foot centered with the shoe, ensuring a solid hitting platform and enhanced stability. (Suggested retail price: $180.)
Look at This Monster!
Drivers continue to be cartoonishly large, pushing right to the 460-cubic-centimeter limit. The head of the Nike SasQuatch driver is nearly as long as it is wide. With the head cover on, it takes up the space of two clubs in your bag. The head shape is designed to push the center of gravity farther back and raise the moment of inertia (less twisting), increase the launch angle, and reduce spin. Unlike its namesake, expect plenty of sightings of this SasQuatch as the season warms up. Vacek says the club has been flying out of Golf Galaxy’s doors since it was introduced in November. (Suggested retail price: $359.)
King of the Hill
California-based TaylorMade has produced the number-one driver on the PGA tour for more than four years, according to Golf Digest. A redesigned r7 425 was introduced last November and has the largest all-titanium head that features movable weights, which allow the golfer to redistribute 28 grams to achieve the desired ball flight. The biggest change to the new r7 is its Fujikura shaft, which promises to increase stability in the downswing. (Suggested retail price: $500.)
The new series of King Cobra drivers from Cobra Golf based in Massachusetts are designed to match a player’s swing speed, whether it’s clocked at “extreme,” fast, or medium. The manufacturer says that fast-swing golfers make up the majority of the avid-golfer population, but most don’t play drivers that are optimized for their swings. The club face of all three versions is thicker in the center and thinner around the perimeter for hotter hitting points and more forgiveness. This driver also is available in a senior’s and a woman’s version. (Suggested retail price: $370.)
A lot of golfers still haven’t replaced their low irons with a hybrid or two, says Vacek, and he can’t understand why not. Last year, Golf Digest called hybrids—clubs that combine the straight hitting of irons with the low center of gravity of some woods—”the most important club in golf.” The do-it-all clubs work from long distances, are ideal for getting out of tall grass and bunkers, and can even substitute for an untrustworthy pitching wedge.
Released in November, the Ping G5 hasn’t been around long enough to become a bestseller in this category, but Vacek expects that’s just a matter of time. This first-ever wood-like hybrid from Phoenix-based Ping features a compact head and sloped crown that positions the center of gravity low and back to promote a higher launch and greater control. (Suggested retail price: $190.)
Here’s a hybrid that’s priced right (relatively speaking) and easy to play. The Halo from Cleveland Golf Company features a stainless-steel face and body that’s designed to hit the ball higher and 5 to 10 yards longer than the corresponding long iron that it replaces. The crown slopes down from front to back to push more weight to the back, and the sole has a rocker-and-camber design to improve turf interaction. (Suggested retail price: $150.)
Comfort and Performance
Nike Shox for golf just arrived in October, providing the comfort of a tennis shoe with the support and durability of a golf shoe. The low-profile, five-column cushioning system is designed to provide responsiveness, stability, and comfort. Nike’s WaterShield Plus technology allows you to play wet courses without a worry. (Suggested retail price: $130.)
Have a Ball
Golfers can become extremely loyal to the brand of ball they use. But few amateurs—even low-handicappers—notice the difference between the performance of balls that sell for $35 or more per dozen and value lines that cost $25 per dozen or less. The new Callaway HX Tour 56 may actually be worth the extra dough. It features the company’s trademark hexagonal-geometry surface that is designed to reduce drag; an ultra-thin yet durable cover is designed to deliver consistency and professional velocity. (Suggested retail price: $50 per dozen.)
No More Lost Balls
Weekend hackers, rejoice! The RadarGolf Ball Positioning System allows communication between the RadarGolf handheld device and a tiny microchip implanted in the core of a RadarGolf Ball. A pulsed beeping indicates when you are getting closer to your lost RadarGolf Ball (it picks up a signal from as far as 33 yards away), plus a screen gives you visual feedback on the ball’s position. The system includes the RadarGolf handheld device (with a protective case) and a dozen RadarGolf Balls. The California-based manufacturer states that RadarGolf Balls meet all U.S. Golf Association specifications and outperform many brands in distance and spin. The system is available only from The Sharper Image. (Suggested retail price: $349.)
A Bar Exam of a Different Sort.
The sort of guys who loved shop class in high school and have now developed a passion for golf can’t resist creating new golf teaching tools. More often than not, says Vacek, the simplest ones prove to be the most effective. The new Path Pro swing assistant, introduced just a few months ago by Path Pro Golf of Illinois, is nothing more than a foam-covered bar attached to a swivel arm on a stand. Path Pro can be set in nine basic positions, with dozens of variations, to help golfers develop proper arm and hand alignment during their swing. Each position emphasizes a different aspect of the swing, helping to reinforce correct techniques while eliminating bad habits such as lunging, poor posture, or over-swinging. (Suggested retail price: $99.99.)