Just the facts, ma’am” – Sgt. Joe Friday

The golf world is all aflutter with the impending return of Tiger Woods and that’s a good thing.

Heaven knows golf needs all the interest and enthusiasm it can get if only to stimulate more participation, more rounds, more equipment sales…well, you get the idea.

What is not needed is another big star complaining how far the ball goes and Woods during a recent podcast joined Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin among others saying golf is in trouble.

Quoting Woods, “We need to do something with the golf ball. I think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf course[s], if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7,400 to 7,800 yards long.”

As if this weren’t indictment enough he continued, “And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property to start designing these type of golf courses and it just makes it so much more complicated.”

Really? Complicated for who? Not fans nor ordinary golfers who hit 200-yard tee shots. Not when courses are closing left and right and the number of players continues to shrink.

The reason comments from Woods or Nicklaus or Player are a concern is they are among the most respected men in the game and their opinions may eventually push the USGA into “rolling back” ball performance. Rather than being a solution such a retrenchment would be a disaster for equipment makers, recreational players and golf fans.

Some say that ball performance is not a problem and isn’t supported by facts so let’s take a look.

There’s no arguing professionals and other elite players are hitting the ball farther, much farther, and as a result the courses they play have been made longer. That makes sense and similar solutions to mitigate equipment advances have been going on for at least 150 years. Scoring however has not benefited from all this added distance. In 2017 PGA Tour scoring leader Jordan Spieth averaged 68.846 strokes and in 1980 Lee Trevino led all players with 69.73, less than 0.9 stroke improvement in 37 years.

Not exactly a case for manning the barricades to repel the bad guys. Statisticians call that level of difference “noise.”

So if scoring doesn’t support these concerns does an analysis of driving distance?

In 1968 with persimmon heads, 150 gram steel shafts and balata-covered wound balls the average driving distance on Tour was 264 yards. By 1995 it was just about the same–262.7 yards. That year Callaway Golf introduced the “huge” 265cc lightweight titanium head Great Big Bertha driver and longer, lighter graphite shafts soon followed. Predictably because drivers now weighed less swing speeds went up and by 2003 average distance was 285.9 yards—a jump of 23 yards in just eight years.

At the same time the ball also was being improved and the added distance from the new low spinning, solid core balls was readily apparent. In 1996 the 3-layer urethane cover Top Flite Strata came out but the real game-changer was Titleist’s introduction of the Pro V1 in October 2000. Within weeks it became the most played ball on Tour and quickly took over the top spot in retail sales.

From 2003 through 2017 average driving distance increased to 292.5 yards equating to about 17 inches per year in part due to development of even lighter shafts and clubfaces with higher rebound across a larger area. However, a major portion of the gain can be accounted for by course agronomy allowing drier, more closely mown fairways so the ball to rolls much farther. Additionally players are taller and stronger and have intensive physical training regimens. During the same time a huge leap forward in instruction took place as coaches used launch monitors to refine players’ swings to an extent never before possible.

The real proof though is tee ball distance is a lousy predictor of success on the PGA Tour and as might be imagined the best correlation to money won is average score. Driving distance and driving accuracy have the lowest correlation.

The conclusion is plain. Since 1964 average driving distance is 30 yards greater but after 2003 distance enhancing design improvements have been incremental…not revolutionary. Nothing goes up forever.

Finally, though Woods didn’t mention it, there’s another other oft voiced complaint. Something like, “fine old courses have been made obsolete and championships can’t be held there because they don’t have the acreage to add yardage.” Not only has that not true since many of the “fine old courses” have already been lengthened but a lot of them can’t hold professional events for reasons other than the length of the holes. There may be no room for 50,000 fans to park or for the corporate hospitality tents which are a primary source of tournament revenue or perhaps the driving range is not big enough to accommodate more than a fraction of the field.

These facts are rarely mentioned by those decrying golf ball distance gains and have nothing to do with the fact Rory McIlroy and 42 others averaged over 300 yards last season.

Golf does has problems but the distance elite players are hitting the ball is not one of them. Fans want to see the long ball from Rory, Dustin and Bubba and aren’t interested seeing their 120 mph swing send the ball the same distance it went in 1995.

The whole idea of rollback is ridiculous. It’s hard to comprehend how any lessening of ball or driver performance will help sell more tournament tickets, sponsor advertising, merchandise or equipment. The PGA Tour obviously has figured that out and hasn’t joined in with the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It also true recreational players are not complaining and it can be argued anything making the game more fun and even a little easier benefits participation. Those who make the assumption length equates to difficulty are also making a mistake. Course design and setup for professional tournaments requires intelligence, creativity and imagination without gimmicks. Maybe something simple such as cutting the rough and fairways higher or installing bunkers on either side of a landing area are possibilities.

Some are concerned about land and water usage which is certainly a legitimate question, not one resulting from how far the ball is being hit, but of the proper use of finite resources. Course architects and maintenance experts are already finding solutions such as drought resistant grasses, course topography and hole routing. What is needed most of all is a change in the mindset of developers who specify an over-the-top expensive “championship” course to aid residential real estate sells or for a resort to put heads in beds.

Here are a couple of simple requests for Tiger. Please come back to the Tour healthy and competitive. Secondly, because of your prominence people listen to your opinion please check out the facts and perhaps your opinion will reflect a new view point…one that is less harmful to golfers and the golf industry.

Dangerously Wrong

“Whilst delighted for all the players, it’s quite sad to see The Old Course of St Andrews brought to her knees by today’s ball & equipment,” October 8, 2017 nine time major champion, Gary Player.

Player was intense competitor, intelligent and perceptive with tremendous stature in the game but unfortunately the opinion expressed in this tweet ignores the reality of golf today. But in case your attention at the time was otherwise occupied here’s a bit of background.

Ross Fisher playing in the European Tour Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the “home of golf,” the Old Course at St. Andrews, posted a course record 61 in a vain attempt to catch winner Tyrrell Hatton. Player seems to conclude Fisher’s record and other low scores posted during the Dunhill were due to the ball and equipment. He is not only mistaken but for everyone who plays, dangerously wrong. Let me explain.

Player didn’t mention that for four days the weather was everything one could desire this time of year on Scotland’s east coast and most importantly there was little or no wind. St. Andrews has immense landing areas and greens wide open in the front which leaves the wind as its primary defense. Without wind the course is particularly vulnerable to skilled players and you can add that the course set up was not too severe since the Dunhill is a pro-am and amateurs are playing each day.

So with no wind and accessible pin locations low scores are not surprising.

At a tournament length of over 7,300 yards St. Andrews is not a pushover and though scores during the Dunhill were not what we usually see during the Open Championship, it is undeniable that over the years the course has withstood every generation’s best. Not perhaps without some lengthening. Not without reworking some of the tees, putting surfaces and bunkers but always with what my friends in Chicago call “the hawk,” the wind, being a major factor.

The tweet reflects Player’s oft expressed opinion modern clubs and balls are a problem but in truth since the gutta percha ball replaced the featherie 150 years ago someone is always opining the exact same thing after every advance in equipment technology.

The danger in Player and others beating the drum claiming such a sad state of affairs is the USGA and R&A will take it on themselves to “fix the problem.” Following the logic of “drivers are too hot,” or, “the ball goes too far,” could mean further restrictions on equipment or even creation of separate equipment standards for elite-players.

Either would be detrimental.

Both ignore how virtually all elite players follow an intense physical conditioning regimen, a rarity until Tiger Woods turned pro but exactly what Player himself has preached since the 1960s. Additionally those saying today’s equipment is a problem overlook how virtually every elite player makes extensive use of sophisticated computer imaging to dial-in their swing mechanics. Nor are the tremendous advances in agronomy taken into account allowing fairways to be so much firmer they have Stimpmeter readings on the order of greens 50 years ago.

In other words it’s not just equipment and it is overly simplistic to focus solely on the springiness of clubfaces or the improvements to the golf ball when wound balls were replaced. Yes, the ball goes farther but the contention that hurts the game is not supported by facts and is only a desire to keep things as they were, a solution to which will unduly penalize all but a few.

Put another way, do you or any of your friends think you are hitting the ball too far? Or even more simply, do you know of anyone who has given up the game because it’s too easy?

Making rules to rein in distance because it is thought a few hundred professionals and maybe a like number of the best amateurs are hitting greater distances is ignoring the reality of modern golf. It also ignores the laws of physics as pointed out by Frank Thomas (inventor of the graphite shaft and former Technical Director of the USGA) that the increase in distance due to the solid core ball and high rebound driver faces has reached its maximum.

If indeed there is a problem, and I’m not conceding there is, the Tour could solve it by simply setting up courses to be more penal though fans would immediately hate it. The fact the Tour does not do this is a tacit acknowledgement for the status quo. Fans enjoy seeing pros struggle occasionally when faced with narrow fairways, landing zone hazards and four inch rough as at a U.S. Open. But that’s once a year and the USGA not the PGA Tour runs the championship. If penal setups were the case every week it wouldn’t take toursters long to figure out it’s often best to leave the driver in the bag. Fans would lose the excitement of seeing D.J. or Jason or Bubba challenging the course with booming drives.

How much excitement is there in one plain vanilla par-4 after another calling for a three-iron tee shot then a wedge? Not much and what other entertainment business would ever propose to intentionally alienate fans?

World-class instructor Hank Haney puts it best, “Fans don’t go to a baseball game hoping to see some good bunt singles.”

And there’s another factor. If the pros had to play with a restricted equipment it would kill any OEM marketing plan that relies on “Tour validation.” Acushnet, Bridgestone, Callaway, Cobra, Ping, PXG, TaylorMade, Wilson and others spend millions for endorsements and advertising on the premise fans want to play with the same equipment as the pros.

You may argue with the premise but you can’t deny restricting the ball or drivers used by elite players would drastically change the economics of the club business…probably for the worse.

As I have written before the so-called distance problem isn’t a real problem, it’s only a conclusion drawn based on an opinion or maybe even an unacknowledged yearning for the “good old days.” The idea modern equipment hurts the “integrity” of the game is almost fatuous and certainly dangerous. It’s a triple threat with the potential to push golfers out of the game, alienate fans and jeopardize the ability of manufactures to be rewarded for their advances in equipment design.

A Couple of Trends in Equipment

Without dusting off my crystal ball—it’s got a big crack in it anyway—I see two trends worth noting in the golf club business. Both involve the development of clubs with limited appeal and at this point neither can be described as having can’t-miss prospects.

First is the appearance of ultra-high-end price clubs as exemplified by PXG custom-only models starting with the driver which carries a tag of $700 followed by fairway woods at $500 and irons at $300 or more. And since a bag full of PXGs wouldn’t be complete without the addition of one of their putter models plan on spending another $400 to $600. Add that all together and the total comes to well over $5,000…without the cost of the bag.

Of course for many years there have been custom-made clubs at prices much higher than normal but none in just two years have made as much of an impression on the overall market as PXG.

PXG founder and CEO Bob Parsons said in an interview with Golfweek he expects $100 million in sales this year and more significantly, to be profitable. Repeat that to yourself. In two years from nothing to profitability…in the golf business.

Realistically $100 million in club sales is not a very big ripple on the pond compared with Callaway who expects around $980 million in sales this year and well behind Acushnet who has forecast in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. The importance is that major makers have even decided to enter at the ultra-high-end price point. Titleist, for example, has the C16 driver selling for $1,125 and Callaway’s new Great Big Bertha Epic Star is $700.

The story is the same with irons and illustrating with the same two companies, an eight iron set of Titleist C16 irons are $3,000 while Callaway Epic irons start at $2,000 with new Epic Star irons at $2,400.

The question of course is how big can this ultra-high-end price market be? The fact is though at least three companies (and you can add Honma, XXIO, Bettinardi plus a couple of others) are working to take advantage of what growth may be there.

The bottom line is performance has to justify the price otherwise the only players paying double or triple of what are considered “usual prices” are those whose egos make the decision.

The second trend is the increase in the number superlight clubs made specifically for those with relatively slow swing speeds, often identified as seniors and ladies. These superlights are made to answer the quest for added distance based on the idea if the club weighs less it can be swung faster and thereby generate more yardage.

A couple of examples starting with Cobra Golf’s F-Max family with the F-Max driver headlining the offering. Cobra’s approach is to use extremely light shaft with a head shaved of extra grams while the center of gravity has been positioned both to fight a slice and hit the ball on a higher trajectory. Interestingly the $300 F-Max driver is also at the bottom of the price spectrum as is the pricing of other F-Max family clubs.

Callaway has gone the other way with the Great Big Bertha Epic Star driver which follows the extremely successful Epic of last season and with all the features that made the Epic such a hit but much, much lighter. The Epic Star comes in at 286 grams versus the Epic at around 310 grams. The Epic Star ($700 as mentioned above) is for players having trouble generating even a moderate clubhead speed and a relatively modest swing speed increase of five mph can produce an additional 15 yards. The cardinal rule is more speed equals more distance.

Lightweight, even superlight, clubs especially drivers have been around since titanium heads and graphite shafts became the norm and even after clubhead sizes reached 460cc Cleveland had a 260-gram driver. As always performance will decide if these latest examples are cost effective plus of course whether a $300 driver can outsell a $700 model. In any event it would seem the market for superlight clubs is much larger than that for ultra-high-end priced clubs.

It’s going to be interesting to see how these two trends develop.

Ten Rounds with the Tour XDream

A longtime friend who handles publicity for a number of golf equipment companies called to say he had just taken on a putter company and would like me to test their product.

My first reaction was, “Oh goodie, another putter.”

I have lost track of the number tried over the years many of which never made it into a column since I believe what my mother always told me, “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.”

But since my friend had asked I readily agreed to include the MLA Golf Tour XDream in the rota of clubs for the “Ten Rounds with…” series.

I’m glad I did.

First of all the putter’s most obvious feature is the also the one that separates it from the rather crowded field of flat sticks, namely the alignment aid on the top of the putter head. This large white flattened horseshoe is distinctive in shape, prominent in appearance, visually striking and meant to aid our brain to correctly perceive the proper line of a putt.

According to the company which is based in Switzerland, MLA stands for Multiple Line-detector Activation and the clubhead pattern is the result of working with Dr. Lennart Hagman, Ph.D. who has made extensive studies over 20 years of the brain’s perceptual process. There’s a much longer and more complete explanation of why they think the white horseshoe works but of course the proof is in the putting. 

In a nutshell, I used the Tour XDream for ten rounds on greens from Florida to Alabama and believe it did help me to line up putts particularly breaking left to righters, which for a right-handed player are the most trying. Feel was excellent and distance control never a problem even on very fast surfaces. The milled 375 gram head has two changeable weights in the sole and three more are included. Putting a 5-gram weight in both the heel and toe positions made the head face balanced, my preferred weight configuration.

The stock grip is a Forward brand model designed with extra thickness under the flat top of the grip where the left palm sits in a normal placement of the hands. As a result the wrists arch slightly which facilitates the modern shoulder, big muscle stroke.

Negatives: The flattened horseshoe alignment aid took some getting used to and in fact several of the players who tried the Tour XDream felt a smaller, blade style head would be better. MLA does make several blade models which we did not test. Also at 375 grams the Tour XDream is at the upper end of what might be considered ideal weight range for typical green speeds.

Recommendation: The MLA Tour XDream is a solid, efficient putter and if you like the looks of the unique crown alignment aid it could be a very good choice. The price is $299 at their site MLA.golf if you want to purchase or for complete technical details.

Images courtesy of MLA Golf

Fuzzy Thinking

Fuzzy thinking, even by well-known and respected people is still fuzzy thinking and when the topic is the distance the golf ball goes, fuzzy thinking easily results in a call to “doing something before the game is ruined.”

Respected icons of the game such as Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin have said more than once the problem with golf is the ball goes too far.

Maybe by taking a look at the facts we can sweep away the fuzziness concerning golf ball distance because if we don’t, sure as heck, the fuzzy thinking will eventually prevail.

First, this controversy over technological advancement is not new. It was essentially the same in the nineteen century and rears its head with every major advancement in balls and clubs. If you have some time, look up the evolution of the feathery ball to the gutta percha and then to the rubber-core ball or the story of the Schenectady center-shafted mallet putter being outlawed after Walter Travis used one to win the British Amateur.

The cry was all the fine old courses would be made obsolete because they were too short and no longer challenging or simply improvements in equipment meant the game was becoming too easy. Sound familiar?

Today the distance the golf ball goes is due to vastly improved launch conditions. This began with the introduction of metalwoods and then the development of graphite shafts allowing an increase in size of driver club heads. When titanium heads were introduced makers were able to almost double driver clubhead size again and driver shafts could be made much longer. All of these plus an immense improvement in ball aerodynamics added significant distance with all clubs.

Professionals—the ones fuzzy thinkers believe hit the ball too far—have also benefitted from intensive computer-aided instruction, better physical training and the simple fact a large number of them are taller and bigger than in the past.

Improved equipment and better agronomy have resulted in courses, especially on Tour, playing firmer and faster. Plus we must recognize the desire of operators to have the longest, toughest layout so they can boast of the difficulty for professionals rather than the playability for recreational golfers.

The number of golf courses is steadily decreasing so overall use of the land is not an issue. It is true some “fine old courses” may not have the land to be stretched in order to accommodate the modern professionals but that’s OK. For the average player not every course needs to be like this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills and have the capability to be played to over 8,000 yards.

However, the fact is in 2017 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 291.20 yards, an increase of about one yard in the preceding ten years so there’s been no “distance explosion” in more than a decade.

For recreational players titanium-headed-graphite-shafted drivers and solid-core-low-spinning urethane cover balls have not produced anywhere near the gains in yardage achieved by professionals. Technology has not caused golf handicaps to plummet and the typical male golfer still isn’t hitting the ball over 200 yards–if that.

The rulers of our game don’t seem to understand the problem in terms of the average golfer who occasionally makes a par and buys a celebratory beer when he makes a birdie. Additionally the USGA continues with the idea the ball goes should be reduced while telling weekend warriors to play from a shorter tee set. That’s illogical and a nonstarter.

Of course the culprit most often cited is the Titleist Pro V1 which debuted in the fall 2000 and at once became the most played ball on Tour. Every manufacturer now makes similar balls that are low spinning with urethane covers and solid cores.

The PGA Tour is in the entertainment business and the business model should be what its customers, i.e., golf fans, want. There’s no question we want to see birdies and eagles and drivable par-4s not to mention DJ smoking one 340. In 2007 the scoring average on Tour was 71.34 and this season it is 72.00. In fact going back 20 years the average was 71.77 showing courses aren’t getting easier despite what some would like you to believe.

As Frank Thomas former technical director of the USGA and current golf industry consultant has often said, driving distance has gone as far as it can go because the physics involved are maxed out. Or put another way, you can’t argue with Mother Nature.

Finally, part of the fuzzy thinking can be laid at the doorstep of the media because it’s easy to write that a well-known player, ex-player or some administrator is decrying the state of the game. One headline trumpeted “Great Balls of Fire!” referring to today’s low-spin golf balls. This is a cheap shot displaying a lack of knowledge not to mention an abuse of journalistic standards.

The inescapable conclusion there’s no horrific problem with the distance the golf ball travels. That’s just plain old fuzzy thinking.

And the solution is easy. Do nothing.

The crisis in golf technology or golf ball distance is only in the minds of fuzzy thinkers.

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                                                                                                          

 

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

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

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

Ten Rounds with the Ping i200 Irons

By ED TRAVIS

Right out of the box the new Ping i200 irons make a positive impression. They look great, like an iron should look, with almost classic lines and this makes sense since Ping intends them to be “shot-makers” irons. They are targeted for use by recreational players wanting a cleaner look with less offset than a game-improvement iron such as the Ping G.

Before getting in to the technical side of the i200s a big part of the first impression they make is their finish…a soft chrome look called “hydropearl.” Eye pleasing to say the least and functional too, which we will cover in a minute.

The i200 story revolves around three features. In the back of the head is a muscle-stabilizing bar to aid shot control and produce the nice smooth contact inherent in the irons. Second is an elastomer insert in the cavity behind the face that helps the face flex and dampen impact vibration. The insert is almost double in volume from previous models which means it is in contact with three times the area of the face.

Finally, the clubface is thinner so it is more reactive but equally important the saved weight from the face Ping was able to move towards the toe and into the hosel so it contributes to more forgiveness. There are some nice smaller features as well, such as the look of minimal offset at address which some, myself included, find is confidence inspiring. This of course won’t fix any swing faults but for me, if an iron sets up well that’s a positive factor in making the ball go where it should.

The blades leading edge has been given slightly more contour and a little more bounce was added so turf interaction improved meaning shallower divots and better ball contact. Finally, even the hydropearl chrome finish has a second purpose beyond making the i200s look good, it actually repels moisture which helps to minimize flyers from wet grass and rough.

On the course, few irons we have tested felt any better right from the first swing. Short irons were extremely solid and trajectory control was easy especially when trying to knock it really close from inside 150 yards.

Distance was no problem though the short irons were 2-3 yards longer compared to my previous set relative to the distance comparison of the longer clubs. Or put another way a Ping i200 9-iron generally went farther than the 9-iron I had been using but the Ping i200 5-iron was the same carry distance.

Street price is $125 per iron with steel shafts so a set of 5-iron through pitching wedge is $750.

Negatives: Surprisingly and considering the soft feel of most shots, some strikes felt very hard on the face. Granted it was always when the swing was poor and contact poor, usually towards the heel. It didn’t happen with every bad swing, but when it did it was almost startling given the usual smooth contact. Longer irons tended hit the ball somewhat higher and living in Florida where the wind often blows, a lower penetrating flight is useful. This was not a major problem but definitely one to be aware of for shots into the wind.

Recommendation: Anyone wanting for irons with the look and performance of player’s iron but the playability of a game-improvement club should jump on the Ping i200s. They answer both requirements admirably.