Why Titleist’s driver count win at the Sony Open deserves a closer look

Justin Thomas' Titleist TS3 driver.
Jonathan Wall

Every week on the PGA Tour, a winner emerges from the field — be it on the course or in the head-to-head battles waged between equipment manufacturers vying for usage from the best players in the world. Given that many players are under contract for their clubs and golf ball, it’s sometimes difficult to sift through the marketing-speak to find an equipment count win worth highlighting.

But every so often a brand’s wins at a particular event warrants a closer look to determine if it’s an aberration or part of a larger trend.

The latest example is Titleist’s driver count win at the Sony Open, where the brand outpaced the field with 45 drivers in play, according to this week’s Darrell Survey results, compared the nearest competitor with 32. Taking a closer look, 38 of those drivers were Titleist’s new TS Series, with 11 players switching to the driver for the first time in Hawaii.

To be clear: Titleist’s recent driver count win is a small sample size. With the meat of the Tour schedule ahead, equipment usage can change rapidly. That being said, the driver win was significant for a number of reasons: It broke an 18-year drought for Titleist, which last won a driver count at the 2001 PGA Championship. And in terms of non-major driver wins, you have to go back to the 2000 Buick Open.

Not only did Titleist win the driver count, but they also swept the board in every major club category at Waiʻalae — an impressive feat that almost never happens at the highest level of professional golf. But we’re not here to talk about across-the-board count wins.

Justin Thomas was one of the first players to switch to Titleist’s TS3 driver last season.

So what are we to make of Titleist’s recent driver count victory? During a recent trip to Carlsbad, Titleist’s VP of golf club marketing, Josh Talge, admitted TS needed to be markedly better than its predecessor, with an emphasis placed specifically on increasing clubhead and ball speed.

“We wanted to get rid of the slow, spinney label that had been placed on Titleist drivers in recent years,” said Talge. “We measured every little thing to get better results, with the goal of creating a club that’s considerably faster than anything we’ve created in the past.”

From a Tour standpoint, Titleist’s push for more speed appears to be paying off early in the year, based solely on the numbers that have switched to the driver, especially those available players (Kyle Stanley, Kevin Tway and Troy Merritt) who came over to the driver but didn’t sign full line deals.

Titleist even shook things up with the TS driver launch on Tour, releasing it earlier than usual at the U.S. Open — a move that provided the club with some early visibility and saw Justin Thomas switch the first week it was available.

“It’s a couple miles per hour faster,” Thomas said of the TS3 driver. “It’s anywhere from 176, 177 to low 180 miles per hour. It’s nothing monumental or something you guys will be watching me and noticing a difference, but it’s a little bit faster.”

Of course, there’s another angle that needs to be analyzed when it comes to a possible driver count shift on Tour. TaylorMade, which won every PGA Tour, World Golf Championship and major driver count during the 2017-18 season, is unlikely to repeat the feat this year due to the significantly reduced Tour-player staff the brand now employs — only five staffers are listed on its website.

TaylorMade’s decision to partly back out of the driver arms race helped Callaway and Ping pick up one “win” apiece during the fall portion of the season; TaylorMade still logged six wins. With the calendar turning to 2019, the potential is there for another brand to gain ground.

So far, it appears Titleist could benefit the most from the shift. It’s unlikely it will win every count this season — Callaway, Ping and TaylorMade are all firmly entrenched in the discussion — but with the rise in usage early on, and the early success of TS, a potential changing of the guard could be in the works. The next few months should give us a good idea if Titleist, or another manufacturer, is going to take over the most-played-driver-on Tour tag.