2019 was a good year for Callaway drivers. Epic Flash was #1 at retail and was the most used driver across all worldwide tours. Epic Flash Sub Zero took home Most Wanted honors, and the standard model wasn’t far behind.
2019 was a bad year for Callaway drivers. On Tour, Epic Flash led the league in failed USGA CT Tests, and while it’s purely speculation on my part, likely sent more golfers to the ER with bleeding eardrums than any other 2019-made driver in golf. It didn’t sound good; a little pitchy, dog.
The big selling point, of course, was that Epic Flash was the first driver design powered by AI and machine learning. The continuation of Callaway’s AI strategy, the Mavrik name serves to convey the message that bringing the product to life required unconventional thinking (and perhaps unconventional spelling). Fun little fact: it’s not that the guys at Callaway can’t spell (most of them probably can), but working around existing Trademarks sometimes requires a bit of phonetic creativity.
Epic Flash Rewind
AI was the reason, according to Callaway, that Flash produced more peak (dead nuts center contact) ball speed than other drivers (higher COR), while still staying under the USGA CT limit – most of the time, anyway.
Before we move on, let’s acknowledge that this is exactly the kind of claim golfers who can’t be bothered to understand the physics dismiss out of hand. Don’t be that guy. The reality is that the correlation between CT (the USGA’s current face deflection metric) and COR (the former standard) is not absolute. The theory is that it’s possible to stay under 257 (the absolute CT limit) while pushing COR above .830 (the limit under the old metric). That’s not to say Callaway has done it, but every club engineer I’ve spoken with agrees that it’s possible – and most acknowledge they’re trying to live somewhere in the space between.
For the sake of clarity – none of this is meant to suggest that 10 more yards is a realistic possibility. The point is that, in spite of assertions to the contrary, the gray area between CT and COR provides a legitimate opportunity for incremental (and small) peak ball speed gains within the USGA rules. A couple of 10ths of a mile per hour may not sound like much, but it’s infinitely more than zero.
So, long story short, Callaway did some cool, potentially ground-breaking things with Epic Flash, but it wasn’t without its issues. So, before we dig into the fixes, let’s take a brief moment to list the problems.
- Off-center ball speed was lacking
- The Flash face was significantly heavier than conventional designs
- It was arguably the worst sounding driver on the market
- CT Creep (faces getting hotter over time) caused issues between the Callaway Tour staff and the USGA
- The track weighting system, while versatile, brought a performance compromise
So how did Callaway resolve the issues with its 2nd generation of AI-driven drivers? It turns out that AI is a bit like cowbell; sometimes, you just need more.
The Computer Doesn’t Know What it Doesn’t Know
What sometimes gets lost in the excitement of machine learning is that the machine boots up as dumb as a box of rocks. It’s not like you flip a switch and the computer knows how to design a golf club – or even what a golf club is. You have to teach it, and even when you reach the point where the machine understands the task at hand, if you don’t tell it exactly what you want, you’re unlikely to get exactly what you need.
“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers,” says Dr. Alan Hocknell, Callaway’s VP of R&D.
Last time around, Callaway didn’t ask the right questions, or perhaps, more accurately, it didn’t ask enough questions. With more computing horsepower at its disposal and a better understanding of how to leverage it, Callaway’s use of AI has evolved from a research tool to a design tool. As part of that evolution, the company began asking more difficult and more sophisticated questions.
That’s half the battle, but to keep the machine in line, you need to establish some rules. So this time around, Callaway added some constraints. It’s still giving its server farm plenty of room to out-think the humans, but it’s also forcing it to color inside the lines in some areas that it didn’t address the first time around.
On paper, it works a bit like this:
- Peak ball speed is excellent. Keep that, but make sure to consider off-center hits as well.
- Hey Siri, let’s take some weight out of the face. If we need to leverage a new material, so be it.
- Alexa, figure out why our CTs are creeping, and then design against it.
Seriously, is there anything you can’t do with an iPhone and an Amazon subscription?
There’s a small chance I’ve oversimplified some of this.
So, how do these solutions manifest themselves in the real world? If you’ve been paying attention for the last several years, the answer won’t surprise you. Even with supercomputers, it still boils down to materials and geometry.
Callaway says it new face material combined with new face geometries solves a good bit of the problems I listed above. Branded SS20 (Super-Strength for 2020), the material is actually an FS2S titanium alloy. It’s your basic strength to weight ratio story, but the key bits are that SS20 allowed Callaway to reduce the weight of the face by 6-grams (that’s a significant amount in driver design), while also making the face itself more resilient.
The resiliency bit is particularly important as it makes Mavrik faces significantly less prone to CT creep. “[With Epic Flash], we definitely bogeyed some part of that,” says Hocknell. Inconsistencies with gauges and other assorted issues with the USGA’s methodologies notwithstanding, Callaway is optimistic its tour staffers won’t need to rely on their backup drivers this season.
With increased off-center ball speed on its to-do list, the computer updated its Flash Face geometries to perform better when golfers swing like actual golfers. Peak speed is nice, but we all miss the sweet spot more often than not. Suffice it to say that we’ll be keeping a close eye on ball speed consistency in this year’s Most Wanted test.
As you’ll learn in a moment, how the company achieves better off-center performance is going to be the most significant point of differentiation between Callaway and its competitors this season.
Lower MOI by Design
MOI (Moment of Inertia), in straightforward terms, is a measurement of an object’s (in this case, a clubhead) ability to resist twisting. A higher MOI club is more stable when hit off-center, which helps to preserve ball speed on mis-hits. MOI is a significant component of what gets branded as forgiveness. While face geometry (bulge and roll, in particular) also plays a role in producing consistent results, MOI is typically a good indicator of how a driver will perform when you miss the sweet spot.
As we’ve discussed in TaylorMade SIM and Cobra Speedzone driver launch stories, designing for higher MOI often means tradeoffs elsewhere. Specifically, high MOI shapes are typically less aerodynamically efficient (many golfers swing them slower), and boosting inertia usually mandates higher centers of gravity. That can give you more spin than you want. It can also contribute to comparably slower ball speeds and, in some cases, declines in head speed too.
TaylorMade and Cobra solve this problem by reshaping their drivers. Both raised the crowns and skirts (the section between the crown and sole), and placed what are essentially big heavy bars on the rear of the sole to push weight low and back. With these designs, you get high MOI, improved aerodynamics, and because the center of gravity is low, high launch with low spin.
Win, win, and win. Perfect.
Not so fast.
TaylorMade and Cobra see their shapes as the current and foreseeable future of driver design. Callaway sees them as yet another compromise.
As the center of gravity moves away from the face – as is the case with high MOI designs – spin robustness (spin consistency) drops off. I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem with forward center of gravity designs is that they mandate low MOI.
Before we move on, there are three things I should say. The first is that companies that produce drivers with high top-to-bottom MOI (Ixx) will almost certainly dispute any suggestion of a lack of spin robustness. Secondly, others have used face textures to both lower spin and increase spin robustness. It appears that Callaway is doing something similar as Mavrik drivers feature an appreciably more textured face than its previous driver offerings. Finally, stories that argue that MOI isn’t as important as its made out to be invariably come from companies who produce low MOI drivers.
So is the Callaway Mavrik a low MOI driver? Hell yes, it is. Callaway says the total MOI of the Mavrik driver is in the 7000 range. By way of comparison, the highest total MOI drivers on the market exceed 9000, and the overwhelming majority are in the low-to-mid 8000s. By any reasonable comparison, the Callaway Mavrik is a low MOI driver. “And we’re actually kind of proud of that,” says Hocknell. Low MOI doesn’t have to mean unforgiving.
Not only does Mavrik boost off-center ball speeds over Epic Flash, but it also improves them to the degree that Callaway doesn’t need to rely on MOI to maintain ball speed. The face does most of the work. That allows Callaway to shift the center of gravity forward, which provides that spin robustness we were just talking about.
Callaway says Mavrik is more forgiving than Epic Flash. To put a number on it, the company says, despite the lower MOI, its new face design improves downrange dispersion by 13%.
As the risk of damning Mavrik with faint praise, Callaway says that it used AI to improve the acoustic properties of the driver significantly. While there will always be an element of personal preference where sound and feel are concerned, it’s also true that there are frequencies the collective we find pleasing and those we don’t. We didn’t like Epic Flash.
Improving sound involves altering both pitch and the duration over which specific frequencies resonate. Through the AI-driven placement of internal sound ribs, Callaway says it was able to resolve the sound issues.
Hocknell says that “more elaborate on the outside often means more elaborate on the inside.” Within the context of Mavrik, the lack of a track to facilitate the movement of weight around the perimeter likely simplified the task of building sound dampening structures within the driver, but regardless, the feeling inside Callaway is that Mavrik offers a much more satisfying experience at impact.
Aerodynamic Cyclone Shape
By traditional design standards, TaylorMade and Cobra’s tall skirt designs would be considered unconventional. There’s a case to be made that Callaway has taken things a step further. Because it can achieve speed and spin robustness without a big body, Callaway was able to do some things with the shape of its driver to improve the aerodynamics.
With Mavrik’s Cyclone Aero Shape, more so than TaylorMade and Cobra, Callaway flattened the crown a bit and raised the skirt sections of the driver, while keeping the trailing edge high. The standard Mavrik is noticeably shorter from front to back, and to my eye looks a bit like Callaway took Cobra’s Speedzone and made a diagonal cut from the trailing edge of the crown to the front of the sole to remove everything that serves to create low CG and high MOI.
As with any aerodynamic feature, the design is all about reducing drag. Callaway claims a 68% reduction over Rogue and a 61% reduction over Epic Flash. That translates to a bump of 1 and 1.5 MPH of clubhead speed, respectively.
This is the part where we add the disclaimer about aerodynamic improvements disproportionally benefitting higher swing speed players, but it’s worth noting that Callaway’s numbers are based on an average swing speed of 95 MPH. That’s nearly 10 MPH less than TaylorMade’s baseline and about 5 MPH slower than Cobra’s. Your takeaway should be that, if all of this pans out (and I can’t promise that it will), slower swing speed golfers would be more likely to see a speed benefit from Mavrik than most other drivers.
The other requisite disclaimer: Your actual mileage may vary, so get fit.
Before we dig into the model breakdown, I want to briefly touch on the fact that Epic and Rogue/Mavrik are inherently different platforms. Mavrik doesn’t replace Epic Flash; it replaces Rogue. While at one time, shape was a differentiating feature (Rogue was a bigger body driver), with Mavrik’s compact shape potentially representing the future of Callaway design, the distinction moving forward will likely be limited to the type of adjustability – sliding weights for Epic, swappable weights for Mavrik.
With Mavrik, there’s less of a mass penalty associated with the structure to support weights. You do lose a bit of fitting flexibility, but simplicity brings advantages. “When you don’t have [sliding] weights and have three models,” says Alan Hocknell, “you can design for a variety of issues, CG, MOI; prioritizing speed, and targeting heads for different golfers.”
Along those same lines, as was the case with Epic Flash, each of the three drivers in the Mavrik family features a unique implementation of Flash Face intended to produce the best results for the target golfer.
Of the three models, Mavrik (no suffix) is the only one that features a true Cyclone Aero shape. Callaway describes it as a mid-spin offering, with perhaps just a tick of draw bias. The company believes it will be the best fit 60%-70% of golfers.
It features a single, 5-gram rear weight for swing weighting purposes only.
Mavrik is a 460cc design that will be available in lofts of 9°, 10.5°, and 12°.
Mavrik Sub Zero
The Sub Zero is positioned for the better player, or at an absolute minimum, the higher swing speed player. It’s a 450cc offering that’s based on last season’s tour-only Sub Zero Triple Diamond chassis. It lacks the Cyclone Aero shape. The thinking is that the target player already has the speed, so it’s worth giving up a bit of aerodynamic benefit to push the CG lower.
Along similar lines, off-center ball speed is prioritized less than it is in the other Mavrik designs. Your takeaway should be that this iteration of Sub Zero is legitimately intended for better players.
While the design can be expected to produce lower spin, Callaway didn’t obsess over creating the lowest spinning driver it possibly could. Instead, based on tour player feedback, it concentrated its efforts on making a driver that would produce the desired shot shape. Effectively it’s about hitting the target line and then having the ball fall in the desired direction over the final 3rd of its flight.
To get there, Callaway flattened the lie angle a bit and removed any directional bias. Baby fades, that’s the goal.
Mavrik Sub Zero offers swappable 14-gram and 2-gram weights that can be expected to tweak spin by 200-300 RPM. It is available in 9° and 10.5°.
Billed as PING Killer, Callaway says Max is almost two drivers in one. Unlike the standard Mavrik, Max offers a more conventional take on forgiveness. As with Sub Zero, that means a less pronounced cyclone shape. It still gets plenty of forgiveness from the Flash Face, but the thinking here is that the target golfer needs every bit of forgiveness he can get. In many cases, that golfer will be a slower swing speed player, so opportunities to benefit from improved aerodynamics are inherently limited anyway.
That might sound like a compromise, but it’s also inarguably true.
With its 14-gram weight in the rear position, Callaway puts Mavrik Max’s MOI at around 8700. That’s not quite PING G400 MAX / PXG 0811XF territory, but it qualifies as exceptionally forgiving by conventional measures. When the 14-gram weight is in the heel position, it’s a slice killer.
Mavrik Max is available in 9°, 10.5°, and 12°.
With the Mavrik line, Callaway is offering three stock shafts.
For those seeking a lightweight option to promote higher launch, the UST Helium (40/50-grams) has become the de facto standard.
The Mid launch/meaty part of the market offering is the Project X EvenFlow Riptide (50/60-grams). Project X maintains that its OEM offerings are identical to the namesake Small Batch versions sold through premium fitters. The only difference is that Small Batch shafts are manufactured to tighter tolerances.
The low-ish launch offering is the new Aldila Rogue White 130 M.S.I. (60/70g). The White joins the Black and Silver in the Rogue 130 lineup. From a launch and spin perspective, it’s’ designed to fit between those two, though Aldila says it’s intended to fit a broader range of golfers than either. That’s likely a result of how the high-modulus 130 M.S.I material is leveraged in the design. There’s also less of it, which contributes to the lower price point relative to other Rogue 130 offerings.
Typically, when you see a $350 shaft in a $500 driver it’s a red flag. According to Callaway, it’s not a made for shaft, and Aldila confirms the shaft is not exclusive to Callaway. It’s available in the aftermarket, one was in play at the Sony last week (Aldila hopes it will get more tour play), and there’s no reason why it couldn’t find its way into other OEM lineups.
There’s an inherent risk with putting a premium shaft in an OEM lineup, but Aldila is willing to roll the dice as it works to reestablish itself both in the US and overseas (where the brand’s footprint is minimal). That’s potentially a story for a different day.
Because Callaway’s Opti-Fit hosel maintains shaft orientation regardless of your loft setting, Callaway can offer Golf Pride ALIGN grips on its drivers. Last year, the MCC ALIGN proved popular. This time around, it’s going with a Black and Silver version of the Golf Pride Tour Velvet Align.
One Last Thing
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Hey Tony, this Mavrik stuff sounds pretty good, but I’m not sold on the orange.” The first thing I would say is, “Settle down, Chief. It’s not orange; it’s Sunset.” But for those of you uninterested in Home Depot paint aisle semantics, the more relevant point is that if you don’t like Sunset, you can fix it through Callaway Customs. You can have your Mavrik your way. This time around, you get 3 different paint zones and 12 different color options. That’s 1,440 opportunities to get it just right.
Overall, the Callaway Mavrik is compelling. The use of AI could be groundbreaking, but more interesting in the present day is the contrast in design principles between Callaway and its competitors. Mavrik is decidedly different, and while that’s not always a good thing, early returns from MyGolfSpy’s Most Wanted testing suggest there might just be something to it.
The Callaway Mavrik family of drivers retails for $499.99. Retail availability begins on January 23rd, 2020.
For more information, visit CallawayGolf.com