LAS VEGAS -- My private jet was waiting just outside the hangar.
The plane, a luxurious G4, was symbolic. TaylorMade was going to unveil its new JetSpeed metal woods at jet speed to a group of tweeting, blogging, writing, burping golf media. Actually, scratch the burping part -- that was just me. Anyway, that’s why I was walking across a parking lot at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif., on a sunny Monday morning and headed for the Premier Jets hangar. The JetSpeed flight left from Carlsbad, home of TaylorMade, bound for Vegas, baby. Please stop hating me because I’m lucky.
Boarding a plane is never this easy. I walked through the Premier Jets office and went out the other side, where I said hello to TaylorMade exec Sean Toulon, our in-flight host. I went another 100 feet and climbed aboard. No muss, no fuss. Traveling by private jet was like being a top-20 golfer for a day. It couldn’t have been more convenient unless ancient Egyptian slaves had been there to load me onto a throne and carry me across the tarmac. (I looked but didn’t see any.) This is the kind of commuting I could get used to.
The plane comfortably seated 12, and when I say comfortably I mean leather seats -- really good ones. I was in the back in a group of four seats, two on either side of a table, facing each other. The jet soared out over the sparkling Pacific Ocean before circling around to head east toward Vegas. It was as close as I’m going to get to flying like Ernie Els.
Friendly flight attendant Colleen set out a small breakfast buffet -- an assortment of pastries, yogurt and fresh fruit. She served fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee. We reached cruising altitude and Toulon took over, handing us iPads so we could follow along and check out photos of the previously top-secret JetSpeed drivers and fairway woods.
They had a satin black finish, and Toulon explained how the company moved the CG (center of gravity) forward, a counterintuitive move, to open up new launch-angle and spin-rate opportunities. He also answered the question that was the elephant in the room, although it would have to be a baby elephant and even then it would have a tough time squeezing through the aisle of the G4. “People ask us, ‘Why do you bring out new clubs so quickly? Because they’re the best clubs we can make today and they won’t be as good as the clubs we can make a year from now.”
JetSpeed ascends hard on the heels of the SLDR driver line and as night falls on TaylorMade’s RocketBallz line. They’re not just replacements for RocketBallz, Toulon said of the new clubs, “They’re a total departure.”
A quick rundown of the science: The lower center of gravity (there’s a speed pocket slotted on the bottom of the clubhead) helps create slower spin rates and allows for increased loft and control. While there are limits on the allowable Moment of Inertia, TaylorMade is effectively widening the sweet spot, or as Toulon said, “protecting ball speed on mis-hits.” So a new trend in golf is better players using higher-lofted drivers. Toulon said we’ll eventually see drivers with 12-, 14- and maybe even 16-degree lofts. That increased loft will make them easier to hit.
For anecdotal evidence, Dustin Johnson just won a tournament using a higher lofted driver than usual. Toulon said Swedish golfer Carl Pettersson, who ranked 70th in driving distance in 2013 at 290.2 yards, had picked up 25 yards by using JetSpeed technology in early fall-season events, jumping to third in driving distance. (He slid back slightly after last week’s event and currently ranks 20th with an average drive of 306.2 yards.) It’s about hang time. The lower center of gravity helps create slower spin rates and allows the designers to increase the loft. By the time a tee shot comes down from this higher launch angle, it has traveled an increased distance.
There was also a story about Justin Rose trying out JetSpeed in the wake of his U.S. Open win at Merion. Coach Sean Foley checked out Justin’s numbers on the launch monitor and after a couple of drives, uttered his surprise in some version of what would be translated as, “Holy cow!” The numbers said Rose picked up 15 to 18 yards of carry and knocked off some serious spin rate.
One last science blurb that I found interesting and didn’t know was Toulon talking about what he called the Nirvana of drivers -- 17 degrees of loft and 1,700 revolutions per minute of ball spin. I’m not clear why that’s the perfect combo but let’s say it is. Those numbers have always been unattainable, Toulon said, but this whole moving-the-center-of-gravity-forward thing seems to have opened the door toward progress on that goal.
We also heard Toulon talk about how Brian Gay, not a long hitter, changed his game with the new gear. Gay’s ball speed is 155 mph, not a big number on Tour, but he went to an 11-degree driver, which raised his launch angle at impact from 11.5 to 14.5 degrees, and with the new technology he dropped his spin rate from 2,300 to 2,100. That translated into a carry distance of 279 yards, with rollout of nearly 300 yards.
“And that’s just at 155 mph,” Toulon said. “It’s changed the way he drives the ball.”
The flight was just the first part of a long day.
We landed at Vegas, deplaned and boarded a shuttle bus. First, we got a quick look at the actual gear. TaylorMade put together sets of clubs for us to use for the day, all of them stuffed into golf bags lined up next to the bus. We checked out the SpeedBlade irons, which we hadn’t had time to discuss during the flight.
The bus took us to the nearby TaylorMade Golf Center. It’s a range and lighted nine-hole par-3 course between the airport and the Bali Hai golf course, not far from the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign where tourists pull over to take pictures. It used to be the Callaway Golf Center but now TayorMade has taken it over. The building is getting a huge makeover that’s still a month away from being finished, but it will have simulator rooms and all things TaylorMade in addition to an area where they will stock and sell gear from other equipment-makers.
We made our way to the grass tees and fired away. It was hard to tell, given the worn condition of the range balls (you can be sure those will be replaced before the range’s grand re-opening), but some of my shots were clearly farther than usual. After an hour on the range, we re-boarded the bus and went to the Wynn Golf Course, a seemingly secluded oasis of green just off The Strip that looks like a smaller version of Shadow Creek. It is a nice piece of property that used to be the Desert Inn, and Wynn made sure it was heavily populated with trees and streams and ponds and, oh yeah, one impressive waterfall behind the 18th green. I’m not usually a fan of desert waterfalls. They fit in on desert courses as well as igloos. But this one was the best I’ve seen anywhere, and I’ll give it two thumbs up despite jerking my second shot into the water left of the green. Wynn lives just across from the 18th fairway. It is a sweet location.
Even factoring in the warm, thin Vegas air these clubs produced shots that were longer than usual. I faced a 146-yard approach shot on an early hole, hit an easy 8-iron and was shocked when it flew the green into some shrubbery and a lie from which I cleverly made double bogey. The shot had to have carried close to 160 yards compared to 150 for my normal 8-iron. Two holes later we came to a slightly downhill par 3. It was 146 yards to the pin so I geared back to a 9-iron, choked up an inch and deposited a shot pin-high.
The SpeedBlade irons were definitely longer and had a very strong feel. We all know the usual tricks to make clubs seem longer -- reduced lofts, added length to the shafts. I can’t say if that was going on here but my bag did come with four wedges -- a pitching wedge, presumably at 45 degrees; a 50-degree gap wedge; a 55-degree sand wedge and a 60-degree lob wedge. The JetSpeed woods were definitely hot. I nuked a couple of drives well beyond my normal range.
The fairway woods were just as impressive. I had 232 into a green and tried the JetSpeed 5-wood. (Normally that would probably be a 3-wood distance.) I didn’t hit a great shot, kind of a medium-high 5-wood with too much draw, but it flew into a greenside bunker, pin-high. If I’d hit the green, the ball would’ve caromed well over the putting surface. It was definitely a wow moment. Everyone in my foursome had similar moments during the round.
One of the media guys in the other group -- a younger guy who hits it pretty long -- said he hit one 260 yards with a 4-iron and pounded a drive that reached a water hazard that crossed the fairway 340 yards off the tee.
It was just one round, one day. I’d like to go a few more rounds with the JetSpeed woods and SpeedBlade irons, especially in summer when my game is in better form, before forming a definitive opinion. But there was enough thrilling feedback in that first round to impress me. You’ll hear more about these clubs in the next few months.