The Science Of The Power Drive

What three companies--and millions in R&D--can do for you off the tee

Every golfer loves to tag a towering drive. More than draining a putt or stiffing an approach to the green, busting a huge tee shot down the middle brings you instant respect. That's why drivers are the most coveted clubs in golf. With prices running as high as $500 for name-brand drivers, worldwide sales are estimated at $1.1 billion, the most of any club category.

Sure, some of it is hype. But today's titanium models have measurable technological advantages. "The driver is one club for which science really enhances play," says John Zumerchik, author of Newton on the Tee: A Good Walk Through the Science of Golf.

Only the U.S. Golf Assn. holds manufacturers back. Clubs must conform to limits on head size and the springlike effect of the face to be used in competition. Still, selling innovation is nearly every clubmaker's priority. TaylorMade, for example, just introduced the $499 R7 Quad driver that features screws the golfer can adjust to rebalance the club's weight and change ball-flight characteristics. Cobra has unveiled the $399 414 and 454 COMP that weave carbon composite into a titanium body. And Burrows Golf, an upstart brand, has piqued interest with its $399 MAC Powersphere, which creates a shotgun effect upon contact that bounces energy off the back of the club to propel the ball forward. We looked at three other makers -- Callaway, Nike, and MacGregor -- to see how far they have pushed science to develop the killer club.

Callaway ERC Fusion, $499 For more than a decade, the folks at Callaway Golf Co. have set the standard in club innovation. They've long been among the leaders in producing metal woods, and the titanium Great Big Bertha established a new benchmark for oversized heads in 1995.

Now another advance in material science inside Callaway has inspired CEO Ron Drapeau to market the company's new driver as a superpremium club -- among the priciest of the big-name drivers. Why? Drapeau's team arrived at an affordable way to merge two materials: titanium in the face and a carbon-composite body. The carbon composite gives engineers extra weight to move around inside the clubhead. That's "nirvana to a golf club designer," says Callaway's research and development chief, Rick Stadterman. Though similar technology is available in Japan, Callaway is ahead of the curve in the U.S.

Callaway -- which spent $30 million on R&D in 2003 -- has experimented with carbon-composite prototypes since 1994. The challenge was making the club strong enough to endure continuous pounding. By summer 2000, engineers were getting close. Pushing the limits of possibility with a prototype dubbed Superman, staffers bombed drives to the top of a knoll beyond the test range's 280-yard fence, Stadterman says. But the face was so hot it was nonconforming. Then in 2003, Callaway created a 360-cubic-centimeter version for the general market. The size may be a problem, though. While Callaway says Annika Sorenstam and Arnold Palmer like the ERC Fusion's compact design, retailers say many consumers prefer at least a 400cc clubhead. Another issue: whether golfers used to the loud bang of other titanium drivers at impact will accept the ERC Fusion's muffled sound.

Drapeau admits the club works best in the hands of elite players. That's partly why it's labeled superpremium. "We have something that has real value here," Drapeau says. "We should be able to charge for its benefits." If consumers agree, it could mean Callaway has set the standard again.

Nike Ignite, $399 Until this year, Nike drivers hadn't sparked much interest. But perhaps you noticed the fire-orange Ignite logo emblazoned on the cap of Tiger Woods at the Masters. In April, Nike introduced its new big stick, incorporating technology that aids distance and promotes forgiveness. Tiger test-drove and approved it.

What Woods and LPGA star Grace Park see is a driver that confers power and lets them shape shots. According to LPGA Tour stats, Park is driving the ball nearly 12 yards farther with more accuracy using a 410cc Ignite this year. The result of more than four years of development and an R&D budget of more than $1 million, the driver is intended to produce good contact from high-handicap golfers as well.

The Ignite is huge. Although Woods hits a smaller version, the retail model comes in two sizes: 410cc and 460cc. The big head accomplishes what golf techies call optimum MOI, for moment of inertia. It reduces twisting at the moment of impact, limiting slices and hooks.

The jumbo size comes from a breakthrough in material. Like most manufacturers, Nike works with variations of titanium, but its engineers struck pay dirt when a group of metallurgists developed a titanium-based alloy, NexTi, exclusively for the company. The material is light and thin, but still strong and stable. It allows Nike to stretch the face over the top of the large clubhead. "We felt the bigness was what the majority of people wanted," says Tom Stites, Nike's creative director for golf clubs. Designers, pushed by Woods, took pains to make it attractive as well. The ebony color downplays its size, and the classic shape agrees with Woods's eye (box, page GD16).

Nike's key marketing weapon, of course, is Woods. Earlier in the year, it began airing an ad that features Woods struggling to get a talking, orange-and-black tiger headcover over the bulging Ignite. In June, a new ad will appear featuring Park, David Duval, other pros -- and the talking tiger headcover.

The goal: to propel Nike Golf from a low single-digit share of the driver market to double digits, says Michael Kelly, business director for golf clubs. It won't happen overnight. But with Woods behind these drivers, rivals know Nike is on the prowl.

MacGregor Eye-0-Matic, $299 MacGregor Golf Co. used to produce must-have drivers. Jack Nicklaus won all of 18 of his majors using a MacGregor driver. But in the 1990s, the company lost its design edge as it spun through multiple executives and rivals focused on marketing game-improvement clubs to the growing legions of golfers with double-digit handicaps. That changed when entrepreneur Barry Schneider bought MacGregor in 1999. "If we wanted to be relevant," Schneider says, "I knew we had to make clubs for these guys."

To develop the new Eye-O-Matic -- the name was introduced in 1952 -- Schneider boosted annual R&D spending more than 50%, to 4% of nearly $100 million of project 2004 revenue. MacGregor's first big effort prior to that R&D hike was a flop: Although the 2003 driver achieved a deep center of gravity for high-arching shots, its unusual head -- with its bulbous rear end and odd-shaped toe -- made it look "like a hunk of junk," says one Chicago retailer.

Early in 2003, Schneider sent his designers back to the drawing board. In the spring of last year, Dave Wood, senior vice-president for product innovation, and Jim Bode, vice-president for R&D, led the development of a dual-radius clubface -- the elliptical centerpiece, or eye, has a slightly different curvature than the rest of the face. The company says the flatter shape of the eye helps draw the ball back to the center of the fairway on off-center hits, while the slightly more curved perimeter gives the club a more pleasing, classic look. Engineers also stretched the eye into an effective hitting area that is 2.4 inches wide and 1.4 inches tall to reduce the chance of stray shots. That area is a 30% improvement over earlier MacGregor models. "It's the best driver they've made in a long time," says Kerry C. Kabase, sales director for the Edwin Watts Golf chain in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Next came the task of marketing the club. To reconnect with amateur golfers, especially younger players, Schneider bumped up the advertising and promotional budget by 15% over 2003's level. Since February, MacGregor has been splashing a commercial on network TV featuring 23-year-old PGA Tour pro Aaron Baddeley. In the spot, Baddeley talks up the Eye-O-Matic from a bright red convertible loaded with cheerleaders. "He is helping us present a new MacGregor," says Marketing Vice-President Julie Davis. "If he's playing MacGregor, then everyone can and it becomes cool."

By Roger O. Crockett

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