The Equipment Insider

Persimmon drivers still have a place in the game

In golf, technology tends to render a lot of the past obsolete. But if there is a persimmon driver still sitting around in a closet or garage, put it in the bag and go have some fun

Recently I played Palatka Golf Club, a hidden Donald Ross gem in northeast Florida, with a couple of single-digit-handicap players. One of them teed off with a persimmon driver, mishit the ball slightly, but it shot forward and chased down the center of the fairway. He turned and told the group, “I think everyone should play these types of courses with a persimmon in the bag. It eliminates so many mistakes.”

The concept sounded counterintuitive, but I came around to his opinion.

Persimmon drivers eliminate their share of mistakes, reward good shots, allow for better play on classic courses, and are just more fun. Though metal woods started coming into market in the 1980s, it still took a while for players to fully convert. Bernhard Langer is believed to be the last player to win a major championship (1993 Masters) while using a persimmon driver.

A selling point of modern drivers is not just their distance, but their corrective nature on poorly mishit shots. They do this by eliminating spin, which prevents a shot that starts right of the fairway, for example, from careening even further right. However, it doesn’t encourage the ball back to the fairway. That’s not necessarily the case with a wooden driver.

Tiger Woods once talked with GolfTV about the difference between the wood and metal drivers. He said: “The gear effect is incredible. You hit the ball off the heel, it starts so far left. You hit the ball off the toe, it starts so far right. But it always comes back. Our drivers don’t come back anymore. They don’t have that gear effect.”

Couple that with research, conducted by MyGolfSpy, on average distance gained between metal and persimmon drivers. Of eight golfers with swing speeds between 70 and 100 miles per hour, research found an average of 20-plus yards greater distance with a modern driver. So with a modern driver, a ball that travels in the wrong direction is going to do so 20 yards farther.

When playing a classic course like Palatka, one that measures out at 6,000 yards, but requires strategy off every tee, modern drivers are too big for the course. Certainly they help poorer players make contact, but they don’t help them become better, let alone to strategic shape shots.

Modern drivers reward bombing the ball over and around trouble into … trouble that wasn’t created for tee shots. Classic courses are designed to reward good shots in specific fairway landing areas, not turn every moderately distanced par 4 into a risk/reward. And for most players wielding a modern driver, they need to take less risk.

Persimmon drivers were popular until metal woods were introduced and began encroaching on market share in the 1980s.

Additionally, for an average amateur, there is an unforeseen impediment to improving their game. Every time a golfer is forced to hit a flip wedge into a green instead of a low to mid iron, they lose the chance to become a better ball striker.

Before this devolves into a distance debate, it’s important to note that the point of golf, for most, is as much the enjoyment of the course as it is the competition. Playing a course like it was designed is a rewarding experience.

Adding a persimmon into the bag doesn’t replace the modern driver, but it does open up a multitude of courses and styles of play that have fallen by the wayside.

A counter, however, is that persimmon isn’t for every golfer.

Said Eric Johnson, a top-100 golf teacher in America and director of golf at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa.: “I am not sure that persimmon would be a good idea for most players. The average player struggles with distance and I think the number is 10 to 15 percent [of players who can] break 85.”

If experience and enjoyment trump distance, though, then consider putting a persimmon club in the bag.

Woods, in the same GolfTV interview, discussed giving Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler a persimmon to play. They each enjoyed the experience so much that they went out and bought their own. Then they paired them with balata balls and posted videos on social media boasting about the experience.

If they are willing to sacrifice distance to enjoy older equipment for a round or two, then it speaks to the enjoyment of the experience.

Consider the resurgence of vinyl records. There are many more efficient and effective ways to listen to music these days — radio, phone, computer — but with vinyl, the audio quality is higher and the experience os more enjoyable.

Newer technology opens the game up to more players of varying abilities, but it doesn’t mean that older equipment is bad. It just means there is a place and time, like in your bag on the first moderately distanced par 4 at an early-to-mid 20th century designed course.

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