Golf Drivers- The Ultimate Guide!

There may be a (very) tiny commission earned on some of the links on this page. They're nothing earth-shattering, but we're trying to keep GLG operational. It doesn't affect my thoughts on the topic at hand.

Buying golf drivers can be a PITA, especially if you don't know what you want or need.  With this "ultimate guide", you're going to learn:

  • If head style (brand name, model, etc.) is important
  • The importance of a "high-launch" driver... if there is one
  • How to get the most out of the "big dog"

And a bunch more!  Keep reading to learn the ultimate truth about golf drivers!

More...

I’ve owned quite a few drivers in my golfing lifetime.  

I even have a few for you to see:

golf drivers... a lot of them!

Fourteen pictured.  In order:

  1. Adams Speedline
  2. Acer XK
  3. Nike SuMo 5000
  4. Nike Covert Tour
  5. TMaG Burner
  6. Callaway FT-9
  7. Nike SQ aka Sasquatch (my 1st and only attempt at refinishing a  driver… I got over that pretty quickly)
  8. Acer XF (I paintfilled the “XF” to blue)
  9. Cobra Bio Cell
  10. Dunlop Pro Comp (what I considered my first “real” driver… because it had a graphite shaft LOL!)
  11. Turner True Speed Ablaze
  12. Scorpion Super Metal
  13. Wilson/Staff Smooth
  14. Cobra ZL

Not pictured: Callaway FT-3, Callaway FT-5, Adams Redline, Nike DyMo, Pinemeadow Command Q4, Cobra Fly-Z, and Cobra F6.

When I tell you I’ve been around the (golf) block, know that I’m not BS-ing you.

I mentioned quickly in older posts (OK… not so quickly) that I don’t care what kind of clubhead you want to use.  There are tests others have done with models within a five-year time frame or brands v. brands, and all that; there is little difference between them.  

Let me tell you this: I’ve played enough golf drivers to know that, outside of those that didn’t fit my swing, the performance came down to me.

Sure, some sound different, and that can be a deal-breaker for some.  The SQ and Ablaze both had a very tinny “PANG!” when I hit it.  Out of all of them, the XF, F6 and Smooth were probably the best sounding to my ears. 

So why are some people seeing differences in drivers?  The answer: how it’s fit to their swing:

  • Lengths off-the-rack can be different
  • Golf shaft weights can be different
  • Shaft flexes aren’t exactly standard; one company’s “S” might be another’s “R”, or even “X”!

Among other differences, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Drivers3 In this pic, you can see the two “box set” models, the Dunlop Pro Comp and the Scorpion.  The Dunlop set was a gift from my old job for having no safety issues for a year.  I was pretty proud of that set.  

The Scorpion set was a gift from my brothers.  I actually had a hard time deciding if I wanted to “upgrade” from that because it meant a lot to me.

Here lies the one true difference between clubs: the two here are much older, yes, but they also lack a “true” titanium face.  In short, they have what’s called a “Ti-Matrix” face, meaning, they’re mostly made of aluminum.  The COR isn’t as high, so the ball speed and smash factor aren’t going to be as high as something made with a “real” titanium face.

But because they held sentimental value, I kept them around longer than I probably should have.  

Well… I did eventually switch.  

First came the Pinemeadow driver.  Guess what happened?  My driving performance didn’t change.

Drivers4Then came my first “real” driver upgrade- the Redline.  Wanna guess what happened?  Nothing.  I still sucked.  So, the following year, I bought the SQ.  I fell for the hype and splurged the $300 on what I thought was a real upgrade.  

It turned out to be “meh”, so when the SuMo 5000 hit the market, I was all over it, shelling out another $300.

As an aside, do you remember when golf drivers were $300 off-the-rack?  Pepperidge Farms remembers… and so do I.

Anyway, I did something different, this time.  Three things, actually:

  • I worked on my game, even through the winter
  • I switched from a 10.5° model to a 9.5° model
  • I customized the SuMo

Working on My Game

So I finally decided to get serious.  Not serious at the time to give up drinking on the course, but serious enough to not want to suck.  There’s an indoor driving range near me that also has simulators, so during the winter, I decided to visit.

It was like a whole different world opened up.  I could hit shot after shot, even when it was 4 degrees outside.  I could ingrain- and maintain- that feeling of solid impact.  My whole swing changed for the better.

Every drill I give you at GLG are tips I’ve personally used, many either at the indoor range or on one of their simulators.

I can’t tell you how much they’ve helped me, and I really hope they help you, as well.

Switching Lofts

By now I had also kind of fallen into that “I need less loft to hit the ball farther” trap.  It didn’t help that all the drivers I had owned were 10.5°; as a lefty, it was hard (at least for me) to find single-digit lofts for southpaws at that time.  When I saw that 9.5° lofted SuMo- the only single-digit lofted driver in the whole store in LH- I jumped at it, like it was calling my name.

Remember when I said I was also working on my game?  Knowing now what I wish I knew then, the only reason why that worked out was because I was overhauling my swing.

Normally, a driver loft change of one degree won’t do diddly squat for you, but that also kind of assumes nothing else changes.

In my case, a lot changed.  My impact position improved, for starters.  My swing speed also increased.  My angle of attack increased.  In short, my impact conditions were better.

Customizing the Driver

After practicing with the 5000 for a bit, I took my first true step into customizing clubs.  I had regripped the driver, but I decided I wanted to take an inch off it, as well.  Yes, that was after I had already installed a $5 grip (which was a lot back then)…

Seriously, bro?

Image courtesy: DarkUncle (via Flickr)

Going from a 45.5″ driver to a 44.5″ driver was a good thing.  Outside of some experimentation to test claims, 44.5″ has been my “go-to” length.

I  can’t stress enough that length is important.  If you want to create better impact positions, the length of your driver needs to be addressed.

Of course, I allowed myself to be suckered into the marketing machine again.  When the DyMo came out, I jumped on that, as well.  That began a new cycle of non-improvements.

I was deflated.  Then I thought, “well, Phil said Nike clubs weren’t as good as (the others)”.  Maybe he was right?  I picked up the Callaway FT-3 and FT-5 at about the same time- this time, thankfully, not at retail price.  The FT-9 came a little bit later.  All were roughly the same specs, sans the shaft model.

The results by now shouldn’t be surprising: they were roughly the same.

Yes, there were variances- there always are- but not anything significant to make me want to go to bed with my driver next to me and protect it at all times.

The Rest

The rest I’ve picked up because honestly, I can’t help myself.  I also like to experiment, so anytime I think something might be a valid “enhancement”, I’ll try it out.  

You can also see the Burner and Ablaze are similar.  That’s a golf driver clone experiment I did a few years back, which is what prompted me to write the post about clones.

If you’re reading this thinking “what a dumbass”… believe me, I’m doing it too.  I’ve been able to finally rationalize it thanks to Green Lantern Golf; all that experimentation has provided me with the ability to tell you if things regarding the golf club matter.

Sure, I’ve been told about things from both major OEMs and the “little guy” club fitters.  I’ve read all kinds of marketing releases, seen the TV ads, etc.  That was all well and good… but I needed to validate stuff to myself.

That way, you don’t have to.  If you’re a “Club Hoe” like me, then by all means, go for it… but if you’re not, I imagine all of this effort has not gone in vain, because YOU, dear reader, is the one who benefits.  I’d gladly do it all over again if I knew it’d lead me to right now.

So the moral of the story is: Buy what makes you happy.

Use Common Sense:

  • If you can’t afford it, don’t try it.
  • If you want it that bad, you can always save up for it.
  • If you want to investigate lesser-known brands, why not?

If you need more help, feel free to contact me at my email address.  Don’t be afraid to check out my free downloads:

5 Common Golf Equipment Buying Fails

and

The Definitive Guide to Buying Golf Clubs

OK, so now you know that, no matter what you want to play, there's still the issue of getting the most out of your golf driver.  One way to do that, so they say, is to hit "high launch/low spin" tee shots. 

Is it a good idea?  Keep reading to find out!  

Everyone talks about "high launch" with their golf drivers, but what does it mean?

First of all, when we're talking about "high launch", we mean the ball's trajectory.  You get three choices: high, medium, and low.  Sure, we can say "high-mid", "low-mid" and "mid-mid"... but WTF?  Why make it so difficult?

But what's a "high" trajectory, exactly?  That kinda depends on the golfer.

Here's an old pic I've had:

real "high launch" for golf drivers

I don't remember where I got this anymore... anyone that knows, let me know, so I can credit them!

Here's a pretty good look at some extremes in the professional realm of golf.

As you can see, the blue line is the PGA Tour average.  84 feet is pretty high!  Let's put that into some perspective:

  • The Trinity Church in Manhattan is 85 feet tall.
  • You'd have farther to go running from home plate to 1st base (90 feet)
  • It's a hair under 3/5ths the height of the Chicago Water Tower (source)

Not too shabby.  Now, let's look at some of the pros at work.

Referencing the picture above, the green line represents Rory Sabbatini's typical trajectory.  Pretty low compared to the others; he's always had one of the slower swings on Tour, so he's not hitting it as far- or as high- as many others.  But for him, that's probably his max.

The red line is Vijay Singh's average trajectory.  106 feet- that's a pretty high-launching drive!  But even then, he's not outdriving JB Holmes, who has a shorter (by 6 feet) trajectory, yet hits it 20 yards farther (the purple line in our example).

What about a golfer like you?  Well, that needs to be quantified a little.

Example Golfer:

  • Has a swing speed around 90mph
  • Uses a 10.5-degree driver
  • Has a level (0-degree) Angle of Attack

The results:

What Does "High Launch" Mean In Golf for golf driver

Check the green circle!

So, to get us into feet, 14.3 yards times 3 feet in a yard equals 42.9 feet.  You typically have a max trajectory of almost 43 feet.

When we talk about what "high launch" means, it really is a YMMV thing.

You can help yourself in different ways, though:

  • If you're not hitting the ball with a +3 to +5-degree Angle of Attack, maybe give it a shot
  • If you're not swinging closer to, or better yet faster than, 100mph, try to get there
  • If your clubs aren't properly fitted to your swing, look into that

Let's go over a some of those.

To get a higher launch, you need to catch the ball on the "upswing".

This specifically refers to the driver, because it sits on a tee.  You can do that by playing the ball more forward in your stance, somewhere in-line with the target-side heel.

Why would you want to do that, though?  Well, if you can catch the ball on the upswing, you'll increase your ball's launch angle.  Check this out:

hitting up on the golf driver adds height and distance!

The red line is you from the previous example.  Remember, you had a 0-degree AoA.  The yellow line is New You, with a +5-degree AoA.  Notice how much higher (and farther!) the ball now flies?

Just by catching the ball more on the upswing.  So, that begs the question: how do you do it?

play the ball forward for a higher trajectory

You can practice this anywhere.  All you need is another club, or an alignment stick, or even a driveway marker.  Just place it along the heel of your target-side foot (I'm a lefty), so that it points to a ball.

If you're doing this at home, it's to get you to feel comfortable.  Make sure to take it to the range, as well!

That change alone can net you more yards and a higher-launching trajectory.

You also need to know if you're getting a trajectory that's high, or just ballooning.

A trajectory that balloons is one that goes up and up and up, but comes down almost as quickly.  Like a big, upside down "U".  It might be a "high" trajectory, but it's virtually useless.

A good high trajectory is also what's called penetrating.  It goes up, but also out towards the target.  In the pro's picture, JB Holmes' trajectory (the purple line) is a good example of that.  It's high, but it takes awhile to get to its max.

A ballooning ball flight comes from too much "dynamic" loft at impact.  It could be because your wrists "cup" at impact, which results in getting the club under the ball.  

It could be you have too much loft on your driver.  One way or the other, you're getting more backspin on the ball at impact.  It might not be too much to worry about, depending on how the ball flies. 

If you're unsure, however, see a fitter.

The fallacy of "I need a low-launching club/shaft"

Based on what you now know, do you still think you need a "low-launching" golf driver or shaft?  If not you, maybe someone you know who says that?

Let's look at some more PGA Tour examples.  First, here's a link to the source of the example, to get that out of the way: PGA Tour Stat: Club Head Speed.

According to the PGA, Colt Knost has the slowest recorded swing speed on Tour.  He's 216th out of 216, at 102.44mph.  If we plug that into the TrajectoWare program:

What Does "High Launch" Mean In Golf to Colt Knost?

He's looking at a max height of 69.6 feet... and that's assuming the only thing that's changed between you and him is swing speed.  Knost isn't quite at the PGA Tour average, but he's still 26.6 feet higher than you.

Still in the market for a low-launching shaft and/or head?

What this means for you

I say this a lot, but ​get fitted for your clubs.  What you think might be a high-launch trajectory might, in reality, be pretty normal.  Possibly below normal... but you won't know until you've seen a fitter.

Sure, it helps to know how to flight the ball down, to get it to fly under things like low-hanging tree branches.  It helps to learn how to hit the ball higher than what you typically do, to go over some obstacles.

But what you think might be "high" might not be as high as you're expecting, so before you go out looking for equipment that might not be good for your game, try to figure out where you really are to begin with.

There's a good chance you'll need the opposite of what you're thinking you need.

So we've spent a lot of time talking about a high-launching golf driver, and hinted at how to do it.  Let's go in for a deeper dive!

what a high-launching golf driver can do for you!

We want to go from the black line to the yellow line!

How to Attain a High Launching Drive

To get a high launching drive, you need to alter something about yourself and/or the club.  Before we get started, there's something you should know:

The one true, best way to get a higher launch to your drives is to add more loft.  The changes to the CG location of a driver aren't that great, and only the best of the best golfers can truly tell the difference.

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But there lies a problem: how do you do it?  There are two ways, which we'll discuss in-depth.

Option One: get a higher-lofted driver

This is the more straightforward option, but it costs more.

If you're currently playing a driver with, say, 10.5° of loft, you should think about a higher-lofted driver.  It takes about 2° change to make a noticeable difference.  Let's see what that looks like:

10.5 degree golf driver at 90 mph level swing

About 43 yards in height

 Not a very high launch, is it?  Now, let's see what happens if we bump up to 12.5°:

a little higher ball flight

Moving up 2 degrees gives you almost 60 feet in ball height!

 So adding two more degrees makes the new max height 58.5 feet!  But, because there's always a catch, go back and look at the Back Spin numbers.  What do you see?

  • At 10.5°, the backspin is 2,624 rpms
  • At 12.5°, the backspin is 3,117 rpms

You have to be careful when adding loft.  There's a chance that, for some golfers, the added backspin will create the dreaded balloon shot.  It launches high, sure, but it doesn't go as far as it should.

For many slower swingers, though, this isn't a bad thing.  The extra backspin helps keep the ball in the air longer, which helps them get more distance.

Is there a better way, though?  Maybe...

Option Two: play the ball more forward in your stance

This is the easiest to say but can be the hardest to do.  Look at this pic, from earlier:

The green line represents where the ball should be played with the driver.  Keep in mind that I'm a lefty, so my target-side foot/heel is my right foot.  If you're a righty, it'd be the left foot/heel.

10.5 degree golf driver, 90mph swing speed, 0deg AoA

One more time, but this time pay attention to the Angle of Attack, Back Spin, and Max Height numbers

This is the result of a 10.5° driver at a level (0°) Angle of Attack (AoA).  Let's look at the numbers:

  • Back Spin: 2624 rpms
  • Max Height: 43 feet
  • Launch Angle (a new one): 9.3°

What happens when you "hit up" on the ball?

adding 3 degrees of AoA

Look at the numbers now, with just adding three degrees of AoA!

A five-degree increase in Angle of Attack is what's considered "ideal", but a three-degree increase is a little more doable.  The numbers:

  • Back Spin: 2624 rpms
  • Max Height: 61.5 feet
  • Launch Angle: 12.3°

Just by playing the ball forward in your stance and altering the launch angle three degrees, you get an increase in launch angle of 3°, while keeping the backspin number the same!

You also increase the max height 18.5 feet, which leads to an extra 13 more yards in carry distance!

All that from just playing the ball off your target-side heel!

Think about that: you're the same, the driver's the same... all you did was play the ball a little more forward in your stance, and you got an extra 13 yards!

You can tweak it further by experimenting with tee height.

The "ideal" is to have the ball's equator in-line with the crown of the driver.  Some are comfortable with more, some are with less.

Click here to see an example!

I said it was easy to say, but hard to do, and I did mean it

The reason is psychological.  Some people are used to playing the ball a certain way.  When you move the ball in your stance, it can be tough to convince yourself that you'll actually hit the ball.  But you can.

Like any change, you gotta practice it.  It'll be difficult- any change is- but you can do it.  You'll stumble as you get used to it, but if you're looking for a more high launching drive, keep at it.  It'll get better, I promise!

Can a driver effect trajectory?

I mentioned the center of gravity and its minimal effect on creating a high launch driver.  But did you know there's another spec on a driver that can create more height?

The Roll, and its Role in Creating Height

I've talked about bulge before, but to recap:

  • Bulge is the horizontal curvature of the face
  • Roll is the vertical curvature of the face

How do you test roll?  With a credit card, like this:

See the gaps in the corners of the card?

When you hit the ball above the center of the face, you're actually hitting the ball with more loft.

That's the way roll works.

the effect of launch because of face curvature

Only in the center of the face is it going to be 10.5 degrees

If you didn't know, when a driver states a certain loft, that measurement's taken from the center of the face only.  The amount of change is dependent on the driver; much like bulge, not everyone makes face roll the same.

Did you know you can DIY what your driver's launch angle is?  Click here to find out how!

Measuring Roll, and its Effect on Driver Launch

 A simple gauge is all you need to measure roll (or bulge, for that matter).  It looks like this:

high launch golf driver and roll

This driver has 8" of roll

This is the first of three drivers I measured for roll.  I won't mention the brand and/or models, but know that they are the same brand, just different model years.  If you can guess each, mention it in the comments and I'll tell you if you're right!

Anyway, this driver has 8" of roll.  The next example is for educational purposes; it's to show an incorrect measurement of roll:

new driver, new roll measurement and its effect on driver launch

See the gap in the center, under the "8" roll/bulge"? That's incorrectly measuring roll.

Now, for its real roll measurement:

driver roll and its effect on high launch

This particular model has 12" of roll

One more, for good measure:

Roll and its effect on driver launch

10" of roll

The smaller the number, the more curve the face has.

These drivers are shown out of order.  It should look like this:

  • The driver with 8" of roll will have the highest launch on hits above the center of the face. 
  • The driver with 10" of roll will have slightly less.
  • The driver with 12" of roll, even less than that.

That's why, in the earlier diagram, I didn't give numbers.  There's no blanket-statement I can make on the loft in each position (high, low, center) and its effect on creating a high launch driver.  Each model in the examples has 9.5° of loft, but each will have different numbers above and below the face because they have different roll measurements.

There is a Rule of Thumb, which is what you need to know:

Higher on the face, there's more loft; lower on the face, there's less loft.

When you hit above the center of the face, you're effectively hitting the ball with more loft.  Naturally, that means a higher-launching drive, as well.  What's more, it'll have less backspin!

The reason for that is from what's called "Gear Effect" (some call it "canted bulge").  Specifically when it applies to roll, it's called "Vertical Gear Effect", but the idea's the same: the curvature of the face acts as one "gear", the ball acts as the other.

What really constitutes the "ideal" launch conditions for a golf ball?

We see numbers; I even have a graph:

golf driver optimization chart

Image Courtesy: Tom Wishon via Free Golf Info

Based on your ball speed, there's an "ideal" range for both launch angle and backspin rate.

But let's look at this from the professional's point of view.  Here are some more pics, taken during a round of the WGC-Cadillac:

Take a moment to look at these numbers.  

We always hear "high launch low spin".  They try to sell us driver heads that have that magical combination, shafts they market as being "high launch low spin".

Shit, I'm surprised they haven't tried that ploy with grips by now...

I'm guessing you're asking "who is the (carry) distance leader, and what's the number?".  Well, let's look at this example right here:

Just for kicks, let's look at the same spec from almost a year ago:

I should apologize for all the terrible camera work... but at least the numbers are readable!

The leader from the previous year, Dustin Johnson, is almost five yards longer than the leader from the following year (Tony Finau).  Is that a fluke?

Well... look at the bottom of the picture.  See the "Tour AVG"?  There's just shy of three yards difference between years (272.0 yards v. 274.7 yards).  

The "big hitters" may be a little bit shorter this year because of weather conditions, or they decided against using driver on some of the holes that were measured...  Who the hell knows.  

However, the Tour Average has barely fluctuated- which means distance isn't coming in huge leaps and bounds.

Something else to ponder: most everyone on Tour gets to try out the latest and greatest at their leisure.  Most update every year... and yet, the Tour average has barely changed.

So what does that mean for us?  Well, go back to the tour averages for every spec in the photos:

Clubhead Speed: 113.1 mph

Launch Angle: 11.13*

Backspin Rate: 2,593 rpms

Here's what that looks like, using Dave Tutelman's Trajectoware Software:

Plugging in these numbers, this is what the program spat out:

  • Carry Distance: 279.4 yards
  • Backspin Rate: 2,593 rpms
  • Max Height: 100.8 feet

The program forced a change to swing speed, up from 113.1 to 113.5.  Not much.  It was also almost spot-on with the ball speed numbers; the Tour average was 167.4 mph and the program spat out 167.2 mph!

In a nutshell, it looks as though the average Tour pro is under-performing!

What this means for you is, you can chase numbers all day long.

You can search for some "high launch low spin" holy grail til you drop.

The only "ideal" is what YOU can produce.  Maybe it isn't the ideal high launch low spin combo... but that's OK.  As your swing speed decreases, you do tend to get a longer carry distance by having a higher launch angle- but you need MORE backspin to help keep the ball in the air longer.

For the faster swingers,  I still don't see why they're so obsessed with "high launch low spin".  Here's a nice article to help explain it.

One nugget to take away from the article: "The vast majority of excessive spin situations are caused by swing errors far more than from playing the wrong equipment, and are more often cured by changes in swing technique more effectively than from changes in equipment".

My take on it: how, by only changing equipment, do you increase your launch angle and decrease your backspin rate?  If you went to a higher loft, you have no choice but to increase your backspin rate.  

Remember earlier, when you learned about roll?  If you went out and bought a new driver, with that fancy "low-spin" shaft, did you bother to check the roll?  If you got a driver with a high roll number compared to your old golf driver, you'll still risk more backspin, because there isn't as much Vertical Gear Effect.

And just how does the shaft effect launch angle and backspin?  If you don't have a late release, it doesn't.  But if you do have that "ideal" late release, if the golf shaft you're interested in has the same properties as the one you're already using, you won't see a difference.

What you need to do

What you need to do to find that ideal high-launch/low-spin combination is to change how you attack the ball.  According to former Long-Drive Champ and owner of the Re/Max LDA Art Sellinger, there are four things you can do without changing any equipment:

   First, tee the ball higher. Acquire some extra-long (23⁄4 inches) tees and peg the ball as high as possible. This promotes swinging up on the ball—rather than flat or, even worse, downward—and helps create launch angles of 10 degrees or higher and spin rates of 3,000 rpm and lower, proven to be the ideal launch conditions.

Second, never sole the driver at address. This will help promote an upward strike on the ball, too. It also increases a golfer’s chances of making contact with the clubface in the center or slightly above. Drives struck one or two grooves below the center of the clubface will have too much spin and a trajectory that starts low and then climbs (editor's note: this is that "vertical gear effect we talked about earlier). 

Third, eliminate any downward action in the swing. To reduce spin and maximize distance, golfers need to adopt the uppercut swing of a home-run hitter in baseball, not the flat swing of a contact hitter.

Fourth, stay behind the ball. Any tendency to slide ahead of the ball at impact will lower the launch angle and create more spin. Stay down and through the shot at impact, swinging the club up, out and away from the body, not down and across it.

I should also point out that obsessing over spin can be a very bad thing.  As Tom Wishon states, look at the ball's flight rather than what the numbers from the launch monitor are.  If your ball flight doesn't have that sharp uptick- as in, a "ballooning" ball flight"- everything will be just fine.

And as always, if you want a driver that's best for you, get fitted for it!

How about  you?  Have you been fitted?  What did you end up buying?

About the Author

Justin Blair is the founder of Green Lantern Golf. When he isn't bringing his 10+ years of excellent craftsmanship experience to golf club fitting, building, and repair, he's geeking out about Star Wars (he's watched them all about 8,437 times!) and things like the MCU and LOTR, he's drinking mead and craft brews. If you wanna know more, check out my About Page!

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