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.
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.
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.
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.
1. MacGregor persimmon head and hickory shaft from 1923.
2. Schavolite Composite head with an early steel shaft from the 1930s.
3. MacGregor Tourney persimmon head with True Temper Tour shaft from 1949.
4. Cleveland Classic (MacGregor M85 copy)persimmon head with Dynamic Gold shaft from the 1970-80s.
5. Taylor Made Burner Plus 9.5 with a stainless steel head and Dynamic Golf shaft from the 1980s
6. Taylor Made R9 9.5 with a Titanium head and stock graphite shaft, a current 2009 club.
7. 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.
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Launch angles remained relatively constant.
6. Spin numbers decreased substantially, approximately 41%. This is a major factor in increased performance of new drivers.
7. Club-head speed increased 5%.
8. Ball speed increased 12%.
9. Efficiency, or the ratio of club-head speed to ball speed, increased 6%.
10. 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.
1.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.
2.There were no great improvements in accuracy from 1940-1990. About two-thirds of the total improvement came with the current titanium drivers.
3.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.
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.
What todays technology needs to acomplish is a head with some serious mass and size at reduced weight. More mass on dead center hits equals consistency. It’s hard to argue the fact bubba watson nailing it 365 and most other pros swing the white r11 which is has very little mass and is light as a feather it bombs the ball and is pretty consistent. It’s just a forgiving club all around so Im not sure if you can compare persimmon to titanium like you can with irons. In irons forged blased are superior on center hits but less on toe hits or miss hits so they are for better players.
I was also wondering what type of golf balls were used for this comparison test? Did you use a modern ball such as a Titleist ProV1 or V1X with the persimmon clubs? Or did you use a ball from that era? I can tell you from personal experience that if you hit an old “rock” with a modern titanium driver the results will not be good. The same goes for hitting a modern ball with an old persimmon driver.
After you were done with your testing you determined that the titanium clubs were more accurate than persimmon clubs? You might want to do that test over again.
I believe the distance aspect to be true. Accuracy though, no way you are hitting straighter with titanium.
Your test makes ZERO mention of the length of the clubs used. This is a major factor in clubhead speed, distance, etc. If you want to do an accurate comparison, you’d have to use clubs with the exact same length, not to mention the exact same shafts. It’s totally unfair to say that a 43″ persimmon was outdriven by a 45.5″ titanium. Of course it was. Your 5 iron out drives your PW. Is this a surprise?
And shafts play a huge role too.
I’d love to see a test with apples-to-apples comparisons. Put the different clubheads on a MACHINE/Iron Byron that will generate IDENTICAL clubhead speed, and then tell me if a 460cc titanium actually generates more distance than a solid chunk of wood. THEN we can have a conversation about persimmon vs titanium with some intelligence, rather than just conjecture and mis-information.
What would be very interesting is to do this test with a modern persimmon and shaft that is fitted to the player. Then lets see what the differences are.
Question, I understand that the test conducted used 1920 Persimmon clubs, what about comparing these “new titanium clubs” to the new version of Louisville Golf Persimmons Drivers such as the Thumper Max or 2010 Smart ACCU-Max Persimmon Driver?
To me this test was like comparing 1920 Hudson Race car to a 2010 Formula 1 racer of course there will be an increase due to technology, but what if the persimmon wood driver was tested against it’s technological counterpart?
I am a new golfer and doing research on which clubs I should buy. So far everything I have read on titaniums drivers vs Persimmons woods, graphite vs steel shafts, blades vs cavatity back irons is confusing….
Very interesting. Looking just at the four golfers who tried all the clubs, and restricting the analysis to the Tourney vs. the Off-the shelf R9, the correlation for both clubs between club speed and distance is average out to +.99 out of a possible +1.00; A correlation that high means that clubspeed accounts for 98% [.99 squared] of the variance; in short, clubhead speed is the best predictor of distance, and the Tourney shaft was most likely 43” long vs. the 45” of the R9. Using the ratio of 43:45 as a multiplier, the club speeds become almost identical.
What is missing is the head weight for the two clubs. I’d guess that the overall weight of the R9 is about 11 oz, vs about 13.5 oz for the Tourney, which had a shorter but much heavier steel shaft. This means that the head weight of the R9 is significantly greater than the Tourney, which would add distance as well, since Force=Mass x Acceleration.
The third finding is that the “Smash factor” for the two clubs is nearly identical [2% advantage for the R9] which means that there is only a tiny trampoline effect. Club Speed and head weight are the only factors that matter in terms of total distance.
I’m assuming that the Tourney was hit off of a lower tee, which accounts for the negative angle of attack and the higher launch angle is predicted by that. It’s noteworthy that the two longer hitters hit the Tourney on the downswing, and the longest hitter (KJ) was the only one of the four to adjust his angle of attack – down on the Tourney, up on the R9.
The biggest difference that I noticed between the Persimmon of the 70’s and the metalwoods of the 80’s was that the weighting in the metalwoods helped to hit it straighter. If some of you remember those first taylormade metalwoods that were 10 & 12 degrees made great fairwaymetals because they had so much more bottom weight it was easy to get the ball airborne.
There are a number of improvemnts in the Titanium clubs,
not mentioned in the videos. The titanium heads have a larger sweet spot so this of course can account for increased accuracy. Longer shafts, Lighter shafts/clubheads and graphite shaft technology is a major factor in the increase in distance and again accuracy. I question the ” moveable ” weights for any pratical use by most golfers. You would have to have robot like swing to see any differance. In my opinion it would be much better to correct a swing flaw rahter than have a club attempt to do that for you. since mostly drivers have movable weights you still have the the same flawed swing through out your other clubs in the bag.
A very nice piece of engineering test work. As I recall, the distance of the persimmon with a steel staft was not the driving force to go to the King Cobra with steel…it was the dispersion reduction. Small misses with either wood or stainless was about the same for dispersion, but as the miss got a little bigger the performance of the persimmon head dropped markedly.
One problem is the ball. Today’s Pro V1 was not designed for the older clubs and vice-versa. The test should have also been done with old balata wound balls across the different vintages of clubs to see how much impact the ball/club combo had on performance.
Very well done. The study and video was very interesting. With the spike that exists with the advent of titanium drivers (over steel and persimmon) its clear to me that Tiger really can’t be compared to the persimmon players of the earlier generation. Isn’t it ironic Tigers career took off in the mid 90’s when Titanium technology was coming into existence? Yes, Tiger plays against other titanium playing peers, but his style of bomb and gouge changes the game drastically in comparison. Would Nickalaus, who was a very aggressive ball striker, have won more against finesse playing peers like Palmer and Jacklyn if he could bomb the ball with a fitted Titanium in his prime?
Thanks for this interesting report. The superior performance of current drivers over past drivers would have been even more dramatic if golf balls from the respective eras had been used. Of course, it would have been impossible to find a guttie or a Haskell to hit with the wooden shafted driver. Wound balata balls for the persimmon/steel shafted era are pretty scarce, too. Those of us of a certain age know how vastly better today’s ProV1 is compared to a balata ball from the ’40s to the ’90s. Thanks, again, Miles. Good work.
Very well done. This is why you are the best at what you do. Extremely informative, even if just to prove the obvious. B.Mills
We were surprised by the results with early stainless drivers, but when you think back, there was not a mass exit from persimmon drivers when the first stainless drivers were introduced.
I’m not surprised that the stainless steel drivers of the 80’s were not an improvement over the persimmons. I received one of these as a gift, and found it to be pedestrian in performance versus the persimmon.
My big bugaboo is that we feel the need to keep “improving” the golf club. Sure, it adds a little pizazz to each new year, but at what cost? With each improvement, the courses have to be lengthened in order to keep up with the new clubs. This is ridiculous. If you want to talk about improving the accuracy of the clubs, I would be willing to listen, but there would have to be a limit to this as well. I say, just set a standard similar to what we have right now, and if you want to include square grooves that’s fine; But, let’s have everyone play with the same sticks, just like the pro baseball players do. Then, and only then, can we bring sanity back to the game of golf. As it is now, with the constant “improvements”, we can’t compare eras. Great golf courses, including “The Monster” at Oakland Hills, have been lengthened, thus making it impossible to gauge the modern pro golfer versus Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, etc. It’s a different game, played with different clubs, on different courses. That’s too bad.
Interesting, but not surprising, except that I would have expected the stainless steel drivers would have had more impact. But they did usher in metal technology for drivers, I guess. Thanks for the report! Jim S.
Interesting study. Enjoyed watching it all the way from Brazil. Keep it up.