The 11 biggest equipment stories of the year — ranked!

December 30, 2019

The final few days of 2019 offers up the perfect opportunity to tie a bow on a wild year for equipment, particularly when it comes to what transpired on the course. Hot button topics like driver testing at the Open Championship and Bryson DeChambeau’s countless changes dominated the headlines — but they weren’t the only stories that warranted a spot on this list.

Here’s a look back at the 11 most impactful equipment stories from the past year.

1. Driver testing takes center stage

Who knew Xander Schauffele’s run-in with the R&A over a non-conforming driver at Royal Portrush — it tested one microsecond over the governing body’s legal limit — would turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg for a story that bled into the beginning of the 2019-20 PGA Tour season and forced Ponte Vedra brass to implement new testing protocols in an attempt to get a handle on the situation.

Then a few drivers were deemed to be too spicy at the Safeway Open, the Tour’s first event of the new season. Players and manufacturers have since come forward in an effort to clear the air on a process some feel isn’t quite there.

“They’re not doing everyone — that’s not enough,” said one player during GOLF’s Anonymous Pro Survey.

Needless to say, this is the gear story to watch closely in 2020.

2. Koepka continues to turn down head-spinning money

In a sport where equipment deal financials are rarely discussed, two veteran golf-equipment marketers offered a peek at the money Brooks Koepka is leaving on the table by remaining a gear free agent. Following his win at the PGA Championship — his fourth major title — two sources confirmed to GOLF.com that Koepka is missing out on somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 to $7  per year by not signing an equipment deal (excluding the hat), a figure most would jump at if offered.

Koepka has chosen to remain untethered — he still has a lucrative apparel deal with Nike — passing on not only a full-blown gear deal but upwards of $100,000 just to use his name and likeness for one week following a win. It’s another reminder that Koepka has zero interest in following the Tour pack.

3. Bryson chases long drive speed

Fourteen graphite-shafted clubs. Fourteen-hour range session to fine-tune wedges for the Masters. Graphite wedge shafts dubbed “Texas Rebar.” And did I mention some of the wildest iron grinds this equipment writer has ever seen? Bryson DeChambeau could’ve taken up every spot on this year’s list, but it’s important to give everyone a fighting chance.

In all seriousness, no one was busier than “The Scientist” when it came to tinkering with his gear this year. If you have to pick one change to make this list, it’s probably DeChambeau’s most recent decision to drop the loft on his Cobra King SpeedZone driver from 6.5 degrees to a shocking 4.8 degrees.

Bryson DeChambeau is using a driver with long drive-level loft in Australia.
Bryson DeChambeau is using a driver with long drive-level loft in Australia.
Getty Images

Having bulked up in recent months, DeChambeau’s new strength and speed required him to go down in loft to something usually found on the long drive tours to optimize launch and spin, which is now hovering around 2,000 to 2,300 on good drives. After hitting 129 mph recently, it makes you wonder if DeChambeau will drop the loft again. One can only hope.

4. Henrik says goodbye to a trusty friend

Remember to pour one out for Henrik Stenson’s Callaway Diablo Octane Tour 3-wood as the year comes to a close. Stenson finally came to the realization it was time to move on from his trusty fairway wood after the face caved in during the BMW PGA Championship. When he was unable to find a suitable replacement, Stenson benched the decade-old club permanently in favor of the company’s Epic Flash Sub Zero.

“The model came out in 2009, and the one I had from the beginning gave up in February ’17,” Stenson said. “The replacement was probably 95 percent good but not quite as good as the original one. Now this one gave up and the backup I had was probably 75 percent, so it was time to get something new. Technology’s moved on. Certainly the newer 3-woods are better technology, they go further. So I’ve got the [Callaway] Epic Flash in the bag now instead of the old Diablo Octane.”

Stenson would go on to win the Hero World Challenge with Epic Flash in the bag, so the change seems to be working out for the Swede.

5. Tiger’s secret equipment change

It’s not often that Tiger Woods makes an equipment change and no one notices. That was the case for a few weeks after the 15-time major winner traded in his heavier Mitsubishi Diamana D+ White Board shafts for lighter versions at the Players Championship. But it wasn’t until the Dell Technologies Match Play that I noticed Woods had something different in his TaylorMade driver, 3-wood and 5-wood. The change, while subtle, coincided with an improvement in Woods’ accuracy off the tee — 59 percent in 2018 compared to 65 percent in 2019 — and two wins, including the Masters. It’s worth pointing out Woods’ club head speed went from 120.24 mph (2018) to 118.40 (2019) just prior to the change — a decrease of almost two miles per hour over in one year. Even with lighter shafts, Woods finished 2019 at 117.53 mph in the speed department.

6. Young guns cash in

Golf’s amateur elite command big endorsement dollars when they decide to turn pro. What makes many of these deals a massive risk is the fact that nearly all turn pro without status on any tour. For equipment manufacturers, it’s one of the biggest gambles they’ll make. Thankfully, Ping and TaylorMade didn’t have to sweat their deals with Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff for very long. The trio wasted little time earning their PGA Tour cards — Wolff and Morikawa won shortly after turning pro — justifying the coin spent on them in the gear space.

Morikawa and Wolff even earned spots on TaylorMade’s Christmas card, alongside Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day. It’s safe to say that wasn’t in the cards when they signed big-money club deals six months ago out of school.

7. Bizarre rules infractions

It wouldn’t be a successful PGA Tour season without a couple wild rules infractions. We begin with Russell Henley, who was docked eight shots(!!) for violating the one-ball rule, which states a player can only use a specific brand and model during a competitive round. While handing out balls after signing for 69 at Mayakoba, Henley realized he had two different versions of Titleist’s Pro V1x in the bag: the standard ball and the “Left Dash” version. Even though he unknowingly used both balls during the round, he was forced to tack on eight shots — it was determined the ball had been played on four holes — leaving him outside the cut line.

Harold Varner III suffered a similar fate when his driver cracked prior to the opening round of the Players Championship. Varner assumed the club would be repaired off the course and returned to him during the round — with a conforming head — which is well within the rules of golf. What Varner didn’t anticipate was he’d have to rebuild the club himself after the head and shaft were brought out on the course. Simply building the club on the course instead of outside the ropes wound up costing Varner two shots. Lesson learned.

8. Bobby Jones ‘Calamity Jane’ sells at auction

In what is probably the closest anyone will ever come to owning Bobby Jones’ famed “Calamity Jane” putter, a lucky bidder won a replica version of the putter for less than $80,000. According to the auction house’s website, Spalding partnered with Jones to produce a replica of Calamity Jane from 1932-1935, including one version with a registration number that was reserved for custom orders built to a player’s specifications. Jones would go on to give one of his personal Calamity Jane putters, with the registration number, to club collector Fred X Fry. It’s unclear if Jones ever used the putter, but the simple fact it was in Jones’ possession makes it one of the most coveted clubs to ever hit the market.

9. Justin Rose finds another gear with Axis1

Already considered an elite putter, Rose reached new heights on the greens in 2019 with a relative unknown in Axis1. When Rose’s deal with TaylorMade expired at the end of 2018, he immediately started working with Axis1 founder Luis Pedraza on a custom Rose Proto mallet that would eventually go in play at the beginning of the year. It only took Rose two starts to notch his first win at Torrey Pines with the putter.

“I’d been wanting to use [Axis1] for a couple of years, but hadn’t been able to,” said Rose. “That was a big part of my decision and why I changed equipment.”

Justin Rose uses his Axis1 putter during the 2019 Open Championship.
Justin Rose uses his Axis1 putter during the 2019 Open Championship.
Getty Images

Rose improved in every statistical category on the greens during the 2018-19 Tour season, jumping from 43rd to 3rd in one-putt percentage and 73rd to 8th in three-putt avoidance, while validating Axis1’s technology at the same time. He even improved four spots in Strokes Gained: Putting, finishing the season 17th on Tour.

10. Tommy Fleetwood’s eBay putter

In one of the more amusing equipment stories of the year, Tommy Fleetwood’s caddie, Ian Finnis, decided to get his boss something special for his birthday in January: an older-model Odyssey DFX 2-Ball Blade he reportedly picked up for £90. The putter enjoyed a brief run in Fleetwood’s bag — it was the same model he used growing up — before he returned to his usual White Hot Pro #3. But with the putter running hot and cold toward the end of the season, Fleetwood again went back to the 2-Ball Blade in Switzerland, at the Omega European Masters, where he opened with 65. The round included an astounding 21 putts, which isn’t too shabby. There’s something about bargain putters that seems to bring out the best in the tour’s elite.

11. Francesco Molinari signs with Callaway

Most new equipment deals are announced shortly after the beginning of the year. In Francesco Molinari’s case, Callaway waited until March to unveil the 2018 Open champion as their prized signing. The deal had a few twists and turns that started when Molinari, who was a free agent at the time, arrived with a non-descript stand bag full of Callaway clubs at the Tour’s winners-only event in Hawaii. Molinari claimed he “was just testing,” but it wasn’t long after that he donned a Callaway lid at Bay Hill to make the deal official. Molinari would go on to win at Arnie’s place, putting an exclamation point on a massive week for the equipment brand.

To hear more gear insights from Jonathan Wall and True Spec’s Tim Briand, subscribe and listen each week to GOLF’s Fully Equipped podcast: iTunes | SoundCloud | Spotify | Stitcher