Ever since a 2003 "Golf Digest" study said that most golfers needed more loft on their drivers, the quest for the "correct" loft has heated up. More loft means numerically higher--a 12-degree driver has more loft than a 9-degree. But although we can say for sure that most golfers need more loft than they now use, the exact amount depends on several different aspects of their swings.
Carry vs. Roll
The real point of contention in the driver-loft debate comes down to whether you get more distance from carry or roll. A driver with more loft carries the ball farther, but it rolls less after it lands; a driver with less loft does not carry the ball as far, but it rolls a long way. Many experts believe that carry is the most important because carry gives you the most distance in wet weather. If conditions are hard and fast, the lower-trajectory driver might roll farther overall, but all drivers will get more roll in those conditions.
Originally, swing speed was considered the determining factor in choosing loft, and it is still important. Players with extremely slow swing speeds (below 70 mph) seem to benefit from lofts of 18 or 19 degrees--roughly the same as a 5-wood. Likewise, it appears that you need a swing speed of 100 mph or more to benefit from a driver with 10 degrees of loft or less. Swing speed is only one component of the puzzle, but it is still the most basic component when choosing your driver’s loft.
If you search the web for tables matching swing speed to loft, you will find widely varying figures. That is because the launch angle (the actual angle to the ground at which the ball leaves the clubface) is determined by more than just swing speed. A good launch angle is what we are after; slower swings require higher launch angles. Driver loft helps determine this angle, but so does your angle of attack when you swing. If you hit down on the ball, it comes off the face lower and requires more driver loft; if you hit up on the ball, it comes off higher and requires less loft.
Ultimately the spin rate of your ball must be taken into account. When players change balls and gain yardage, it is because the spin rate of that ball is better suited to the swing-speed, driver-loft and angle-of-attack combination the player already uses. Slower swing speeds require higher ball spin rates to achieve the correct launch angle; higher swing speeds work better with lower spin rates.
A Starting Point
For all the differing recommendations you might hear, there is one thing we can say for sure: Although most players buy drivers with 9 to 10 degrees of loft, they will probably get a better launch angle with 12 to 16 degrees. The actual loft you choose will depend on your swing speed, your ball’s spin characteristics, and your swing’s angle of attack. A good club fitter with a launch monitor can help you make the right choice.