Written By: Tony Covey
Here We Go Again
3 weeks to the date after the first pictures showed up, the mostly poorly acted charade of the golf season has come to its predictable conclusion. Not that there was much doubt this day would come…and quickly, but TaylorMade just killed whatever suspense there was with the announcement that the “Tour Prototype” SLDR Driver would be available for retail purchase on August 9th.
Did anybody not see this coming?
From Tour Prototype to scheduled release in 3 short weeks?
This SLDR thing must really be something.
A New Flagship Driver
Before I talk about what SLDR is, I have to tell you what SLDR isn’t.
SLDR isn’t like when Callaway released an ultra-lightweight, semi-niche driver where they can argue they’re not flooding the market; they’re just trying to round out the lineup.
Nope. SLDR ain’t that.
SLDR is TaylorMade setting sail with a new flagship driver right in the middle of the damn golf season.
In case any of this is the least bit unclear to you, let me spell it out.
The TaylorMade SLDR is the direct replacement for the TaylorMade R1 (released 6 months ago)…and by extension the R1 Black (released 2 months ago).
Wow…just wow. In fact, holy shit!
It’s one thing to release a larger head, a smaller head, a head with upgraded adjustability, a head with a glued hosel, a head with a new paint job…TaylorMade has done that sort of stuff in the past, but a mid-season, new line replacement for their flagship model?
It’s weird. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it.
What Can I Tell You About SLDR?
I’ve spent the last several days banging away at my keyboard trying to tell you the story of the SLDR driver. No exaggeration, I’ve written nearly 10,000 words on the subject, and haven’t found 2000 that I’m happy with.
Here’s the issue; apart from the most hardcore TaylorMade fanboy, I can’t find anyone who is legitimately excited about this driver. The wow factor, for a multitude of reasons is almost zero.
I love a new driver, as much as…hell, more than anybody, and even I’m struggling to muster any excitement.
That’s a big problem for me.
Not Another TaylorMade Driver
I know what you’re thinking…This is just TaylorMade being TaylorMade and releasing 10 drivers in a season. This is just more of the same.
Factually, if we’re counting Tour, and Tour Issue, and new paint jobs, it’s really only the 6th, which is still a lot (some would say too many).
The only emotion SLDR seems to be stirring is anger. That’s no audience for a new driver.
I’ve heard plenty of theories as to why TaylorMade would release the SLDR now instead of waiting until next February. To one degree or another, most of them make sense.
Metalwoods market share is down. Callaway took a chunk. Nike got one too.
Revenue is down.
Some would say TaylorMade is desperate.
TaylorMade has an answer for all of it.
The market share drop was expected, and TaylorMade’s cut is still more than 2 times that of their nearest competitor.
Revenues are down, but percentage-wise it’s just a couple of ticks, which isn’t bad when you consider the brutal winter that hurt everyone’s bottom line.
Desperation is a stretch when you have the number one selling driver in golf.
TaylorMade would say they’re releasing SLDR now because innovation can’t wait – not because Callaway just released a new driver too.
The Truth of the Matter
As with most stories where viewpoints diverge, the real story of the apparently early release of the SLDR driver almost certainly lies in the middle.
Absolutely, competition is stronger than it has been in years. TaylorMade is being pushed, and when you take an objective look at their post R11 driver releases; it’s hard to argue they’ve released anything of real consequence. It's all been solid, but none of it revolutionary.
Absolutely Callaway has gained momentum, and it stands to reason that even if we’re only talking about a couple of percentage points, TaylorMade would rather not finish behind last year’s numbers.
But despite a multitude of factors that suggest that SLDR is as much about putting new product on the shelves as anything else, I’ve come to believe that TaylorMade actually believes SLDR is a special driver.
All Releases are Not Created Equal
Ask anybody at any golf company and they’ll say the same thing:
And yet, despite the stench of perpetual awesomeness, deep down these guys know that some products are actually better than others – and it comes across when they talk about them.
When the MyGolfSpy staff was at Callaway last winter, they stepped us through their entire product line. It was all really (really, really) good – best ever kind of stuff (even the RAZR Fit Xtreme fairway wood), but the XHot fairway was special. They didn’t just tell us they had there answer for RocketBallz, they believed it.
Look…maybe I’m gullible, even stupid, but certain releases just come across differently. R11s, R1 that was business as usual. In fact, it’s been business as usual for every TaylorMade driver release I’ve covered since R11.
SLDR is different. I can’t tell you why I believe that, because I don’t fully understand it myself, but my gut is telling me that behind all the hype, and fluff, and the “this is the longest driver we’ve ever created” stuff; inside of TaylorMade, they absolutely believe that SLDR is their best work in the driver category in years. I think they think it’s the kind of driver you build a franchise around.
And that’s a problem for TaylorMade because I think when golfers see SLDR they aren’t seeing anything special. It doesn’t look the part of a flagship TaylorMade driver, and that means golfers aren’t nearly as likely to take it off the rack to find out how good it really is.
But, But, But . . . Mizuno
Right about now is where the clever crowd starts chiming in with, “Of course it doesn’t look like a TaylorMade driver. They stole it from Mizuno”.
We’ve covered it before, but in the interest of helping you not go through life all ignorant and whatnot, let’s get a few things sorted out right quick.
Any resemblance to Mizuno’s FastTrack system which first appeared on the MP-600 is superficial at best. Mizuno’s system was designed with the goal of moving weight around the rear perimeter of the golf club.
TaylorMade’s SLDR weight system is forwardly placed, and the weight is relocated parallel (as opposed to around) to the face. That may sound like a small detail, but as far as the performance implications are concerned they’re worlds apart.
The other key thing to consider and this is the part you’re really going to want to pay close attention to; we did some extensive research on patents pertaining to sliding, rail-based weighting systems. As it happens, TaylorMade’s patent pre-dates Mizuno’s by over a year.
Your Mizuno argument is invalid and uninformed…please move along.
What We’ve Got Here Is . . .
TaylorMade’s marketing team would almost certainly tell me that this SLDR thing is just getting started and that I should sit back (probably shut up), and watch them do what they do. Before they’re done, the golfer is going to believe what they believe (SLDR is really, really, really good).
I don’t see it happening.
The excitement level feels low. And what’s worse, this isn’t about converting the “I’d never put that in my bag crowd”, it’s a battle against early indifference – and that’s a problem for TaylorMade too.
Worse yet, I believe a lot of golfers are going to see SLDR as nothing more than something TaylorMade threw on the shelf to kill time until the spring.
If this is what TaylorMade says it is...the flagship driver for a new generation of TaylorMade product, they could find themselves in a difficult position this spring when their competitors are putting new product on the shelf next to TaylorMade's six month old relative relic.
Then again...the can always release the next generation SLDR.
According to TaylorMade's Tom Olsavsky; when it comes to the number of drivers TaylorMade can release, there is no limit. "The golfer is always looking to buy better performance".
The R1 Black Fail
I’m not positive why, despite tour player tweets, and launch monitor photos, and all the other pre-release stuff TaylorMade did to build buzz, there isn’t the same level of eager anticipation there usually is for a new TaylorMade driver.
Absolutely the timing sucks. It's not even August. There might even be a TaylorMade driver hangover of sorts, but more than anything else, the issue is that SLDR, I believe, simply doesn’t have any real wow factor.
Even if you hate all of it, what’s more interesting to you – all lofts in a single head, an adjustable sole plate that looks like a compass and a bold crown graphic or a shiny piece of blue anodized aluminum on an otherwise ordinary looking driver?
Now let me ask you this – What if Back in Black (or Back in Charcoal) was part of the SLDR story?
What if in addition to the re-invention of moveable weights, the SLDR was the first black driver TaylorMade released since the R9 series?
SLDR is a whole lot more interesting if R1 Black doesn’t exist. It might even look like the game-changer I think TaylorMade thinks it is.
A Boring Performance Story
From a performance perspective, TaylorMade is saying some pretty compelling things about SLDR. While they are calling SLDR the longest driver they've ever made, TaylorMade won’t be making any specific distance claims (contrary to the popular myth, TaylorMade hasn’t made a specific driver distance claim in years).
What they are telling me personally, however; is that compared to R1, most players will pick up 2-3MPH of ball speed, and decrease spin by up to 400RPM. According to TaylorMade Product Evangelist, Tom Kroll, TaylorMade staffers are picking up between 6 and 10 yards.
That's pretty bold. R1 is no slouch.
While the numbers sound great, the story behind them is much less compelling.
For years every new release has included a blurb about how extra distance was achieved through a relocation of the center of gravity.
For the better part of the last decade it was all about moving the CG lower and further back. Now it’s about moving it low and forward. It’s different, and that should matter, but for most golfers, the center of gravity story, no matter how new, or how different from the one that came before it, is basically played out.
Like I keep saying, I think TaylorMade believes they have something special, but so far it hasn't come across that way. I know...it's early.
While the sliding rail system provides the eye-candy, and plays a substantial role in the previously mentioned center of gravity placement thing, functionally not much is new.
The new system features 20 grams of re-positional weight (compared to 9 grams (excluding additional weights) under the old system). The 30 yards of lateral change in ball flight TaylorMade claims it offers is actually only 2 yards more than the 28 yards offered with 2007’s R7 SuperQuad.
Nearly 6 years has netted us 2 yards. And that’s if you believe 20 grams is enough weight to shift the center of gravity and fundamentally alter trajectory.
That's fine though. The sliding weight...that's the eye-candy. It's cool, but it's not the real story.
Low and forward...that's the real story.
As far as the updated adjustability goes, the real selling point for the SLDR weight system is that it’s easier for the average golfer to understand, and takes far less time to adjust the weights.
Nearly every golf company talks about doing a better job of enabling the golfer to adjust his own club. On paper SLDR does just that, but in the real-world, I don’t think it will change much of anything. Those who want to adjust already do, and those that don’t probably never will.
For fitters, and compulsive tinkerers, however; TaylorMade has cut the time it takes to reposition the weights down to about 10 seconds. That’s actually a huge improvement.
Obligatory SLDR Specifications
As is the case with most TaylorMade shafts, the stock non-TP shaft offerings are "designed for variants", while the TP model is a "real" Fujikura Motore Speeder TourSpec 6.3.
Swing Weight Woes
For compulsive tweakers, there are some issues with tuning the weight to work with a variety of shafts. With the old system you could buy additional weights allowing you to basically hit your desired swing weight with any shaft.
While TaylorMade estimates those guys (guys like me) represent less than 10% of the market, because of some issues with the USGA, TaylorMade was forced to put a barely removable plug over the access hole for the weight cartridge. The USGA felt the opening could provide an aerodynamic benefits, and for whatever reason they haven't yet allowed TaylorMade to use a screw to secure the cap (the opening is threaded, so maybe the USGA will come around).
The result is that while adjusting the weight is easy, swapping it isn’t. TaylorMade is looking into making aftermarket kits available, but as of right now, guys who constantly experiment with different shafts are going to have some issues.
Putting SLDR to the Test
I'm told it's going to be a few weeks but as soon as we get a complete set of samples of the SLDR driver we're going to be putting them to the test. Once again, here's what TaylorMade is saying:
Compared to R1 SLDR offers:
- 2-3 MPH Ball Speed
- 400RPM less spin
- More Distance (6 to 10 yards)
As soon as we can, we're going to bring back the 6 testers from our Most Wanted Driver test and have them hit SLDR vs. R1. head to head.
Just because TaylorMade thinks they have something special, it doesn't mean that they actually do.
If SLDR is the real deal, we'll tell you. If it can't measurably outperform TaylorMade's own R1, you can bet we'll tell you that too.
In the meantime, would it kill you to show a little excitement?
TaylorMade SLDR Tidbits
I spoke with members of the TaylorMade team about the SLDR for nearly an hour. Not everything made it into the story, but I did want to share some of the more interesting notes from my conversation with Tom Kroll (TaylorMade Product Evangelist), and Tom Olsavsky (Senior Director of Product Creation for Metalwoods).
- On the flurry of Callaway Trademark Applications: TaylorMade won’t comment specifically on Callaway’s recent run of Slider-Like trademark claims, but Olsavsky did say that they’re not surprising, and that it’s to be expected in a competitive environment.
- And speaking of Callaway (loosely), Olsavsky claims that that while a 15% improvement in aerodynamics yields only one additional yard, moving the CG 10% lower produces 7 more yards. What this means as that aerodynamics offer the most benefit to higher swing speed players, while CG improvements benefit everyone.
- On rumors that TaylorMade pilfered the SLDR design from Adams: Olsavsky and Kroll told me in no uncertain terms that TaylorMade has been working on SLDR since 2006. It is, they say, an original TaylorMade design.
- On market saturation: There is no limit to the number of products. The important thing is to cover different segments and assist retail partners by controlling volume and helping manage inventory. R1 is the best-selling driver of 2013 and has sold roughly 300K units. When you consider that there are 6.6 million avid golfers and 15 million total golfers when if you include recreational golfers; despite its success, R1 reached less than 5% of the avid golfing population and only 2% of the population as a whole. That’s obviously a comparatively small number on both accounts. If you have the opportunity to reach more golfers, why wait? Olsavsky pointed out that R1 is still a great driver. “If you’re happy and playing well”, said Olsavsky, keep doing it.
- On the disappearance of ASP: While TaylorMade absolutely believes the technology was effective, the ASP design requires a raised sole. When you raise the sole, you raise the center of gravity. With SLDR the goal was to place the CG as low as possible, which meant ASP had to go.
- On moving away from 8°-12° in a single head: TaylorMade says 98% of golfers fit into a head with a face angle between 3° open and 3° closed. With a 4° range like R1 had you get extreme face angles on either end. By moving back to stamped lofts, TaylorMade can better fit high and low loft golfers.
- On the difference between the V1 and V2 head: It’s purely cosmetic. The same casting tool was used. Only the engraving is different. As of now there are no plans for a smaller T-serial head. Players haven’t asked for one, and the suggestion is TaylorMade is looking to move away from creating distinct products for tour players. Curiosity point - only about 30 of the V1 heads were produced.
- On Sound and Feel: TaylorMade believes the SLDR is the best sound and feeling driver since the R510.
- On Performance: TaylorMade’s Tom Kroll believes SLDR is the best driver on the market.