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Small companies offer BIG drivers

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Michael Tait and SMT Golf have become something of a legend in the world of long drive competitions. In just three short years, Tait's self-designed drivers have captured four Re/Max Long Drive titles, and a slew of runner-up hardware.

This, then, is the secret the big equipment manufacturers don't want you to know about: Some small companies are making some of the best drivers on the market.

These smaller companies don't have to pay Tour players golf-carts full of loot to wear their logos, so they can sell their drivers for less. On top of that, the smaller volume makes for far better quality control than the mass-marketed behemoth brands.

While the mainstream print media remain beholden to their major equipment advertisers, TravelGolf.com can offer readers news and views on companies about which you may not have heard.yet. Here are four new big sticks from three small but up-and-coming equipment manufacturers.

SMT Golf

Of the eight current drivers made by Oswego, Illinois's SMT Golf, we tested the Spectrum and the Babylon models. Both had 9-degrees of loft and were fitted with stiff Accu-Flex VS 339 shafts.

The Babylon (MSRP $179 for head, head cover, ferrules, lifetime warranty (no shaft or grip))has a titanium face and sole, and weighs five grams less than the Spectrum (MSRP $129 (ditto)), which has some added weight in a sole plate that swoops from the face toward the heel.

On the range at the University of Illinois Golf Courses, Mike Anastasia from Urbana tested out the four drivers under consideration for us. He described the Babylon as, "The straightest of the bunch. Even miss-hits felt good." Of the Spectrum, he commented that, "The weight seemed too much. It feels odd."

At the Gambit in Southern Illinois, Brian Thomas, a 16-handicap State Trooper, had a different reaction to the Spectrum. Thomas has never carried a driver in his bag. "I just can never hit them," he said, before pulling out the Spectrum during a round.

After a slight miss-hit that traveled 280 yards down the center of the fairway, however, Thomas laughed, "I could get used to this one." He continued to hit it well - far more so than any of the other four drivers. "I like the added weight," he said.

KZG Gemini

When Colorado teaching pro Zane Zwemke turned down offers from big-name equipment companies to play their gear, opting instead to stick with his KZ Golf (KZG) forged irons and Gemini driver for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he wasn't trying to make a statement. Zwemke had shot a pair of 58s with the same clubs the previous year.

KZG's Gemini driver (MSRP $419) was originally disallowed by the USGA. The driver si the only one with a dual face - one face plate behind the outer one - and the USGA thought that the design was purposely trying to increase spring-like effect, which is illegal. KZG argued that the dual faced-driver was intended to make it more accurate, not longer, and the USGA relented.

Now fully legal, the Gemini is getting some much deserved attention. We tested the 395cc Gemini, with 9 degrees of loft and fitted with a stiff Nova Tech 7500 shaft. 355cc and 460cc models are also available.

This was my personal favorite of the four driver tested here. I achieved a very straight, piercing ball flight, with carry upwards of 260 yards and roll of another 20-40 yards.

Vortex Golf

At the 2004 PGA Fall Expo in Las Vegas, I ran across a Japanese company called Vortex Golf (vortexgolf.com). Although new to the US, Yugengaisha Rita, as it's known in Japan, is becoming very popular in the Land of the Rising Sun, despite price tags on the drivers there of $1200.

Vortex Golf's VT 420 beta titanium driver (MSRP $349) is the company's first foray into the US, and already it is making noise. In independent lab testing, the Vortex driver outdistanced the SMT Spectrum in carry distance, and tied with the long-driver favorite in total distance. Both clubs blasted the big-name competition out of the water in the same testing.

John Hamarik, a former PGA Tour pro and representative of Vortex Golf, admitted surprise at these results. "We couldn't believe it," he said. However, Vortex CEO and club designer Junichi Harada was less than amazed. Through an interpreter, Harada described the philosophy behind the design, along with that of a propriety non-conforming shaft with a ridge on either side to lessen drag. According to Harada and Hamarik, the little ridges result in swing speed increases of 5 mph or more.

We tested the Vortex VT 420 with 10.5 degrees of loft and a stiff Vortex Technology shaft, and were also impressed. Mike Anastasia commented, "It seems like it's got a lot of spring to it." He hit it farter than his own Wilson Deep Red driver from the first swing, and called it "easier to swing and lighter" than either his or any of the other drivers.

Don Hicks, a 20-handicapper from Indiana, was looking for a replacement for his old Big Bertha, but could never find anything he felt more comfortable with. That is, until he tried the Vortex. "Wow," he said after one large drive straight down the middle, "I simply cannot hit a ball better than that."

Both Anastasia and Hicks offered to buy the Vortex from me. Maybe I should ask for the Japanese price.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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