Ten Rounds with Callaway Steelhead XR Irons

Fifteen years ago I had a set of Steelhead X-14 irons from Callaway Golf. They were actually released in 2000 and though at the time they were cutting edge design Callaway’s new Steelhead XRs would blow them away in a side by side comparison—that is if I still had the X-14s.

Besides the name the newest model has a similar head shape, particularly at address with a somewhat more rounded toe, the X-14s longer looking blade length and a revamped bore-through hosel. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the XRs are merely an updating of some model pushing its 20th anniversary. They are also more than an update of the XR model from 2015 though both fall into the category of iron most of us should be playing…namely game-improvement.

Steelhead XRs are a modern game-improvement iron suitable for even low handicappers looking for an easy-to-hit forgiving club.

After extensive on-course time the benefits of Callaway’s 360 face cup construction were very evident and never more so than on off center impacts. The distance produced when hit in the center of the face is impressive but to me more significant is how far the ball when the impact wasn’t in the exact center.

Steelhead XRs’ bore-through hosel allows weight from the heel area to be shifted closer to the impact area so the center of gravity is dead in the center of the face. As Dr. Alan Hocknell, Callaway’s senior vice president of R&D, points out not all irons are able to do that. “We’ve used the lightness of this hosel to get that weight distribution and put the CG right there.”

Game-improvement irons don’t have progressive center of gravity placement but the Steelhead XR long irons have it low and back in the head while the mid-irons have the CG mid-back and the short irons have a low mid placement to help the ball flighting and spin control. So decide for yourself but that sounds very close to being progressive as the loft increases.

Of particular note, living in Florida where the wind blows almost all day every day, the ability of an iron to produce different trajectory shots is a must. The Steelhead XRs did that very well. As an example during a morning round one of the par-3s, which plays slightly downhill, had a light breeze helping left to right. The shot called for a 6-iron which I hit into the middle of the green.

Late that afternoon, having gone back out and playing the same hole, the wind had strengthened and switched to directly into us. I felt a 6-iron was still the club but hit the shot about half the height of the morning, again to the middle of the green.

It’s helpful to be playing clubs that not only will do that but more importantly after some experience with them gave me the confidence to even attempt those totally different shots.

Negatives: The basic trajectory of the Steelhead XRs is higher than some will like if they already are high ball hitters. Though they should be attractive to low handicap players since the amount of offset is minimal and the forgiveness is evident with every swing, some may want a more of a “players’ iron” look at address.

Recommendation: Callaway is on a roll with the entire iron line and if your to-do list this summer has a line item for the purchase of new game-improvement category irons the Steelhead XRs are a great choice. A set of 5-iron through pitching wedge is $600.

Images courtesy of Callaway Golf                                                                                                          

 

It’s “All-World” at THE PLAYERS

This week is the almost-a-major started by former PGA Tour commissioner Dean Beman, THE PLAYERS played over the ever challenging TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course with perhaps the most famous hole in golf, the island green par-3 17th. Printable descriptions of Sawgrass, a creation of Pete and Alice Dye, might include long, fairly tight, lots of water and challenging greens.

The greens have all been redone since last year and several other changes will offer challenges to the field which includes 48 of the top 50 in the world rankings. In addition to new putting surfaces players will contend with a new lake between the sixth and seventh holes and the redesign of number 12 into a risk/reward drivable par-4.

Candidates to hoist the trophy next Sunday include last year’s champion Jason Day who at the time held the top spot in the world rankings. Unfortunately for Day his level of play so far in 2016-2017 after a back problem in the fall hasn’t been exactly stellar with only one top 10 and missing the cut at his last outing, the Zurich Classic.

And there’s another factor that doesn’t bode well for the Australian, no champion has ever successfully defended. In fact Rickie Fowler missed the cut in 2016 after his thrilling playoff win in 2015.

Speaking of Fowler he’s our pick for the most likely former winner to win at Sawgrass. Outside of the missed cut in New Orleans his worse finish since January was a tie for 16th at the WGC-Mexico Championship and includes his win at the Honda Classic plus a nice tie for 11th at the Masters.

In the mix come next Sunday but probably not in the running for various reasons are world number two Rory McIlroy, Olympic bronze medalist Justin Rose and Kevin Chappell a first time winner at the Valero Texas Open. Chappell was the runner-up in 2016 to Day so he plays the Dye’s creation well.

No discussion of potential winners would be complete without Jordan Spieth who had a win early in the year and five top-tens this season. His last five starts though are not exactly spectacular with a T-12, T-30, Cut, T-11 and fourth at the Zurich Classic. He’s such a good player though it’s tough to count him out of any competition.

Well any way now down to my picks.

Most Likely Former Champion to Win: Rickie Fowler as discussed above.

Most Likely Rookie to Win: Jon Rahm – Is there any other choice? Watching Rahm is exciting. He’s long off the tee, a crisp iron player, deft around the greens and a superb putter. Rahm was a factor at the Wells Fargo last week, finishing in fourth, even though he started the final round with a bogey plus on the par-5 sixth made a six and he is usually great on the par-5s.

Most Likely Recent Major Winner to win: Sergio Garcia – the volatile Spaniard hasn’t played in this country since his Masters win last month but seemed to exhibit a maturity in the taming of Augusta possibly related to his coming marriage and the influence of his fiancée. He was going to be my pick for THE PLAYERS until “All-World” Dustin Johnson returned to the Wells Fargo Championship.

Most Likely “Go to the Bank” Player to Win: Dustin Johnson – We all were wondering if the back injury from that fall the day before the Master began was Ok…it is. DJ, my new “All-World,” was masterful at the Wells Fargo attempting to make it his fourth win in a row. Though he wasn’t successful, his closing 67 was tied for low round of the day and put him in a tie for second. Rusty, maybe, sometimes having an issue with distance control with his irons but averaging almost 311 yards off the tee and hitting almost 60% of the fairways his game is obviously in shape to win at Sawgrass. This guy is really hard to bet against.

 

Ten Rounds with a Cleveland Huntington Beach Putter

Golf clubs, and putters especially, get their names for lots of reasons—some having to do with their performance, some for the designer’s family members and some retain the R & D department’s project moniker. In the case of the new putter collection from Cleveland Golf the name I’m told is simply a reflection of the town where company headquarters is located, Huntington Beach, Calif.

Cleveland as everyone knows makes outstanding wedges and though not particularly thought of as putter company some of their previous models have been excellent such as the TFi 2135 from two years ago. But my interest in the Huntington Beach putter series frankly was because I like Cleveland wedges and therefore thought it would be worthwhile to see what their putters were like.

The model chosen was the 6C which is a mid-size mallet, face balanced, center shafted design with a head weight of 360 grams and 3° of loft. The companion model 6 has a similar head but is heel shafted. Three of the others in the collection are traditional blades of 345 gram head weight plus there’s another mid-mallet, the 10, of 360 grams.

At first look the most striking feature is the milling of the face which is what Cleveland calls, “a coarse diamond-shaped” pattern that’s four times deeper than their Classic HB putters from 2014. This was done to increase the friction at impact to produce a truer roll.

The head is a soft 304 stainless steel and tests by Cleveland engineers found it to be 51% softer than the more common 17-4 stainless used in putter heads. In addition to producing a soft feel at impact, despite the fact there is not insert, it is also easier to bend for customizing allowing plus or minus 4° of lie angle to make the putter exactly what your set up requires.

After the first three holes of the first round it was evident the HB 6C was a quality putter. It helped me to knock in a six footer for par, a 20-footer for birdie and a par save on the third hole. It would be fair to say I was sold.

Over the remaining rounds were all in Florida on Bermuda greens and, as you get with Bermuda, widely varying speeds and grain. However, the HB 6C gave me the confidence that comes from seeing putts go in or at least get close time after time.

It performed well from around the green off the Bermuda fringe where lies are often very tight and prone to the dreaded chunked wedge. The HB 6C was a natural for taking Hank Haney’s advice that many times a putter is the best choice from off the green, if the turf conditions warrant, on the belief a mediocre putt will almost always be as good as or better than a chip.

The face has a very comforting, consistent feel so playing with a Titleist Pro V1, which has a soft cover, distance control was hardly ever an issue. Even testing done on the practice green with a Surlyn or hard cover distance ball did not reveal any problems adjusting to the inherent difference in impact.

Negatives: The sole could use a little more curvature to smooth passage through the fringe especially if the putt is into the grain.

The HB 6c hit the ball solidly since the sweet spot is fairly large but on downhill-down grain putts care is needed to get the speed correct.

Some of the players who tried this model did not like either the head shape or alignment line but liked the feel and all thought a blade-shape would be more suitable.

Recommendation: At the top I said Cleveland wedges were the reason for testing the Huntington Beach 6C putter but that was only partly true because I was intrigued at the possibility of finding a premium performing putter at less than a premium price. Each of the putters in the Huntington Beach collection sells for $100—plus $10 more for an oversized Winn grip. So the recommendation is to get to a golf shop and try one. I think you’ll like it as I do.

Images courtesy of Cleveland Golf

An Old-Fashioned Attaboy

In the past there have been a number of times I have been critical of golf’s rules givers, the United States Golf Association and R&A, but today they deserve an old-fashioned “attaboy.”

The reason is they promptly came up with a fix to what many viewed as a ludicrous situation, namely the four stroke penalty given to Lexi Thompson during the ANA Inspiration. The USGA and R&A modified the Rules of Golf to address an obviously inherent unfairness.

Decision 34-3/10 of the Rules of Golf, which takes effect immediately, limits the use of video in accessing potential rules infractions. The announcement has caused an eruption of comment on the Internet from both the knowledgeable and, as one might expect, also those who are evidently clueless. Though the Internet is a tool we have come to rely upon it’s also provides a ready forum for the uninformed.

But setting that aside and in case you’ve been otherwise occupied, Lexi Thompson was on her way to winning the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the year, when during the third round she marked her ball on the green but inadvertently replaced it one-half inch from the original spot. A television viewer pointed this out in an email to LPGA.com the next day and after reviewing the video the LPGA rules committee assessed Thompson a four stroke penalty.

Officials informed Thompson of the penalty on the 13th hole of the final round and what was a three shot lead at the time became a one shot deficit. Thompson eventually lost the championship in a playoff.

The outcry by everyone from fans to players to those who can’t tell a birdie from a bogey was tremendous. Tiger Woods even got into the discussion condemning the whole idea of officiating from a sofa.

Though the USGA said no particular case prompted their action it’s more than coincidental Decision 34-3/10 came just three weeks after the Thompson penalty. In addition of course, there was the other well publicized incident during the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open playoff when Anna Nordqvist was hit with a two shot penalty after high definition, close up, slow motion video showed her club grazing a few grains of sand.

Now under Decision 34-3/10 officials have two ways to judge the use of video in determining if a penalty is to be accessed. First is the so-called “naked eye” standard which simply means if high definition video is needed to see a potential violation then reasonableness dictates there is no problem. The other part of the decision also uses the reasonableness standard to judge the location of a drop or ball placement.

The lords of Far Hills and St. Andrews evidently got a lesson from the situation surrounding what’s called the “DJ Rule” last year. During the 2016 U.S. Open Dustin Johnson was penalized when his ball laying on a green rolled about the width of one dimple and it was judged more likely than not he caused the ball to move. However Rule 18-02 was rewritten done less than six months later and under the same circumstances should a player cause the ball to move inadvertently it could be replaced without penalty.

Is the new “Lexi rule” in Decision 34-3/10 perfect? No, and it may be modified in the future. But critics and naysayers should take into account the obvious. The game is not one of perfection nor played in a controlled environment. There always has been and always will be room for judgement, equity, reasonableness and fair play.

Reasonableness and reasonable judgement…how refreshing and we didn’t have to wait for the usual four year cycle of rules rewrites.

Unfortunately what has been lost in all the noise over the unfairness of the Nordqvist or Thompson incidents, is congratulations to the USGA and the R&A for doing something in a competent and timely manner.

An “attaboy” well earned.

PGA Tour’s Member-Guest Down on the Bayou

It could be called the PGA Tour’s version of the member-guest. The Zurich Classic of New Orleans came up with the idea of changing the format of their tournament to attract more of the top players and boost fan interest. And it seems to have worked though of course we will know better come Sunday.

The top 80 eligible players committing to play picked a partner for foursomes play on Thursday and Saturday and four-ball on Friday and Sunday.

At courses especially here in the United States, foursomes is probably better known as alternate shot and four-ball as the more common name best-ball. In most everyone’s opinion an exciting and refreshing change from the usual 72-hole medal-play events week after week.

Though world number one Dustin Johnson is still recovering from a fall just before the Masters’ some really interesting partnerships were put together and talk about “Dream Teams.” How about Jason Day/Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson/J.B. Holmes, Jimmy Walker/Sean O’Hair, Justin Rose/Henrik Stenson, Jason Duffner/Patton Kizzire or Jordan Spieth/Ryan Palmer?

Should be a lot of fun to watch.

Each partner chosen must have PGA Tour status or receive a sponsor’s exemption and after play on Friday there will be a cut to the low 35 teams and ties. The playoff, should one be needed after 72 holes, will be sudden-death in a four-ball format.

The Zurich Classic is the first team event on Tour since the 1981 Walt Disney World National Team Championship won by Vance Heafner and Mike Holland played over three of the courses at Walt Disney World.

The Zurich Classic of New Orleans will award FedExCup points and official money plus the winning team will each receive credit as an official victory, a two year Tour exemption and be eligible for the elite Invitational fields, including the Tournament of Champions and THE PLAYERS Championship.

FedExCup points and prize money will be proportioned to teams making the cut based on combining every two positions with each team member receiving half. The winning team will split first and second place FedExCup points (500 for first and 300 for second for 800 total points, or 400 for each player). Official prize money will be distributed the same way.

Ten Rounds with Epic

The Great Big Bertha Epic driver from Callaway Golf caused a flurry of comment on the Internet and in club rooms around the country for a simple reason…its construction is unique.

When I received the advanced information and specifications for the Epic prior to the official announcement, I wasn’t an enthusiast for the name. Nor am I now however, there no denying the construction is unlike any other on the market so I think we can allow Callaway some license to call it what they want. Actually I’m told Epic was the code name used during development and it stuck.

But enough about the nonessentials. For the first time a manufacturer has been able to place bars of titanium inside the clubhead connecting the crown and sole to reduce the amount of deflection at impact. This transfers energy to the clubface and Callaway says it creates maximum face flex and more ball speed even though the clubhead speed remains the same. The name for this breakthrough is another I’m not thrilled with but of course my opinion doesn’t matter. They call it “Jailbreak Technology.”

The club body is a titanium skeleton or “Exo-Cage” with the areas between the “ribs” filled by carbon fiber. Included are the crown plus three sections of the sole so the Epic clubhead’s surface area works out to 46% carbon fiber. This says Dr. Alan Hocknell, senior vice president of research and development, creates a light yet stiff structure leaving lots of weight which can be redistributed to alter the curvature bias of the ball. To provide for a draw or a fade shot tendency Epic has a 17-gram sliding weight at the rear of the sole which according to Hocknell can adjust the ball curvature up to 21 yards. That of course goes a long way in straightening out most any slice.

To maximize performance Callaway also recognizes the importance of the correct shaft so with the Epic they offer a choice four stock shafts in four different weight categories. A very nice feature that can mean having a driver that “works” or not and may be a significant cost savings over buying a non-stock shaft.

The Epic comes with a choice of basic lofts–9 degrees, 10.5 degrees and a HT model of 13.5 degrees. Settings on the hosel can adjust that loft from two degrees more to one degree less and there’s also a setting for a draw or neutral lie angle.

The GBB Epic tested was a 10.5 degree model with a Project X HZDRUS T800 shaft the standard 45.5 inch length and from the very first swings on the range it was apparent Callaway has a winner. Though the shaft was one inch longer than my current driver, contact was solid and trajectory (after adjusting the loft to 11 degrees) was exactly what my swing should produce.

Distance was as good as any driver we have tested but the most important fact is that on my usual towards-the-toe miss the ball still went almost the same yardage, though of course exhibiting a fairly pronounced right to left hook. As the Epic became more familiar the forgiveness exhibited swing after swing makes it an unqualified winner.

Negatives: Epic’s price of $500 mandates a club fitting by a qualified fitter. This makes good sense even though there may be an additional cost.

The stock shafts may be too long for some, especially slower swing speed players, and those with pronounced slices so it might be a good idea to consider trimming the standard length.

With the lie angle setting at neutral, some who tried the Epic thought the face looked like it was slightly open. This was not actually true, only what it looked like, but this may be a concern for some potential purchasers.

Everyone commented on the impact sound though truthfully after a couple of rounds it didn’t bother me. It is a harder or perhaps sharper sound and certainly distinctive from any other driver.

Recommendation: Put the Great Big Bertha Epic on your short list. It’s a premium driver that stands out in comparison with others in its class for both its construction and most importantly forgiveness. There’s a low spin version without the sliding weight but with two interchangeable sole weights called the Epic Sub Zero also priced at $500.

Images courtesy of Callaway Golf

Ten Rounds with Leupold GX 5i3 and GX 1i3

Leupold makes great laser rangefinders and so the opportunity to test out two of their newest models, the top of the line GX-5i3 (street price $550) and the entry level GX-1i3 (street price $300), was welcomed.

Our ten round test procedure was simple. For the first two rounds every yardage was shot with both units and then, alternating, four rounds were played with each. The results were hardly unexpected given my experience with Leupold products including my “regular” rangefinder, one of their older models a GX-2i2. And trying the new models under a wide variety of conditions each could clearly be appreciated.

The GX-1i3 and GX-5i3 share several features starting with both have a 6x magnification with an eyepiece that can be focused for the user’s vision. Both weigh about the same—7 oz. for the GX-1i3 and 7.3 oz. for the GX-5i3. Their lasers have a fast rate of pulsing so not only are distances quickly determined but any slight movement by the user is, for all intents and purposes, ignored by the unit.

Both have a fog mode and one touch scanning so measurements to the pin and say, the top of a bunker can be made while sweeping the entire area.

The difference between the two however is in the ability of the GX-5i3 to be personalized to the user and the outside conditions because it measures the slope uphill or downhill and compensates the yardage accordingly. Called True Golf Range (TGR) it tells you how much longer an uphill shot is playing and likewise how much shorter a downhill shot plays.

The GX-5i3 as has a club selection feature which, once the distance you hit three clubs is entered the unit suggests which club to hit based on the TGR and even shows if you are between clubs.

In one word, amazing. Add to that the GX-5i3 also makes yardage compensations after temperature and altitude are entered and all you’re left to do is swing the club.

To make the GX-5i3 USGA tournament legal these adjustment features may be turned off leaving only the line of sight distance feature similar to what the GX-1i3 provides.

We particularly liked the way the GX-1i3 fits in the hand making it very easy to use. The GX-5i3 is handy as well, just that we like size of the other one. The view through the eyepiece is the same though the GX-1i3 has a choice of seven aiming reticles while the GX-5i3 has three.

Both reach out and give back yardages extremely well, to a tenth of a yard. The head to head comparison didn’t find any meaningful discrepancies…to a tenth of a yard. Now if my swing were able to do that we’d be all set.

Negatives: You are getting a whole lot more in the GX-5i3 but at a $250 higher price and you should think carefully if, to you, the features are worth the extra outlay. In my mind there’s no question they are. Some who tried both units didn’t like the more “ergonomic” shape of the GX-1i3. We did.

Recommendation: We highly recommend either unit. Probably the best all-around laser rangefinders we have tested and the ease of use is tops.

Images courtesy of Leupold

Evaluating Snell’s My Tour Ball

An old friend was on the phone the other day talking about his golf game and asked if I knew anything about the Snell ball. He’s been a scratch player for many years, a loyalist of the ball played by the majority of Tour professionals and had received a sleeve of Snell Golf’s My Tour Ball as a tee gift.

In response to his question I asked if he had played the Snell ball yet and that started a discussion about the MTB in comparison with other premium performance balls, so-called Tour balls. We talked about the construction and the fact Tour balls all have at least three layers and a cast thermoset urethane cover. This type of cover provides excellent control on the shorter scoring shots but is more expensive to manufacture.

The second point we talked about was price, i.e., how much money are you willing to spend relative to the performance you want. Some may decide the out of pocket dollars are the only factor while others may feel purchasing a less expensive ball that doesn’t have the spin characteristics to help scoring is a bad idea. With Tour balls costing from $40 to $48 per dozen the idea a ball that can deliver the same or better performance for $32 is a winner.

Snell Golf’s My Tour Ball fits that description perfectly.

At the PGA Merchandise Show last January company founder Dean Snell told me one of the secrets of the ball business is from the tee all golf balls, i.e., Tour balls or distance balls, go the about the same distance. Manufacturers have figured out how with the longer clubs, specifically the driver, to get soft-cover Tour balls to launch with low spin similar to harder cover distance balls. In contrast to the cast urethane of Tour balls, distance balls have an ionomer or Surlyn cover which is much firmer and spins a lot less which originally gave them added yardage over Tour balls.

Snell also added virtually every ball is at or very close to the limits set by the USGA.

So the difference comes down to how a ball behaves on those short shots around the green. Does it fly high with low spin, hit and roll out or does it come in lower and check? In other words does it act like distance ball or a Tour ball?

We took the opportunity to do a test with a number of average golfers playing Snell’s MTB and reporting back their reactions. Here is a sampling of the unedited comments (except for length) from golfers with handicaps from 2 to 16 after playing the My Tour Ball. They weren’t told up front whether the MTB was a distance ball or Tour ball nor unless they looked it up for themselves, the price.

13 Handicap: “I really liked them they had a great feel and I thought I was hitting a little longer than usual. I am not a great striker but the feel on the club was good. I would buy these balls but again it would depend on cost. If they are a reasonable price I am all in.”

16 Handicap: “I’ve used the Snell balls the last three days. I think they are comparable to the Titleist NXT tour. It’s hard for me to tell about distance, but as for the soft feel in the short game, I thought it was equally as good. If priced right, I would buy them.”

10 Handicap: “It felt the same off the driver, fairway wood as the ball I normally play; Titleist NXT or Top Flite Gamer Tour; Distance off the tee was about the same; I notice no difference when chipping around the green; (Except sometimes I STINK!); I noticed no significant difference with my hybrids or irons.”

14 Handicap: “My observation are that I did hit the Snell ball straighter with less fade than my ball. I found that I experienced less distance with Snell and it did not give me the feeling of popping of the driver head as I am used to. On approach shots I found that Snell did hold the green better than the [Titleist] Velocity. One point of significance is when putting I found that the Snell did not spring off my putter as I am used to with the Velocity. A small point but did notice the difference.”

4 Handicap: “Play Pro V1 or Pro V1x exclusively and could see no difference with driver. Wedges stopped and were easy to control. Will be switching due to price.”

10 Handicap: “Distance seemed to be average, same as NXT Tour which I like to play although the flight path [trajectory] seemed lower. Even though the ball appeared to be solid it felt good off the club and reacted well when hitting the green. Putting, again it felt solid but was very nice to putt with and I sunk several lengthy putts.”

12 Handicap: “Off the tee the Snell was at least 10 yards longer on most drives. Longer carry but roll probably about the same as other balls. I used my GPS to check distances. With the 5 wood and 3 hybrid there was some added distance, but some of that may have been due to a better swing. I did not find any real difference with irons, or my mid length hybrids. With my game, the iron game can be very erratic. Putting would take more study to determine any difference between balls. I do not think my skill level could tell any difference.”

6 Handicap: “The Snell ball is as good as the Pro V1 or Chrome Soft I usually buy.”

2 Handicap: “Have worked through a dozen Snell’s and I’m hitting it higher, therefore longer, with all clubs. 5-10 yards longer off tee and ½ to 1 club longer with irons. It’s a keeper, at least for me.”

So how good is the MTB? Each of us has to decide but I have seen data for pitch shots showing the $32 per dozen MTB has similar spin rates and as flat a trajectory as any of the Tour balls.

Snell has worked in the ball business for almost 30 years, first for Titleist and then for TaylorMade. Snell Golf was started in 2015 as a low budget operation with Snell himself doing the design, overseeing of manufacturing and most of the administrative duties. He shared with me that many times he enlisted family and friends to spend their evenings in his kitchen putting together sample packages of balls. The company has grown exponentially since that modest beginning but it’s still not huge and sells only over the Internet at SnellGolf.com. Snell confided he is working on further refinements of both the MTB and the two-piece Surlyn cover Get Sum ball which sells for $21 per dozen.

Can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Images courtesy of Snell Golf

The “Secret” About Wedges

There’s a lot of talk about drivers and there’s no doubt the club taking up the number one slot in the bag is important but it’s also true the clubs in the other end of the bag, the wedges, are important as well. It’s wonderful to hit a booming drive but if you can’t wedge it close going low will be tough.

The secret about wedge play is there is no secret. It just takes a basic knowledge and the selection of the proper wedges for you, plus of course maybe a lesson from a PGA Professional.

To maximize results make sure the lofts are correctly gapped so the distance each wedge goes with a normal swing is about 10 to 15 yards different than the next more lofted wedge. This is often, but not always, four degrees of loft.

An example would be the wedges in my bag starting with the pitching wedge which has a loft of 45 degrees and using a “normal” swing flies 120-125 yards. Next is a 50 degree “gap wedge” good for 105 to 110 yards, then one with 54-degrees of loft used for 90 to 100 yards and finally a 58 degree wedge at 80 yards.

So, four wedges effectively covering a range of 40 plus yards.

It’s important to note—and this is another “secret” that’s not really a secret—ideally you would carry the wedges that give you as many full swings as possible in a round realizing though, no matter what loft your wedges you will always be faced with in-between yardage shots.

There is no magic formula and gapping to a certain extent is a matter of personal preference. It comes down to getting it right so you hit the ball closer with more confidence. A discussion about bounce, that other vital aspect of wedge selection, will be covered in another article.

Here are three of this year’s wedges that caught our eye and we have tested extensively:

Callaway Golf Sure Out: The name was used by the original Ben Hogan brand and since Callaway owns the name they were able to bring it back for a super game improvement wedge designed with input from instructor Hank Haney. Callaway’s team made the Sure Out with lots of sole camber, i.e., curvature from heel to toe. Additionally there is lots of bounce to help it through sand and long grass and 17 grooves that go all the way across the face. These features plus a nice wide sole mean sand shots, greenside pitches and even flop shots can be hit without opening the face or cutting across the ball, techniques that “scare” many average golfers. Priced at $120, Sure Out wedges are available with either lightweight steel or graphite shafts in 58 or 64-degrees of loft.

Cleveland Golf RTX-3: Compared to Cleveland’s previous RTX-2 model, nine grams of weight has been moved from the hosel to the clubhead so the center of gravity is closer to the impact area making a noticeable improvement in feel. For more consistent contact there are three different V-grind soles to match your swing profile and Cleveland’s third generation micro-milled face in between the grooves provides more spin and thus control. Choices include finishes of black satin, Tour satin and Tour raw plus there’s a cavity back version. The available lofts range from 46 to 64 degrees and each is priced at $130.

Ping Glide 2.0: The updates of the original Glide wedges involved making grooves sharper-edged and slightly decreasing the spin between to increase friction to produce more spin. Impressively Ping lab testing reports the Glide 2.0 generate up to 400 rpm higher spin which is important to aid in getting the distance and trajectory just right on every shot. We especially like this wedge’s finish which the company has tagged “hydropearl.” It not only looks good but sheds moisture to reduce the chance of flyers. Ping offers four sole grinds to match your attack angle and the turf conditions at the course you most often play. With steel shafts they are priced at $140 per club.

Images courtesy of manufacturers

Masters Favorites

Next week for many is the opening of the golf season, the Masters. An arm chair pastime has always been evaluating the field and picking possible winners and why they are the short list to wear the green jacket come Sunday.

The King, Arnold Palmer, will be missed but the memory of his four wins and exciting play will never be lost. Every year since 1954 he has been there and though he hasn’t played in recent years he took the job of honorary starter seriously with his customary humor and good grace.

One question on everyone’s mind is will he or won’t he, i.e., will the aging athlete with a bad back Tiger Woods be able to tee it up. He has said repeatedly he wants to and wants to continue his run at passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. This Masters would be a wonderful place for him to start.

Many of the top Tour players are under 30…some way under. This brings added interest from younger fans and the Masters is another chance to see who has what it takes. To win the Masters requires the maturity to handle the situation and of course putting well on the contoured, sloping and ridiculously fast greens. But paraphrasing Bobby Jones, founder of Augusta National and the Masters, “There’s golf and then there’s major championship golf.”

Defending champion Danny Willet has, even at his best in the past year, exhibited lackluster ball striking and putting. No wins since last April and typically finishing—if he made the cut—well down the leaderboard.

Concerns about his mother’s health have put former world number one Jason Day into the situation where he may not play and it’s unlikely even if he does he will be able to set it all aside and play up to the level necessary to win.

Taking a look at the rest of the field’s chances to win the 81st playing of what many say is their most memorable major championship one has to consider Hideki Matsuyama as a possibility. Plus a slimmer Bubba Watson trying for his third win at Augusta is an excellent pick and we shouldn’t overlook the long-hitting youngster Justin Thomas.

Henrik Stenson, winner over Phil Mickelson in the British Open, and his fairway-hitting Callaway 3-wood is a maybe. His season hasn’t been up to what we have come to expect and he doesn’t do particularly well at Augusta with his best finish being 14th three years ago.

So, with all that in mind, here are our picks to win the green jacket:

Dustin Johnson – what can you say about a player who hits it as long as DJ, often in the fairway, has his wedges dialed in and, for the trifecta, is in the top 30 for putting. The flat stick has always been a key at Augusta National and if the man from South Carolina has a good putting week he will be hard to beat. The WGC Match Play Three win was his third in as many starts and places him at the top of the list.

Jordan Spieth – The demons from his infamous finish last year will be exorcised. Spieth is not super long but long enough as he has proven with his 2015 Masters win. The 23-year old Texan’s strongest attributes are his ability to manage his round and his putting from outside 10 feet. Admittedly he hasn’t been able to separate himself from the rest of the Tour this year as he did in the past but his Pebble Beach win was impressive though his performance at the WGC Match Play was not. 

Rory McIlroy – it’s tough to bet against the star from Northern Ireland who at times has it all. One fan labelled him “All-World,” and that’s not much of an exaggeration. A suspect putter could be the reason he isn’t adding a Masters trophy on his mantelpiece to go with his Open, U.S. Open and two PGA Championships hardware.

Rickie Fowler – now is the time for Fowler to prove he is in the elite bracket of players who not only can win any given week but can take charge in a major championship. He won at the Honda and skipped the WGC Match Play and at 28-years old he must step up to avoid being in the Sergio Garcia category—close, but never a major winner. Remember in 2015 Fowler quieted those who said he was the Tour’s most overrated player with his stellar Players Championship victory.

Dark Horse: Jon Rahm – The young man from Spain seems to play well every time he tees it up and though a rookie has a win at Torrey Pines. His put on a very impressive display of hardnosed golf to almost take Johnson in the final at the WGC Match Play. Quick to smile and though he sometimes gets hot under the collar if he smiles his way around Augusta the first two rounds the weekend could be very interesting.

Sentimental favorite: Phil Mickelson – the best 46-year old golfer in the world. He still hits it long and when he is on, his controlled iron shots make any course look easy. As a bonus, Lefty’s putting stroke has never looked better. With no rough at Augusta and if his sometimes wild driving can at least keep his tee shots out of the loblolly pines this could be a great chance for his sixth major.