Testing the Performance of Drivers of Different Eras

By Brent Norton Club, Fitting Manager at Miles of Golf

Do current drivers perform better than hickories from the 1920s? How much better? How about early steel shafted clubs from the 1930s, or drivers from the 1950-60s, or the early metal drivers? This was the impetus for a test we conducted in the Miles of Golf Cluboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan using a TrackMan ball flight monitor.

The results are not surprising, current clubs do perform better. We have measurements of distance and accuracy for seven (7) different drivers that span the years from 1920 to the present. The details of testing along with a video are very interesting and follow:

The Testing Process.

Club Fitter.
Brent Norton conducted the test. Brent manages the Miles of Golf Cluboratory and is recognized as one of the very best club-fitters in the country. Major club manufacturers like Titleist, Cobra and Callaway send prototype clubs to Brent for his evaluation.

Club Testers.
In the video, we had two players test each club. One player, Doug Davis, has an outstanding amateur record, is a former captain of the University of Michigan Golf Team and an all Big-Ten player. Doug is one of the owners of Miles of Golf. Doug is not a long hitter.

The other tester was Scott Hayes. Scott competes professionally and also teaches at the Kendall Academy located at Miles of Golf. Scott is also a past captain of the University of Michigan Golf Team. Scott’s ball striking numbers are comparable to a PGA Tour player.

We gathered data from 4 additional players making the total number we tested six. All players were consistant ball strickers with club-head speeds ranging from the 80 to 110 mph.

Test Clubs.
The clubs tested were supplied by Gene Bolden. Gene has a huge collection of clubs and is one of the most knowledgeable collectors in the country. Gene is the ex-basketball coach of Div I Oakland University. During the shooting of the video, Gene adds interesting and colorful information on the vintage clubs.

  • MacGregor persimmon head and hickory shaft from 1923.
  • Schavolite Composite head with an early steel shaft from the 1930s.
  • MacGregor Tourney persimmon head with True Temper Tour shaft from 1949.
  • Cleveland Classic (MacGregor M85 copy)persimmon head with Dynamic Gold shaft from the 1970-80s.
  • Taylor Made Burner Plus 9.5 with a stainless steel head and Dynamic Golf shaft from the 1980s
  • Taylor Made R9 9.5 with a Titanium head and stock graphite shaft, a current 2009 club.
  • The driver the player currently plays. These were 2009 drivers fit to the player.

After warming up to get a feel for each club, players hit 6 balls with each club. The same procedure was followed with all 7 drivers. The ball used was the Titleist Pro V1. The monitor used was the TrackMan, considered the most accurate in the industry. It is a Doppler radar device used by every club manufacturer to test and develop new clubs.

Test Results.

How do clubs of different eras compare when we measure the distance and accuracy of each?

Distance. Comparison of total distance to include carry distance plus rollout.

From the hickories in the 1920s to titanium drivers of 2009, there was an average increase of total distance of 26%. For the testers, the smallest increase was 37 yards and the biggest was 73 yards.

Each era showed increases in distance with one exception. The early stainless steel drivers of the 1980s did not show increased distance over persimmon clubs of the 1970 and 80s.

The greatest improvement from one era to the next came with the titanium drivers. Roughly one-half the increase in distance (13%) took place between the late persimmon / early stainless steel drivers of the 1980s and the current titanium.

Higher club-head speed players had a greater PERCENTAGE increase in distance. Slower swingers had low 20% range increases while faster swingers had increases in the low 30% range.

Launch angles remained relatively constant.

Spin numbers decreased substantially, approximately 41%. This is a major factor in increased performance of new drivers.

Club-head speed increased 5%.

Ball speed increased 12%.

Efficiency, or the ratio of club-head speed to ball speed, increased 6%.

There was noticeable improvement in distance with the club fitted for the player over just a random 2009 titanium driver.

Accuracy. Comparison of the right and left dispersion of shots from the intended target.

From the hickories in the 1920s to titanium drivers of 2009, the accuracy improved 34%. This was computed by measuring the standard deviation of shots hit with each driver.

There were no great improvements in accuracy from 1940-1990. About two-thirds of the total improvement came with the current titanium drivers.

There was noticeable improvement in accuracy with the club fitted for the player over just a random 2009 titanium driver. Drivers fit for a player improved accuracy more than distance.

Summary. Both distance and accuracy of drivers has improved with each successive era with the exception of the distance of early stainless steel drivers. Drivers from the 1920s to 2009 saw distance improved 26% and accuracy 34%. The major advances in both distance and accuracy took place with the introduction of titanium drivers.