Let’s start with a not-so-amazing thesis: The material used to construct every golf club is important. For that matter, so are the design, construction and geometry.
That’s not particularly hard-hitting information. But consider how much of the marketing chatter around drivers, fairway woods and hybrids features buzzwords like Triaxial carbon crowns, Inverted Cone construction and the ever-popular catch-all “multi-material technology.”
The answer is “a lot.” It’s an order of magnitude greater than Bryson DeChambeau’s daily calorie intake.
What’s clear is manufactures want consumers to associate certain materials or processes with different levels of quality.
What’s less defined is how much merit one should assign to these sometimes audacious claims.
TITANIUM versus STEEL
Which one is the more “premium” material? Trick question. It’s both. Or neither.
But it depends.
Does that clear it up?
On balance, titanium is lighter and stronger than steel. It’s also more expensive. Given the mass properties of driver heads, titanium is an obvious material choice. Most heads weigh 195-198 grams (not including an adapter). And simply, titanium allows engineers to make larger, more forgiving clubs without increasing the weight beyond what’s manageable. To be clear, in this context, forgiveness equates to the amount of ball speed retained on off-center strikes.
And the driver is still the most popular kid at the party. From an equipment standpoint, it’s the centerpiece of a game where distance dominates the conversation at pretty much every level of play. Also, bear in mind that harvesting any amount of extra weight out of a driver head is becoming increasingly arduous. Finding that extra stroke per round is always going to be much harder for the scratch golfer than it is for the 10-handicap player. That’s more or less the situation with drivers and discretionary weight.
So, if titanium is good for the goose, it has to be good for the rest of the metalwood gander, right?!
DISTINCTION OR DIFFERENCE?
There isn’t a driver on the market without a titanium-face construction. But with fairway woods and hybrids, steel is still the most common face material. Some will argue this is primarily a cost issue while others contend that any performance differences are marginal, at best.
Also, if you think of material innovations as notch marks on a timeline, it’s pretty clear that when a universal benefit exists, every manufacturer changes course rather quickly. Notable examples include composite graphite shafts, the solid-core ball and, lest we forget, my personal favorite, flat-front slacks.
But with fairway woods – and, to a lesser degree, hybrids – the adoption is anything but linear.
Even so, what gives? If titanium helps produce faster ball speeds in drivers, why isn’t there ubiquitous use in metalwoods?
NOT ALL IN THE SAME GAME
Consider the brief history of several large and medium-sized equipment manufacturers as it relates specifically to fairway woods and hybrids.
On occasion, TaylorMade has offered a “Ti” (Titanium) fairway wood model. Last year it offered the M5 Ti. For 2020, the SIM Ti sits alongside SIM Max and SIM Max D models. Dedicated gearheads might even remember the ol’ r7 Ti which can still be had for less than $100.
Once upon a time, Callaway produced a Big Bertha Ti fairway model but its current flagship Mavrik line of fairway woods leverages C300 maraging steel.
What about PING and Titleist? More top-shelf steel.
Mizuno, a company best known for its irons, has dabbled with some titanium fairway woods but again landed where pretty much every other OEM resides – In Steel City, USA. Or more correctly, somewhere abroad.
Even PXG, which isn’t scared to attach gaudy price tags to any piece of equipment, is yet to use titanium in anything other than a driver.
Then there’s Tour Edge. If there’s a brand that’s synonymous with titanium fairway wood construction, it’s Tour Edge. There’s more to the story, but basically when the industry was zagging, Tour Edge decided to zig.
Founder and lead designer David Glod saw the opportunity for a distance-oriented fairway wood, which was a novel idea at the time. The foundational premise of what became the Exotics line was a titanium face combo-brazed to a stainless-steel body. Though the current EXS 220 and EXS Pro models feature moveable weights and more advanced carbon construction, the headline is still a titanium cup face and combo-brazed construction. For Tour Edge, it’s akin to Colonel Sanders and his 11 herbs and spices.
Going a bit deeper into the weeds, just as there are many different hues of blue, not all steel or titanium is the same. Generally, more “beta-rich” titanium is stronger and more flexible than other grades of titanium. For example, 6-4 Ti, which is common in the industry, isn’t as “beta-rich” as the SAT 2041 that Mizuno uses in the ST200 family of drivers. According to Mizuno, this allows it to achieve a slightly higher CT for a given COR.
Regarding steel, 455 Carpenter steel is pretty much the first floor of so-called premium steel materials. In this case, as the floors go up, so do the numerical designations. For example, 465 has a greater yield strength than 455 and 475 is greater than 465. As we approach the penthouse, C300 and 475-grade steel represent the crème de la crème. As with any change in materials, the improvements in strength, weight and flexibility are incremental and because of USGA limits on CT, there’s a functional limit to consider.
SO REALLY, WHAT’S THE DEAL?
Given all of this, I thought it might be interesting to dig a bit deeper on a typical trade-off consumers face when looking to make a purchase.
Should I go with a more expensive club with a titanium face, even if it has comparatively fewer shaft choices? This is more or less the Tour Edge scenario. Or is it best to opt for a fairway wood or hybrid with a steel face and a more plentiful selection of shafts? This is pretty much every other manufacturer.
This wasn’t an exhaustive study or meant to be some meta-analysis of every possible shaft/head combination in the industry. But what my experience (and conversations with some of the brighter minds in golf R&D) indicates is that with golf equipment, as in life, there’s always a trade-off.
Other than your driver, every club in your bag should have a specific job description. Technically, the driver has one, too, but “long, high, far and relatively straight” probably suffices. Moreover, everything about each club should help it perform whatever those duties might be.
If anything, we tend to focus on the loft of a club as a means to help with distance gapping – and that’s a good start. But if you really want to nail your set up, it takes a much more complete analysis and understanding of what’s going on between your longest iron and the big dog – the space where fairway woods and hybrids reside.
Key point #1 – Titanium doesn’t necessarily generate faster ball speeds than steel. Perhaps this was true at some point but that’s no longer the case. Chris Voshall, Golf Marketing Manager at Mizuno, told MyGolfSpy, “We’re basically at the same limits of CT with premium steel.”
Others stated that titanium allows for a larger sweet spot, which effectively means higher ball speeds across a larger percentage of the face. Basically, you might hit a titanium-faced fairway wood farther but it would be inaccurate to conclude that this result is because titanium generates faster ball speeds than steel.
So, other than being more expensive, what can titanium do that steel can’t?
Key point #2 – Titanium is lighter so it gives engineers a bit more freedom regarding the mass properties of a club head. For example, if you took two heads with the same dimensions, the one with a titanium face can access more center-of-gravity locations. As is the case with the Tour Edge Ti-Utility iron, designers maintained a smaller address profile but altered the CG to produce a higher ball flight with a bit more forgiveness. Tour Edge even goes so far as to assert that the use of titanium allows for a CG location no other manufacturer can mimic. Because CG has a direct effect on launch, spin and ball speed, Tour Edge’s belief is that, as a result, it can offer a performance profile other companies can’t.
Though it didn’t use titanium, plenty of golfers still claim the original TaylorMade RBZ fairway wood as one of – if not the longest- fairway woods of the modern era. The reason? TaylorMade went with a deeper face and more rear/low CG location to help increase launch and reduce spin. My hunch is without knowing exactly what was happening, golfers gained distance not via appreciably higher ball speeds, just more beneficial launch conditions.
Granted, fairway woods and hybrids often weigh 20 to 40 grams more than a driver, so even when using high-grade steel, it’s not particularly difficult to shave a couple of grams here or there.
That said, it’s one thing to generate discretionary weight but it’s altogether something different to find a useful purpose for it.
Key point #3 – Hotter isn’t always better.
Too often golfers use a single criterion as a measurement of “hotness.” Ball speed. But that’s a misnomer. Consider two clubs, both of which generate 145 miles per hour of ball speed. One spins 500 revolutions per minute less. Which one is “hotter”?
Which one is a better fit in your bag? That’s ultimately the question.
As such, the salient point is to make sure the intended launch characteristics are in line with whatever it is you want that club to be able to do.
Again, I’ll use Tour Edge’s Pro line of metalwoods as an example. By most measures, it wouldn’t seem to make much sense to be a 72-year old male with a 92-mph driver swing speed in a 13.5°-degree fairway wood with a relatively forward CG location.
But when you consider that this player is often using a fairway wood for his second shot on pretty much every par 4 (and sometimes a third shot on a par 5), there’s an argument to be made that it’s in his best interest to use a club that offers the greatest total distance, not the one with the longest carry number. Therefore, if the lower-spinning, “hotter” option produces the most overall distance, it could have the greatest impact on his score.
Another industry expert suggested that PGA TOUR pros use a 3-wood primarily for tee shots as it’s often too much club for a second shot into a par 5. Therefore, a construction where the CG is at (or within fractions of a millimeter) from the neutral axis produces the high-launch/low-spin characteristics that maximize distance off the tee. Cobra’s SpeedZone Big Tour Fairway fits this description as does the TaylorMade SIM Ti, which likely has the lowest CG of any current fairway wood model.
Key point #4 – More forgiving isn’t always better, either.
Surely, you can’t be serious. Yes, I am serious and…hopefully you completed this sentence in your head.
The catch is how we define forgiveness. That is: How do the design, materials and geometry help correct for both distance and direction?
Some golfers could probably tell you that MOI is a general proxy for forgiveness. More specifically, it’s a measurement of how resistant a club is to twisting on off-center impact. The net result of a higher MOI is a smaller distance penalty when you catch one a bit on the heel or towards the toe.
The less discussed component of forgiveness is bulge and roll, which is the amount of curvature on the face of a club. More precisely, bulge is the curvature from heel to toe and roll is the curvature from the sole to the crown.
Because of the science behind gear effect, shots that impact the club face left of center (heel side) don’t dart left and stay on that path. The gear effect (think two gears working in opposite directions) helps maneuver the ball back to the right. The same is true for shots struck toward the toe which may start right of the target line and work back to the left (for a right-handed golfer).
A fairway wood with gaudy heel-toe MOI measurements makes a fine marketing tagline but if the shot just goes further into the weeds, how much is that helping the golfer? The converse is also true. Though golfers are inclined to self-blame for wayward shots, designs that compromise distance in any meaningful manner are non-starters.
Somehow, “You’ll hit our club shorter and straighter than anything on the market,” just doesn’t seem to resonate with the buying public.
In general, a more balanced design that doesn’t sacrifice sufficient bulge/roll for increased MOI numbers or vice versa is often going to lead to better performance for a majority of golfers.
Titanium is more expensive than steel and mostly justifies the premium price tag. Likewise, platinum wedding bands are more expensive than white or yellow gold because platinum is a more expensive metal.
But considering performance, it’s not an “either-or” proposition. Titanium isn’t universally better than steel. Though steel is less expensive and more widely used, it’s not the best option for every design parameter either.
So, back to where we started.
Materials matter. How much is ultimately up to the end user.
In my case, the Tour Edge Pro had a lower launch and a bit less spin than the 2018 CBX which was MyGolfSpy’s Most Wanted Fairway Wood that year. But, neither launched as high as my Cobra LTD (remember the orange one with the funky-looking space port in the sole?).
Absent a more detailed examination, it’s tough to say exactly how much the titanium and combo-brazed construction contributed to the overall result. There’s also the matter of price and shaft selection. At $299, Tour Edge is $100 less than the TaylorMade SIM and $20 more than Cobra’s SpeedZone line.
That said, Tour Edge has two shaft options, which is light compared to competitors like TaylorMade and Cobra. And although Mizuno doesn’t have a large presence in the metalwood conversation, it has 20-plus no-upcharge shafts from which to select. I’m sure Tour Edge could create a much larger menu of shafts but that’s a reality of creating some differentiation based on price while still offering a compelling performance story.
No matter the end result, my advice is to stick to several basic questions.
“What do I want this club to do?”
“How does the material, construction and design help achieve this?”
The answer doesn’t necessarily lie in a simple comparison of steel versus titanium. It’s more likely found as a result of a holistic analysis that accounts total performance based on your game, not some pro in a bombastic commercial.
After all, just because denim jeans make great work pants doesn’t mean you should wear them for your next marathon.
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