Golf enthusiasts are always surprised by the number of brands and products available from Japan whenever they visit Tourspecgolf.com for the first time. The USA has the largest population of golfers by a long shot yet the Japanese golf market is more than twice the size of the US Market when it comes to dollars (yen in Japan of course). Its the size of the Japanese market that allows for a vortex of brands to exist and the strength of he market that allows for a higher tier of premium and boutique brands which add to the already huge selection of clubs available to Japanese consumers. Even top US manufacturers like Taylormade, Titleist, Callaway and others all recognize the buying power of the Japanese consumer and continue to churn out high end Japan Market only products that compete with Japanese brands. What this equals is choice for the consumer as evidence by a selection over over 100 driver models from no less than 40 brands.
While the Japanese consumer is obviously willing to spend as witnessed by club prices triple and even quadruple other markets, they are demanding consumers who want only the best for their yen. The competition is fierce among brands, so in most cases no expense is spared when it comes to design, materials and manufacturing which is very much reflected in the prices. This no holds barred type of manufacturing is what gives birth to these premium lines as well as premium brands here in Japan. One of Japan’s top premium brands that most outside of these borders probably have yet to learn about is S-Yard Golf.
S-Yard which was formerly under the Seiko umbrella but is now independent, has been producing premium forged golf clubs for 20 years. Back in 1993 S-yard produced the world’s first all forged Titanium driver called the T.301 which they produced at the Endo factory. The T.301 was designed by Kenji Kobayashi, who not only went on to become the president of Endo manufacturing, the worlds largest and highest quality forging house, but also one of the most respected and revered figures in the Japanese golf industry over the last 20 years. Mr. Kobayashi’s designs, and knowledge of golf club manufacturing as well as the creation of the T.301 Forged driver led many in the industry to refer to him as the “father of forged Titanium drivers”. In 2001 he officially became the president of Endo manufacturing where he also took over the reigns of Endo’s private brand Epon Golf. Many golf enthusiasts will be familiar with many of his Epon designs including the Technica and Technity series, as well as more recently the AF line all the way up to the ZERO driver and Z:EN putter.
While the Epon brand grew under Mr. Kobayashi’s leadership even during a poor economic climate in Japan, other brands were not as lucky as many premium brands struggled to establish a focus in the Japanese market. In the mid 90*s during Mr. Kobayashi’s influence, S-Yard was a brand of choice among better golfers and younger players. Golf enthusiasts had to have an S-Yard forged driver in their bags. As most other Japanese brands began producing forged drivers as well, S-Yard went through some harder times in the last decade, refocusing the brand and targeting older more premium golfers looking for distance. This strategy narrowed the target audience for S-Yard clubs as many models became longer and lighter trying to gain distance for the older golfer. S-Yard had lost a large portion of its loyal following and was struggling to redefine itself and its new vision.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011. Mr. Kobayashi decided it was time to retire as the president of Endo and open up some free time to enjoy the recreational side of golf after 40 yeas of being involved in the business side of golf. His retirement did not last long as S-Yard came calling as they knew Mr. Kobayashi would be the man to lead their brand back to and beyond the same lofty heights of success it had before. Early 2012, Mr. Kobayashi became the president of S-Yard in charge of the direction of the company as well as golf club design.
Back in December I was lucky enough to get invited to S-Yard’s Ginza headquarters to meet with Mr. Kobayashi and his staff to talk about S-Yard’s direction moving forward. Though I have run into Mr. Kobayashi every year at various golfing functions here in Japan, it had been nearly 5 years since we sat down and talked and the last time was in Niigata at the Endo Factory in early 2008. Being a gear head, it was awesome to be able to sit down with someone as experienced and respected as Mr. Kobayashi and listen to him talk about golf club design and and how it has evolved over the years. It’s no wonder other high respected design experts like Roger Cleveland go out of their way to meet with Mr. Kobayashi when they come to Japan. When Mr. Kobayashi talks about golf clubs, you can see the passion and excitement in his eyes and as he recapped some of his history to me including work with top US pros from brands like Titleist and Callaway, I could easily share his excitement with him.
The S-Yard building is a cozy 6 floor structure in the hear of Ginza. We sat and talked in the meeting room and then headed over to Mr. Kobayashi’s “OFFICE”. The elevator opens up to a nicely laid out showroom which you can see two pictures above. Along with the current S-Yard lineup, glass cabinets show off molds of drivers including the T.301 which and other models which were designed by Mr. Kobayashi. I looked around the showroom for a door to an office but could not find one. Mr. Kobayashi gestured me over to the side of the showroom which featured a little work space no more than a 5 feet by 5 feet space then looked at me and said “Welcome to my office”. After learning about Mr. Kobayashi’s background, I was not surprised his office was a small work shop rather than a big office with mahogany desk and leather sofas which is the image I have of typical executive offices . No fountain pens, or fancy paper weights, only the tools of a creator.
Mr. Kobayashi’s glasses are always on the work table where he tells me he spends much of the day grinding and sanding molds, making calculations and measurements. “My head is full of designs and this is where I can bring them to life”, he tells me. He says its destiny that he is able to end up back at S-Yard designing clubs after creating the T.301 20 years ago. “For me to be able to give it my all, at this stage in my life and career, to be able to put forth my final ideas, its like the icing on the cake”, he explains. “I can truly leave the golf industry as a satisfied man after this new challenge at S-Yard.” When Mr. Kobayshi was at Endo, he was supported by a huge design team, but took it upon himself to make Epon a world wide brand with no compromise when it comes to quality. He lead Epon through its most important stages of growth including as I mentioned above the Technica and Technity lines as well as AF models before he left. S-Yard has no where near the resources of Endo (though Endo does produce their clubs), so Mr. Kobayashi has only himself to depend on as he leads a re-birth of the S-Yard brand.
In full circle, Mr Kobayashi’s first focus at S-Yard was to create an all new driver. He decided to pay homage to the original forged driver of golf he created, the T.301 by designing an all all forged premium driver. Mr. Kobayashi’s understanding of Endo’s capabilities as the worlds most advanced and premium forging house allowed him to take advantage of their use of premium materials and high tech production to create a compact driver that athlete and better golfers could fall in love with again but without sacrificing usability that could appeal to a wider audience. After countless months of creating molds in his “office” and contemplating materials and internal head design, the new T.388 Forged driver was born.
S-Yard’s new T.388 Forged driver is a culmination of Endo’s best materials and technologies and packed into a compact driver designed for maximum performance. Mr. Kobayshi explained that besides a driver that looks good and has good materials and manufacturing, the internal design ie, face and sweet spot and CG placement are essential to optimal performance. Japanese manufacturers went through a stage of high launching, huge driver heads which is not what the T.388 is. Mr. Kobayashi wanted to create a beautiful traditional shape, but with high forgiveness, and a powerful trajectory with ultra low spin. Real lofts and specs thanks to Endo’s ultra tight tolerances as well as the best manufacturing technologies will certainly appeal to the most hardcore golfers and enthusiasts.
The S-Yard T.388 features an active head structure with an advanced hybrid cup face featuring variable thickness lateral “RIBS” which work to increase ball speeds and enhance feel at impact. The cup face is plasma welded to the body creating a huge sweet spot. The hot VL Titanium cup face overlapping the strong 15-3-3-3 sole create maximum energy repulsion resulting in increased ball speeds at impact. Mr. Kobayashi explained that the cup face is essential design aspect especially with the smaller head, as many older drivers used insert style faces which significantly reduced the performance of the face of a driver. The cup face essentially increases the hitting area of the face even though the T.388 is a smaller driver.
The image below illustrates the variable thickness “RIBS” that curve laterally across the face. The curvature of the ribs and the varying thickness allows the T.388 to increase it’s CT Value even on off center areas. CT stands for “Characteristic Time” and measures the amount of time the balls stays in contact with the face. In other words, while many golfers look at COR, CT which is a component of COR, in fact measures the responsiveness of a drivers face at impact, or its impact efficiency and spring like effect. The T.388 strives to achieve a maximum allowed CT Value which equals increased efficiency in energy transfer and ultimately more potential distance.
The T.388 is designed to produce a strong trajectory with very low spin. The Center of Gravity is short and shallow thanks to having the rear portion of the sole chemically milled to TAKE AWAY weight from the back sides. This allowed S-Yard to move the CG forward in the center head. The shorter center of gravity allows the head to rotate naturally for a square impact. This is unlike many drivers on the market today which have long and huge gravity angles which force the head to rotate very quickly causing better players to over rotate the head. Improved ability to square up to the ball equals increased ball speeds and more distance and accuracy. Mr. Kobayashi specifically designed the head to create “a balanced synergy” as he calls it, between launch, trajectory and spin to prevent ballooning and to maximize carry and run.
With many drivers today feature metallic and gradient looking crowns, Mr. Kobayashi decided on simple matte black finish. His explanation for this was that gradient and reflective metallic looking crowns reflect light different depending on the angle of the sun. This changes the apperance and the shape of the head and creates a lack of consistency at address. The matte black finish clearly shows the contours and shape of the head and allows you to frame the ball up perfectly no matter what the conditions are. I personally love the look and may players who prefer simple and clean will definitely be drawn to this heads shape and finish, especially the way it looks at address.
The stock shaft was picked out by Mr. Kobayashi himself and is based on a prototype at Graphite Design. The 65g Tour AD T.388 is a cross between the low spin and feel of a DI series shaft and the control of the BB shaft. It features a mid/hich kick point which keeps the trajectory down and a mid range torque rating which translates into better feel as well as great load and release. The great thing about this shaft us that its matte black finish match the crown of the T.388 perfectly. It is a really nice complement. Mr. Kobayashi decided on a length of 45.25″ for the T.388 which is very manageable for a wide variety of players. Too many drivers these days are too long in length, and while a longer driver can help increase swing speed, striking the center consistently can suffer from length.
I’ve been testing the driver over the course of a month and to be honest, I was intimidated at first at the prospect of hitting a 388cc driver. My first session was around new years and I brought the T.388 with perhaps one of the most forgiving drivers in golf, the Ryoma D-1 to the World Golf driving range in Sakura. These are two very different drivers, with the Ryoma being a larger 460cc head with much deeper and lower CG thanks to all the weight at the back of the head. The face of the Ryoma is also considerably taller and the gravity angle considerably larger. We all know the Ryoma is a distance king and on paper, for an average golfer like myself, this was not a fair fight.
I should note the Ryoma is a 10.5* and has a Crazy Royal Decoration shaft in it while the T.388 demo I had was a 10.5* with the stock Tour AD SR flex. I started off with the Ryoma which has been my gamer for over a year and warmed up with it since I knew there would be no surprises. The Ryoma performed as it always did, pretty straight, great distance, good run. Next up was the T.388 and its quite a change setting up with a larger head 460cc driver and then suddenly going to a pear shaped T.388. I brought the tee height down and set up for my first driver. Looking down at the ball as I prepared to strike the T.388 for the first real time, I could not help but admire the finish, the shape of the head and the way it framed the ball. My first drive with the T.388 was dead straight, and right away I noticed the trajetory was considerably stronger than my Ryoma, very penetrating. But what blew me away is when it hit the ground and just keep running. It was just as long as the Ryoma, maybe even longer thanks to the run.
I continued to hit the T.388 paying more attention to where I was hitting it on the face as well as the feel of the face and the shaft. With the T.388 being not very deep and a lower tee up, its harder to miss the ball up and down on the face. My typically miss is towards the toe or the heel anyway which is common for the average golfer as they sometimes cast the club out or tighten up and pull their hands closer to their bodies. Watching the strike pattern on the face of the T.388 showed misses slightly towards the toe and slightly towards the heel. Distance and ball flight wise, I could barely tell I missed. When I start missing, it can usually become disasterous as I try and adjust, however in this first session I can’t say I really had a big miss with the T.388, it was so much more forgiving than I had expected. Of center hits tried very hard to stay online and would all have landed in the fairway without much distance lost. I was very surprised and my fear of the 388cc size was dissipating. The all forged T.388 head is a pleasure to feel, its solid and soft, no metallic tingy sounds, you get that nice suck it in and shoot it out feel, and this is with hard driving range balls.
At 4.5* of torque, the stock Tour AD shaft has quite good feel to. You can feel the shaft load and unload and it complements the drivers CG location with its mid/high kick point. Some say Tour AD shafts play softer, I think the stock shaft is true to flex but some may perceive it as softer due to the torque and feel. Since that surprising first range session, I’ve been testing the driver on and off for a month. Usually when I have a new driver and I go for a round, I typically bring my Ryoma as well in case something goes wrong with the driver I am testing (I only have 13 clubs in the bag so two drivers is common for me). Needless to say I ended up developing enough confidence that I could head out with only the S-Yard. So to sum it all up. Mr Kobayashi has created something special and folks here in Japan have already taken notice as witnessed by all the press coverage he has been getting regarding the T.388. The first batch of 500 drivers sold out immediately here in Japan and they are on their second and third batch currently with a projected 2000 piece production limit. People have embraced the smaller heads looks, surprising ease of use, great feel and top notch performance. I’ve come away with more confidence that I can play the smaller head and I now know what those guys felt like in the mid 90’s when everyone wanted a forged Titanium driver in their bags. Thank you to Mr. Kobayashi and S-Yard for making it happen.
This year will be a very exciting time for S-Yard as Mr. Kobayashi works to create several new products to enhance the brands attractiveness to a wider audience of golfers… more choice for us all is always a good thing right?