- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

They’re loud, ugly, high and mostly straight.

No, we’re not talking about the Rolling Stones.

We’re talking about the most radical drivers to roll off of golf’s assembly line this season.

In fact, the Nike SasQuatch Sumo2 and Callaway FT-i don’t roll at all, because both feature square heads designed to maximize accuracy off the tee for moderate to high handicappers.

Several years back, golf’s billion dollar equipment industry was fixated on COR (Coefficient of Restitution). Callaway’s famed (or infamous, according to the U.S. Golf Association) ERC driver took the spring-like effect to new levels, forcing the nation’s governing body to adopt strict guidelines limiting COR in subsequent clubs.

Now that COR is passe, the industry’s acronym du jour is MOI, which stands for Moment of Inertia.

In layman’s terms, MOI measures the amount a clubhead twists or torques on impact. The less a club twists, the more likely it is to produce a straighter ball flight. Club manufacturers have been aware of MOI for years. It was MOI-based physics that yielded the perimeter-weighting and cavity-backed boom several decades back. The science is simple: The farther a golfer moves the weight from the center of the face, the more he or she minimizes the effects of a mis-hit, basically creating a larger “sweetspot.”

Pushing this theory to its ultimate dimensions and well past the bounds of aesthetic concern, designers at Nike and Callaway recently determined that a square-shaped driver would maximize MOI. Thus were born the SUMO2 and FT-1, not the only clubs in this “hip-to-be-square” category but the industry’s top sellers.

“They’re both selling well,” said Buddy Christiansen, senior vice president at Golfdom’s superstore in McLean. “There was some concern about how they’d perform when they first hit the market because the emphasis with the square-headed drivers is on accuracy and not necessarily length. The SUMO2 started out pretty hot and is still steady, but the FT-i is selling so well that I’m having trouble keeping them in stock.”

It’s unlikely a top tour player will pack a square shillelagh anytime soon, although Tiger Woods did test-drive the SUMO2 during his recent U.S. Open recon mission to Oakmont. Tour players rarely miss the sweet spot with their tools, and most prefer to be able to shape shots right or left off the tee, an ability intentionally diminished by the MOI-maximizing square design.

And most single-digit players won’t see much benefit from the square set unless they are exceedingly wild off the tee. But these clubs are worth a demo for a mid- to high-handicapper who struggles with accuracy off the tee. Or a 50-year-old Spaniard who hasn’t visited a fairway since 1985; Callaway and Nike should both ship samples to Seve Ballesteros before his debut season on the Champions Tour ends in a missing person report.

Armed with the SUMO2 (SUper MOment of Inertia Squared), FT-i and conventional standby (TaylorMade R7 Quad), we headed out on the range recently for an informal field test (see chart) of the boxy big sticks.

The first thing we noticed upon address is that both of these clubs look huge from above, particularly the Nike. The images conjured by its SasQuatch SUMO title are both appropriate.

Upon impact, we saw that both are loud, even cannon-like. If either ever becomes a staple in Joe Hack’s bag, earplugs will become a standard driving range accouterment.

Next, we were amazed at the mortar-style trajectory produced by both clubs, particularly the Callaway. Anyone who can’t get the FT-i airborne should consider buying a tennis racquet.

And finally, we noticed improved accuracy over conventional drivers with both clubs, particularly for high-handicappers.

A decrease in distance relative to the conventional driver was in evidence for both our single-digit and midrange handicapper, though many among us would be wise to sacrifice a few yards for a few more hit fairways.

Neither club comes cheap; the FT-i costs $499 and the SUMO2 $399. But in the final analysis, the greatest hurdle to the potential success of either club could be simple aesthetics.

Golfers always have rated relatively high on the sports vanity meter. With the notable exception of the visor, golfers rarely don unfashionably ugly attire or equipment. It’s important to note the garish Lillie Rubin slacks of the 1970s and ghastly geometric patterns of the 1980s were considered haute couture in their day.

The long putter has nearly managed to overwhelm its image with a raft of positive practical results. But it’s probable the square driver will go the way of the neon ball. It’s just, well, ugly.

As our midrange handicapper lamented after experiencing notably improved accuracy with the FT-i:

“I just can’t get over the fact that it looks like I’m playing with a piece of burnt toast,” he said. “I’m just not sure that feeling is worth a couple more fairways a round.”

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