Drive for show – putt for dough. Is Bobby Locke’s famous observation on golf really true? And does that explain why every big golf brand is showing off their new driver models in January?
Happy new golf gear
The big brands have released their shiny new improved gear and are spending millions on marketing to get us to buy them. And so every golf magazine and online media platform, it appears, is suddenly obsessed with reviewing the latest carbon fibre, AI-optimised, high forgiveness drivers that claim to hit it longer and straighter than last year’s inferior model.
Clearly, if you believe the club manufacturers, the new, more expensive driver models will make you a better golfer. Best avoid last year’s model, and if you have the older version, hide it away to avoid the shame.
But why does the driver get so much new year attention when you use the putter twice as often as the driver?
Playing on our emotions
While it feels fantastic to hit amazing long drives or to single putt from any distance, is one golf stroke more satisfying than the other? Is the powerful physicality of the great drive and the showy result more desired and rewarding than the relatively gentle but decisive single putt?
When you’re on the tee and you hit a fantastic long drive down the middle, in front of three of your mates, and they all congratulate your golfing prowess, how does it make you feel? Admit it. You love it.
On the rare occasions I manage a perfect drive, I feel good. Very good. It’s gone a mile, it’s in play, I’ll be walking many yards past all my mates’ lesser efforts, and the dopamine is flowing. Call me Rory. Will that new 2023 driver model help me do that every time and get admired more often? Will I hit if even further?
Compare the perfect drive reaction to the perfect putt that wins the hole. Do your mates carry you shoulder-high to the next tee, or do they secretly wish you’d stop doing that and get a sudden dose of the yips? Will a new 2023 putter help you hole them more often but get you less congratulations?
With a great drive, your mates still have everything to play for. Early days. They still have a chance. But the perfect winning putt is final. Clinical. Decisive. You won with a putt and the air can get a bit chilly.
We have data – lots of it
When Bobby Locke first said those famous words, he didn’t have access to the increasing ocean of golf data that modern technology provides. He also couldn’t have foreseen the impact of equipment technology on distance and, therefore, performance.
So does driving longer and straighter with less dispersion give you more advantages than better putting? There’s evidence and data that suggests it does, especially for the tour pros. An article by Elliot Heath for Golf Monthly analysed the data.
Faster, further, straighter
Design, materials, and construction technologies have enabled longer, straighter driving and iron distances. That has forced many courses to add considerable yardage to maintain par. The rules have also reflected these advances and tried to limit them. We can’t keep adding yards to courses. But have those same technologies made putting easier and more effective?
In theory, if we could hit drives closer to the green, in the direction we intended, then our chances of getting to the green in regulation would improve. We could hit approach shots with shorter clubs. Long clubs are tricky. Our accuracy would improve, and the result would be lower scores.
That’s the implied selling point of every new driver model. But in reality, new clubs offer relatively marginal gains, year-on-year, and there are so many other big variables involved that it can be hard to realise them.
Driving is hard
The inconvenient truth is that hitting a great long drive is really hard. There’s an awful lot of fast-moving body parts involved. Some parts may not have been maintained that well and suffer from some wear and tear. All those muscles and joints need to be powerful, synchronise perfectly in precisely phased movements and do it fast to get distance. And that’s before you get fussy about the marginal gains from carbon fibre, AI design, shaft flex, grips, and ball compression.
Putting is a different kind of hard. There’s less physical machinery involved in a putt and it all moves slowly. But there’s a lot more brain work and experience needed for judgement, precision, and control.
Straighter or further?
Given the choice, would you rather that new driver gives you more distance or more consistent ball path – less dispersion?
Unsurprisingly, the lower your handicap, the longer you’re probably hitting your driver. The article stated that amateur scratch golfers averaged 260 yards with distances going down as handicap goes up. So a 20 handicap golfer might average 204 yards.
However, fairway accuracy didn’t show as much variance across a range of handicap levels. If anything, scratch golfers were slightly less accurate at 46% of fairways hit. The most accurate drivers are LPGA pros at 71%.
Chicken and egg
If that data is representative of most golfers, then dispersion isn’t the issue. Better, more skilled golfers hit it further. Or do you get better by hitting it longer so you should buy a new driver? Getting further down the fairway is a real advantage, but getting further into the hazard doesn’t help.
Pros vs. amateurs
Knowing that better golfers hit longer drives and some of the best pros hit it the furthest, it’s easy to be persuaded that distance is the answer to better golf. But what about the amateur golfers like us?
Buying a new driver and some quality distance balls becomes a very attractive proposition. The big brands will love you and you’ll more feel confident – for a while. But are we really going to gain an instant 10 yards in driving distance with a new driver alone? You’ll need a skill upgrade too with some lessons and you’d better get down the gym.
What about putting?
Hitting less putts improves scores. You get many more opportunities to hit great putts than great drives. Let’s assume the average 18-hole golf course has four par-3 holes. That leaves 14 driving opportunities per round if you don’t reload.
Good golfers who hit all the greens in regulation might take 2 putts per hole – 36 putts per round. I’d settle for that some days. What if you could get that down by just 10%? ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’ Cameron Smith averaged 28 putts per round in 2022. Avoiding 3-putts and improving single putt percentages can really make a difference to total scores for us amateurs.
Chain of events
Golf involves a critical path of different stroke types. A great long drive sets you up for a shorter approach that’s on the green and possibly closer to the hole, making the putt shorter and more likely to achieve. Distance off the tee helps shorten everything else. But not all of us can gain distance without building strength, flexibility, and endurance.
Is a new driver worth it?
That’s the £550 question. Worth depends on what you value in your golf game. Most golfers will benefit from new, pro fitted clubs, tuned to their swing data.
That said, I’m always impressed by pro golfers on YouTube who get a low cost set of clubs from the local cash-and-carry and they still play very well. I think skills come first before upgrading the tools.
If I had that cash to spend, I’d choose to invest in lessons and the time to practice and ingrain new skills. Putting lessons first followed by chipping, pitching and approach irons. If I can develop a better short game, I’ll know I’ll save shots. Not so keen on the gym.
However, if the big brands send me their new 2023 drivers to test, I might consider reviewing the situation. It is January, after all.
Drive well, putt better
Paul Hart is a co-inventor of the PuttBANDIT ball marker and enthusiastic golf improver, looking to improve his short game in 2023.
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