John Senden raised a few eyebrows last week when he won the Valspar Championship using a 12-degree TaylorMade SLDR. While the average driver loft on the PGA TOUR has increased over the last 10 years, going from roughly 8 degrees in the early 2000s to over 9.2 degrees last season, Senden's 12-degree driver represents a growing equipment trend on TOUR.
Once in the minority, drivers with lofts of 10 degrees or higher are becoming commonplace on TOUR. There are a number of reasons for the increase in driver loft — from the emergence of multilayer, solid-core golf balls with low-spin characteristics to the introduction of launch monitors that help optimize loft, launch angle and spin to get the most out today's driver technology.
The center of gravity position within the club head has also played a role in the recent loft increase — especially for TaylorMade. Last June at the John Deere Classic, TaylorMade launched SLDR, a driver that had a CG that was low and forward towards the face.
To reap the benefits of the low-spin design, some players had to "loft up" — a slogan TaylorMade has been pushing since SLDR's official launch at the Farmers Insurance Open — as much as 3 degrees.
Shifting the CG forward and adding loft allowed players to launch the ball higher and with less spin, a combination that saw some staffers pick up ball speed, an increased launch angle and gain between 7-10 yards. It also gave them more forgiveness on shots hit low on the face.
At the 2013 Sony Open, TaylorMade had three staffers in the field using drivers with 10 degrees of loft. Fast-forward to this year's Sony Open — and the introduction of SLDR and JetSpeed — where 23 staffers had drivers with at least 10 degrees of loft, including three who used 12-degree models.
The number of players using 12-degree drivers recently increased to nine at The Honda Classic.
"If there's a player that's reluctant to change, it's [players on the PGA TOUR]," said Tom Kroll, TaylorMade Golf's product evangelist. "But when you show them the numbers and the performance gains, they're all in."
John Senden's victory stands out because he was the first player to win a PGA TOUR event with a 12-degree driver (metalwood), but the fact of the matter is the CG shift has seen players convert to new TaylorMade drivers and add loft at an alarming rate.
"When you see the 2014 numbers when TaylorMade has anywhere between 50-65 drivers in play on TOUR, it's going to be a radical jump," Kroll said. "It's not going to be a 10 year gap in time, we're going to go from one year to the next and see this massive move [in driver loft].
"We're letting the world know that there's a major change afoot, one of the biggest paradigm shifts, in terms of performance, data and technology that I've ever seen since I've been in the golf industry. And it's going to kind of happen overnight."
While TOUR players have been accepting of SLDR's low, forward CG, Kroll was quick to point out that the transition process has been gradual. Due to the loft increase, players not only had to get used to additional driver loft but looking at a new window and launch angle on tee shots.
"This is a radical change to the window they're used to looking at," Kroll said. "What we see is this mass exodus from old technology into this new technology. But guys aren't making the wholesale switch right away. John Senden didn't just show up one day and go from 9.5 degrees to 12 degrees; it took him some time to get there. But once he got there, he saw the benefits."
As expected, TaylorMade is fully invested in the new low, forward CG — a technology that's likely produce another increase in driver loft on TOUR. The company released a tour-inspired, 430-cubic centimeter SLDR at the end of 2013 and just launched a 14-degree SLDR. There's even rumblings of a 16-degree SLDR being released later this year.