The simplest way to a marginal gain? It’s all in the feet

Peter Finnan
Peter Finnan

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Golf has always been a game of fine margins – maybe the ultimate game of fine margins – and this means that the elite players in the game try to fine-tune every aspect of their game and equipment to the nth degree.

Right down to the soles of their shoes and beyond.

Everybody is aware that each and every club in the bag can be bespoke-fit to suit specific swing styles, specific swing speeds, and geared to give the best possible opportunity to deliver the desired outcome on a regular basis.

Most golf ball manufacturers have as many different balls in their ranges as they have competitors in the market – and that’s plenty – and golfers know that as long as the strike is right, the ball will act accordingly, whether they prefer high-spin, low flight, additional carry yardage, or whatever.

But what most people aren’t aware of is that the game’s elite players also have specific spike requirements as well, meaning that from the ground up, they are dialled in.

In amateur circles, spikeless shoes have become commonplace – maybe even pulling ahead of the traditional spiked models that were the predominant golf shoe for the best part of a century – but at the sharp end of the game’s talent, spikes have always been the preferred choice and though spikeless shoes began to grow in popularity as metal spike marks on greens began to cause controversy on the leading tours, that trend is now being reversed and like virtually all other equipment areas, it’s being driven by data.

“It’s a little ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” said Sean Slater Director of Brand & Product Innovation at Softspikes, who have rapidly risen to become the market leader in spike model usage on the PGA Tour, “if you’re not looking at the bottom of your shoes, you’re not thinking about it. So what we’ve done over the past 12-to-18 months is we’ve really put emphasis on the performance aspect. Golfers are so into data, so into Trackman and all the outputs of that, so we’ve really tried to extend the message that not only are we successful on tour, but there are definitely performance benefits for the amateur golfer and proven ones that are in the data and the information and data is so readily available that more and more golfers at lower levels and higher handicaps are looking at it. So we’re trying to marry up the performance data with the tour stats.”

And the tour stats are quite incredible. 94 of the last 100 major winners have done so while wearing Softspikes. While Titleist may be the number one ball on the PGA Tour with roughly an 80 percent representation, their batting average is less than 50 percent when it comes to major championship winners over the same period. Grip? Shaft? Glove? None can boast such a healthy market share. Does this mean that Softspikes make you a major champion in waiting? No, but they clearly help.

“I don’t think there is another product on tour that have the stats levels that we do,” said Slater, “and there definitely isn’t one that isn’t paid. We don’t pay any players to use the product either, which is kind of amazing to think about.”

So, what are the benefits that Softspikes, and primarily the new and improved Tour Flex Pro model, offer? Distance, accuracy, and consistency of strike are the primary gains, but if you’re a little sceptical, I don’t blame you. I know the feeling. But the deeper you delve into the data, the more it starts to make sense.

Because the golf swing is all about delivering the club on the desired path with consistency and with power, a good foundation is required and your feet – and primarily your spikes – are the rooting points for this. So you’ve a better chance of hitting the ball with the centre of the club face more frequently if you’ve got a solid and consistent foundation, and this increases your likelihood of finding that centre of the club face swinging at speed.

And as previously mentioned, there is data to back up the claims. Through several separate tests, Softspikes have brought a series of golfers into a testing lab, provided them with two sets of the exact same model of shoe, the only difference being that one is a spikeless version and the other fitted with Softspikes’ and the players use their own drivers, hitting roughly 10 shots in each set of shoes, and measure the data. Which shoe is used first is rotated from golfer to golfer to avoid fatigue bias or warm-up improvements skewing the results, and the data showed that players had better use of groundforce, better transition and better transition of power, resulting in longer distance off the tee, which was expected, but in finding the centre of the club face more often, accuracy and quality of strike also improved.

“It’s a much better story that we’d ever dreamed of before going into the test,” explains Slater, “but it’s a much more complex story to try to explain. Your swing won’t get one or two mph faster, but the results show you’ll be longer on average.”

Despite having 10 different spike models available, at a variety of price points and in a variety of styles, it is the Tour Flex Pro that has become the spike of choice among Tour pros, and just like elite players use the data to measure performance and choose accordingly, Softspikes did likewise and took the two previous most popular models on Tour and merged them into one, and the Tour Flex Pro is now the first spike to feature 10 points of contact with the ground and sees tour pros switching from metal at a higher rate than ever before.

“Our numbers on Tour are phenomenal,” Slater said with pride, “but they get tested and tried and put on the launch monitors just like a shaft, just like any pieces of equipment that they put in play, and there are always early adopters and others who’ll take more time. When we launched [the Tour Flex Pro] at the [2023] Waste Management Phoenix Open – we have two reps on Tour, just like Titleist or any of the other OEMs – and we had 26 percent of the guys in the field that flipped instantly, no testing, just trusted out guys and put them in their shoes. But every guy got a set put in their locker or sent to their home and then we watched that trend line change over the course of the season. By the time the FedEx Playoffs rolled around, we had 60 percent of the guys in the field wearing them. So, everybody does their due diligence when implementing new products and the consumer should do the same. There aren’t too many serious golfers out there who buy off the rack, test and try it and find what works for you, but there won’t be many consumers who won’t see the benefit.”

Tour pros exist in a different world, of course, and many will have fresh shoes delivered to the tournament venue each week, and these shoes come with the desired spikes already in situ as Softspikes and the shoe manufacturers liaise with each other to ensure that the correct combinations are in place. And just like with wedge or driver setup, players have specific preferences.

“There are a good number of guys that mix Tour Flex Pro and metal, or mix Tour Flex Pro on the leading foot and one of our other brands on the back foot, but that testing process in terms of foundation is a really big part for the Tour pros. But our guys are the best, they can offer up different solutions, different spike patterns to suit different requirements. It’s like a custom fit for the bottom of your shoes and you’re starting to see shoe brands like Nike and Under Armour having shoes [for the regular consumer] come out of the box with different spikes in different places and that’s all Tour inspired, so if that’s what the top players are doing, then it makes sense for the likes of Nike to be doing that.”

Like everything in life, there is a downside, of course, and while spikeless shoes require little additional maintenance, in order to get the full benefit of spiked shoes, the spikes have to be changed regularly as natural wear and tear reduce the grip and advantage the spikes provide.

“We say roughly 15 rounds which shocks people a little, advises Slater, “obviously you can wear them for longer than that but worn spikes are like worn tyres. Can you drive your car on tyres that have 60,000 miles on them? Sure, but if you put new tyres on will you see the difference? Absolutely. And it’s the same for spikes.”

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