For gear-heads, 2018 produced some highly compelling storylines. From free agency and Tiger’s club changes to Tony Finau’s Ping deal and Justin Thomas borrowing Rickie Fowler’s putter, there was plenty to talk about in the equipment space.
Here’s a look at my 10 favorite equipment stories from the past year, ranked in descending order.
10. Bridgestone’s big year
With two of the biggest names in the sport leading the way, Bridgestone logged eight wins in one calendar year for the first time in company history. Even more impressive: Bridgestone managed to notch eight wins from four different players, including Bryson DeChambeau and Tiger Woods.
Considering the massive size of Titleist’s ball footprint (more on that in a moment), Bridgestone managed to make some significant noise in the golf ball space with one of the smallest staffs on Tour.
9. Breaking records on the course
Equipment free agency has been a boon for a number of equipment manufacturers, most especially Titleist, who eclipsed the 80 percent usage mark at this year’s John Deere Classic for the first time in a 156-player field, according to Darrell Survey records dating back to 1996. Titleist went on to break its own record several months later with 83 percent usage at the RSM Classic.
With more players opting to play without a club and ball deal, it’s possible Titleist could surpass the mark with the release of its 2019 Pro V1 and Pro V1x.
Rarely highlight weekly equipment counts, but a few stuck out to me:
• @Titleist hit 83 percent ball usage with 129. Highest mark going back to ‘96 Darrell records.
• @PingTour won driver count with 40 in play. Of that total, 39 were G400 family. 17 were non-contract.
— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) November 16, 2018
Ping won a driver count on the PGA Tour at the same event, while Mizuno and Vokey saw their weekly Tour usages increase over the course of the year. It all comes back to free agency. With fewer endorsement dollars up for grabs on Tour, players are selecting the gear that makes the most sense for their games. A few brands, in particular, benefitted from the landscape shift in a noticeable way.
8. Pro earns Web.com starts with loaner bag
Cody Blick went through a nightmare scenario during the final round of Web.com Tour Q-School when he awoke to find his clubs had been stolen from the house he was staying at for the week. Blick initially offered a $5,000 reward for the safe return of the clubs, but when they never showed, he was forced to make a last-minute decision, cobbling together a makeshift set in an attempt to earn his card.
Outside of a 54-degree wedge that used to reside in his bag, Blick built the rest of his setup from scratch. The superintendent offered up his driver; the pro shop came through with a couple wedges; and the rest of the setup consisted of a “random” set of irons and a putter that had a heavier head weight than his usual flat stick.
Despite dealing with every equipment hurdle imaginable before he teed off, Blick still managed to birdie his last three holes to finish T-25, guaranteeing him starts on the Web.com Tour.
7. Champ breaks driver, wins anyway
Cameron Champ’s incredible clubhead speed and prodigious length make him a threat to break a driver at any given moment. Unfortunately for Champ, his Ping G400 Max just happened to crack prior to the final round of the Sanderson Farms Championship.
“I was on the range and actually had my headphones in at the time,” he said. “I hit the first drive and kind of fell out of the air. I was like, Oh, that’s kind of weird. Probably cracked there but didn’t crack on the top yet. Then I hit another one and it just split straight in half.”
Already dealing with what he called a mix of “nerves and adrenaline” as the 54-hole leader, Champ was forced to make do with his old driver during the round.
Champ struggled off the tee with the backup driver but still managed to taste victory in just his second start as a PGA Tour rookie.
6. JT borrows Rickie’s putter
Good friends are always there to lend a hand — or a putter. In Justin Thomas’s case, it was the latter during the Wells Fargo Championship. Struggling on the greens with a Scotty Cameron Future X5, Thomas thought about using his backup putter the rest of the way.
The only problem was the backup putter “felt so bad” in his hands that he asked good friend Rickie Fowler if he could borrow something from his putter stash.
Fowler obliged and gave Thomas his Scotty Cameron Newport 2 backup — the same model Thomas played prior to the X5 mallet — to use for the final three rounds. The putter just happened to have Fowler’s first and last name stamped on the bumpers.
— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) May 6, 2018
“I typically carry for sure one [backup putter], if not two of them,” Fowler said. “I have one that’s an identical replica of what I use and one that’s just a bit more rounded. That was the one he ended up grabbing and liked it.
“I never want to get in the way of his putting or whatever he’s doing, but we always try and help each other out.”
Thomas went back to the X5 the following week, but that didn’t stop the putter swap from earning a spot on this year’s list.
5. Bubba returns to Titleist Pro V1
A clean bill of health played a big role in Bubba Watson’s return to the winner’s circle last season. But there’s a direct correlation to another significant change Watson made to his equipment before the start of 2018.
Watson shocked the golf world at the beginning of 2017 by signing a ball-only deal with Volvik, a Korean-based manufacturer with a major presence on the LPGA Tour. The deal gave Volvik exposure on the PGA Tour, but Watson struggled mightily with his game and ultimately dropped the ball at the end of the year.
That’s three wins for Bubba since he made the move away from Volvik back to the Pro V1x. ?
— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) June 24, 2018
Given his past success with Titleist’s Pro V1x, Watson returned to the ball at the beginning of the year and logged a win at Riviera in his sixth start. Watson would finish the season with three wins — the most he’s logged in one season on Tour.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the ball change was a major impetus behind Watson’s big season on the course.
4. Ping changes the rules for Finau
Up until this season, it was impossible to get a staff deal with Ping without agreeing to an 11-club deal that included the putter. Considering the Phoenix-based equipment manufacturer was founded on the Anser putter, requiring the flat stick as part of any agreement made sense.
But there are exceptions to every rule, especially when generational talents are involved. That was the case with Tony Finau, who was offered a staff deal with Ping that did not include the putter — a bold move that signaled the brand’s intent to acquire big-name talent without letting the putter get in the way.
The savvy business deal paid off for Ping in a big way this year, as Finau broke into the top-10 in the Official World Golf Ranking and earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Next to Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, he’s arguably the most valuable member of Ping’s staff.
3. Fleetwood’s iron dilemma
Outside of Tiger and his TaylorMade TW-Phase1 prototype blades, no one had more stories written about his irons than Tommy Fleetwood. It started back in March when Fleetwood left his backup set of Nike VR Pro irons and was forced to play the WGC-Mexico Championship with just 12 clubs after noticing the hosels on his 7- and 8-iron had been bent from wear and tear.
— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) December 17, 2018
Fleetwood had another set in Orlando, but beyond that, he didn’t have a Plan B in place for when those irons bit the dust. With Nike no longer in the business of producing irons, Fleetwood started to get creative in his search for a new set, including gauging Paul Casey’s interest in parting ways with a mint set that had his initials stamped on the heads. Casey not only declined Fleetwood’s offer but went so far as to troll his fellow Englishman on social media with photos of the irons.
While Fleetwood hasn’t given up the search for a set, he’s started to come to terms with the possibility of using something other than Nike blades in the not-too-distant future.
“Honestly, changing might make life easier if something went wrong with a set from another manufacturer,” he said. “I could get them fixed and it wouldn’t be a struggle.”
2. Tiger transforms club setup
For someone who tends to move at a glacial pace when it comes to making club changes, Tiger Woods wasted little time breaking in new TaylorMade equipment in his return to the course. In a six-month span, Woods overhauled his entire setup, beginning with a TaylorMade’s M3 driver at the Farmers Insurance Open.
In the months that followed, he would insert the company’s M3 fairway woods, TW-Phase1 prototype irons — based on the specs of his Nike VR Pro Blade irons — and company’s Milled Grind wedges.
Woods also went through four different driver shafts (Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro White, Matrix OZIK TPHDe, Tensei CK Pro Orange and Diamana D+ White Board) along the way in an attempt to tighten up a part of his game that held him back at times. What ultimately solved his woes off the tee was a Diamana D+ White Board shaft he used up until the 2013-14 Tour season.
— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) May 4, 2018
Of course, the biggest surprise occurred midway through the year when Woods shelved his Scotty Cameron Newport 2 GSS putter for TaylorMade’s TP Black Copper Ardmore 3 mallet at Quicken Loans National. It was just the second time in Woods’s career he’d used something other than an Anser-style blade in competition. TaylorMade’s TP Black Copper Juno made a brief appearance before the 14-time major winner went back to his iconic blade during the FedExCup Playoffs, ultimately winning the Tour Championship with the Newport 2 in the bag.
Since Woods reinserted the Scotty during the playoffs, he’s avoided tweaking the current setup. Given the number of changes he made in 2018, it’s likely we could see him make minor tweaks in the months ahead, with the most likely change being TaylorMade’s 2019 driver and/or fairway woods when he returns to the course in January.
1. Free agents cash in
You could flip a coin for the biggest story of the year between the success free agents had on the course and the wholesale changes Tiger Woods made to his bag setup. In the end, free agency gets the nod.
When Nike left the equipment industry in 2016, no one had any idea the kind of impact it would have on the industry as a whole. More than two years have elapsed and we’re still talking about the Swoosh in the hard-goods space.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy signed new deals within a year of becoming free agents, but Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood and Tony Finau opted to stay on the open market and fill their bags with clubs from multiple equipment brands.
The move signaled the lack of urgency some players felt to secure guaranteed money to play a particular brand of gear. Their patience paid off in a big way this season with all four enjoying career years on the course.
Not only that, all four major championships — Koepka (2), Molinari and Patrick Reed — were won by players without full staff equipment deals — a sign that free agency, one considered taboo on the PGA Tour, is now a legitimate trend.
To put things into perspective, only two groups logged 10 wins last season on Tour. One of them was Titleist; the other was the current crop of gear free agents.
Broke down the @PGATOUR regular season by equipment staff wins:
Titleist – 10
Free agents – 10
TaylorMade – 9
PING – 5
Callaway – 3
Srixon – 2
Wilson – 2
Cobra – 1
PRGR – 1
PXG – 1
— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) August 13, 2018
Whether this trend continues remains to be seen. It’s rumored some players without deals will have new contracts in place as the calendar turns to 2019. But with others rolling off existing deals, you can be sure a handful will test the free agency waters.