Not even a global pandemic and a three-month shutdown of professional golf could slow down equipment news in 2020. In an unusual year there were unusual moves—like a steel-shafted driver used on the PGA Tour—unusual protocols for players and PGA Tour reps upon pro golf’s re-start and the nearly impossible thought of Tiger Woods benching his trusty Scotty Cameron putter used for 14 of his 15 majors wins. Several other stories of note relating to bats, balls and, of course, the hot-button topic of distance, grabbed our attention during the past 12 months. And so, we give you our top equipment stories of 2020.
Equipment sales soar amid a pandemic
At the outset of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, golf appeared to be among the industries that would be hit hard by widespread state and local lockdowns, as evidenced by a cratering of equipment sales from March through May. But in the ensuing months, the sport became one of the early recreational activities deemed “safe” by authorities thanks to it being played outdoors and with its ability to follow natural social distancing practices. In turn, recreational golf became significantly more popular and the increase in play was accompanied by a historic surge in the sales of golf equipment. Starting in June, the comeback was not only swift, but startling. By October, Golf Datatech, an industry research firm, announced that golf equipment sales in the U.S. surpassed $1 billion for the third quarter, a first for that time of the year. It also was the second-highest quarter ($1.013 billion in Q2, 2008) of all time.
Although numbers for the entire year are yet not in, it is likely the rebound will result in equipment sales being up for the year, an unthinkable fact back in May. “These month-over-month sales records are unlike anything we’ve ever seen since Golf Datatech started tracking performance data in 1997,” said John Krzynowek, one of the research firm’s partners. “Our rounds played data also shows similar record-breaking growth over the past several months, which is a strong indication that avid golfers and newcomers alike are driving the sport to new levels right now.”
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Bramlett honours Kobe
Joseph Bramlett’s PGA Tour profile page lists his special interests as basketball and music. When Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in January, Bramlett asked Bettinardi Golf to produce a backup of his Studio Stock 28 Armlock putter to pay homage to the Los Angeles Laker great. Although it took a while to produce, Bettinardi responded by presenting Bramlett a replica of his gamer at this year’s Sanderson Farms Championship—a 40.5-inch wide-bodied blade with 5 degrees of loft and 74 degrees of lie angle that boasted a logo in purple and gold (the colours of Bryant’s Lakers) on the face and purple paint fill for the Bettinardi name in the rear cavity. It’s the sole of the club, however, the received the most attention. Along with a likeness of Bryant wearing his No. 24 jersey, in large block letters are the words “Mamba Mentality” and #8 and #24—the two numbers Bryant wore during his career with the Lakers.
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Rickie’s new MB irons
When it comes to his equipment, Rickie Fowler likes to have a voice in the design process. He assisted TaylorMade in the choice of the pattern used on its new TP5 Pix 2.0 ball, and with his equipment company, Cobra, he has been instrumental in helping bring back railed soles on fairway woods and heavily involved in the creation of his irons. That collaboration continued with the set of irons Fowler put into play at the TaylorMade Driving Relief skins game in May, the culmination of a year-long process that saw Fowler and Cobra go through 33 revisions before arriving at the finished product. The irons, named Rickie Fowler Prototype MB, boasted an eye-catching copper colour and a parallel hosel that eliminates all offset. Additionally, the topline at address is ultra-thin thanks to a chamfer that slims it down while not altering the sound properties of the iron. On the back of the club is stamped “RF” on one side and “REV 33” on the other—a homage to the 33 revisions it took to fully dial in the clubs to Fowler’s liking.
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Equipment adjustments on tour with COVID
When the PGA Tour re-started at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June, it also served as a return for the tour’s equipment road warriors—the tour reps who operate the vans that go from tournament to tournament servicing their respective players. Balancing safety and player’s equipment needs, reps were no longer able to freely roam the range and clubhouse at events. Previously, gloves, balls, towels and shirts would be placed by reps in player’s lockers. Post COVID, a player concierge area was created where products were dropped and distributed in the locker room after being sanitized. Work on the range also was different. Instead of unfettered access, each player had a guest badge they could use for a teacher or an equipment rep to be with them. Club builds also had to be dropped off at a station for sanitizing. Despite the extra effort needed, the protocols worked, showing just like the tour itself, everyone learned to adapt in order to keep playing.
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Bryson’s big break
Prior to 2020, the equipment talk around Bryson DeChambeau centered mostly on his single-length irons. But a beefed-up Bryson changed the conversation to his driver, notably the decision to go with a long-drive-like loft of 5.5 degrees. As if that didn’t get people talking, there was the moment in August when DeChambeau accidentally snapped the shaft of his Cobra Speedzone driver during the opening round of the PGA Championship. On the seventh hole at TPC Harding Park, Bryson leaned a little too hard on the club after hitting a tee shot. For his part, DeChambeau was nonplussed by the damage, as he could be overheard saying, “It was bound to break—I’ve been using it for a long time.” After the round, he was equally even-keeled. “At some point, material is material,” he said. “You keep wearing it and using it like that, you know, stuff is going to break down. I’m just glad it lasted this long. Being able to switch it out [allowed under the Rules of Golf] and put a new one right back in play in a major championship and stripe one on 9, that’s pretty impressive.”
Rickie Fowler and Bryson DeChambeau were equally stunned when the driver broke.— GOLFonCBS (@GOLFonCBS) August 6, 2020
(Via ESPN) pic.twitter.com/VxAJT7XnVO
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Players go long(er) with their drivers
On the heels of his runaway U.S. Open win at Winged Foot in September, in which he bludgeoned Winged Foot with his 323-yard driving average, DeChambeau boastfully talked about trying to gain more yards in a quest for a Masters title in November. To do so, he started experimenting with a longer-shafted driver, going all the way to the max length of 48 inches. Ultimately, he decided against putting that club in play at Augusta, but that didn’t slow a pair of past Masters champions—Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson—from trying it. On a Callaway podcast, Lefty mentioned how he would use a 47.5-inch Callaway Mavrik Sub Zero to do things such as carry the bunker on the first hole at Augusta National. Scott, meanwhile, bumped the shaft length on his Titleist TSi4 up an inch to 46 and saw a ball-speed increase of 4 to 5 mph. Unfortunately, both fell well short of the desired result at Augusta National. Scott finished a pedestrian T-34 while Mickelson lagged even further behind at T-55.
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Matthew Wolff’s new sticks at the U.S. Open
In just his second career appearance in a major, Matthew Wolff led the U.S. Open at Winged Foot after 54 holes—and he did it with a new set of irons and a tweaked putter. Wolff, who did not qualify for the Tour Championship two weeks earlier, used the time off to test a set of TaylorMade P•7MC irons. After playing one round at home with them, he put the new clubs in the bag. Despite standing 6 feet tall, Wolff has his irons a half-inch shorter than standard. “I’ve done that for a long time, and it just feels comfortable to me,” he said. Wolff also made a couple tweaks to his putter, adding weight to his TaylorMade Spider X mallet and flattening the lie angle. Although he didn’t win, Wolff did finish second, making the switch timely indeed.
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Jimmy Walker’s throwback shafts
Several players used the downtime created by the coronavirus to work on their equipment ahead of the PGA Tour’s re-start at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Former PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker, however, took it to a new level. Walker came to Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth armed with metal woods with steel shafts, including his Titleist TS3 driver. According to the Darrell Survey, it marked only the third time since 2008 that a PGA Tour player put a steel-shafted driver in play, the others being Todd Demsey, who used a True Temper Dynamic Gold shaft in his TaylorMade R11s driver at the 2012 Byron Nelson Championship, and Patrick Reed, who also used Dynamic Gold in his Callaway X2Hot Deep Pro at the 2014 RBC Heritage. Walker had True Temper X100 steel shafts (with D-5 swing weights) in his 44-inch, 8.5-degree Titleist TS3 driver and TS3 3-wood (15 degree) after practicing with each for several weeks. When Walker informed Titleist’s tour rep of his plan, the reaction was as one might expect. “I was trying to be serious and he’s laughing,” Walker said. "He said, ‘Well let me try and find some X shafts if I can even get in the building. I’ll see if I can dust some off and build you a current model.’ Sure enough, he sent me a picture of this dusty box in the corner. He built the TS3 fairway and shipped it to me.” The experiment, though, didn’t last long. By the Rocket Mortgage Classic a few weeks later, Walker was back to graphite shafts.
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Endorsement comings and goings
In May, less than a year and a half after signing with Honma, Justin Rose and the company officially parted ways although that seemed likely months earlier when Rose showed up at March’s Honda Classic without a single piece of Honma gear in the bag. Billy Horschel and PXG also split early in the season. Contrast that to Bubba Watson and Ping, who right before the Masters in November announced they had entered into a “lifetime” contract that would extend well past Watson’s PGA Tour days. As for what is yet to come, TaylorMade’s holiday card with its tour staff was absent Jon Rahm and Jason Day. Stay tuned.
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Tiger’s (short-lived) putter switch
Tiger Woods changed putters at the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, and the Internet went berserk. After all, Woods benched the Scotty Cameron by Titleist putter that he had won 14 of his 15 majors with. Of course, Woods, as he almost always does for an equipment change, had a rationale for it, citing that the longer length on the new flat stick (below) put less stress on his back. “It's difficult for me to bend over at times, and so practicing putting, I don't spend the hours I used to,” Woods said after an opening-round 68. “Most of the guys on the Champions Tour have gone to longer putters as they have gotten older, because it’s easier to bend over, or not bend over. This putter is just a little bit longer, and I’ve been able to spend a little bit more time putting.” After spotty putting at the PGA, however, Woods was back with his old Cameron at The Northern Trust, opting to use that in competition while continuing to practice with the longer putter. “Just stubbornness, I guess,” Woods replied when asked about the change back. Queried as to why he didn’t just put a longer shaft in his gamer, Woods seemed reticent to mess with success. “I’ve thought about doing that, but I don’t know,” he said. “I just can’t do it. I’ve regripped it. I’ve sent it to Scotty to rebuild the hosel because I’ve thrown it a few times. But I’ve never dinged the shaft. That’s the same shaft for the last 21 years.”
Christian Petersen/PGA of America