What would you pay for five more yards? The forces behind the rising cost of equipment
Photograph by Sam Kaplan
Depending on your current attitude toward money, the clubs on this year’s Hot List might seem expensive. Four of the 10 winning drivers have a retail price of $600 or more, and that’s before a custom-fit shaft could easily bump your total to over a grand. A gold-medal super-game-improvement iron that received five stars in each of our rating criteria costs $450 per iron.
When I was a junior editor working my first Hot List in 2006, mostly fetching range balls and coffee but also learning a ton, drivers cost $300, and the fanciest iron was $138 per.
We’ve all come to understand the pandemic in part through our wallets. Supply-chain kinks and the increased cost of labor have forced sellers to raise prices, and pent-up demand has combined with stimulus packages to make consumers happier to pay them, but basic inflation is just a small part of golf ’s story.
The engineering has become very sophisticated. Since my first Hot List, the top-five equipment companies have spent more than a billion dollars in research and development, exploring the kinds of materials used in aeronautics, high-rise architecture and surgery. Callaway recently designing eight software programs for machine learning or TaylorMade building a clubhead almost exclusively from carbon isn’t cheap. The prices in your golf shop reflect the cost of innovating within the rules.
My good friend Jonathan Ellsworth is the founder and editor-in-chief of Blister, which produces the premier product reviews in skiing, mountain biking, running and climbing (or pretty much everything I dream about when I’m not dreaming about golf). These days the best mountain bikes sell quickly at $10,000 and $11,000, prices that would have been considered bonkers a decade ago, Ellsworth says, because there has been seemingly no limit to our ability to make individual components—derailleurs, brakes, wheel sets—lighter yet also more durable. But the same price escalation hasn’t occurred in skiing, where manufacturers still do a fair bit of handwringing over raising the price of a new boot by $25. “There’s still this respect for the ski bum and ski-bum culture,” Ellsworth says. “But ultimately it’s about performance. I can take out my favorite pair of skis from seven years ago and have an awesome day, but if I rode a mountain bike from seven years ago, it would feel comparatively like trash. The mountain bike manufacturers aren’t gouging us; the products they make are objectively better.”
I feel the same way about drivers from seven years ago.
To some folks, price is the most important factor when shopping. To others, namely anyone dropping 11 large on a bike or a proximate amount on a fully revamped bag driver through putter, it’s the least important. Because money is so personal, we eliminated Demand as a criterion. Demand had been our assessment of the market interest and intrigue around a product, which included price. Input from golf manufacturers and leading retailers as well as an independent analysis of the Hot List process by Deloitte Consulting converged on one truth: Golfers want to know how clubs perform, and they’ll factor cost on their own.
Not to get hung up on drivers, but what would you pay for five more yards off the tee? The right new head with the right shaft can unlock much more, of course, but I’ve been playing so long that I have resigned myself to modest hopes. Each time I buy a new driver I enjoy a honeymoon phase of glorious bangers, but then the magic tapers, and I find myself hitting generally the same irons into greens again, maybe half a club less. But, hey, five yards is real. According to the software powered by my Arccos sensors, I could save one-third of a shot per round with five more yards—or a full shot in a 54-hole tournament. As a bonus, I would get to tell my buddies they’re away that many more times.
But for fear of my wife reading this, I won’t disclose what I would pay for five more.