Although Tiger Woods wouldn’t consider using anything but forged irons, his Nike stablemate Rory Sabbatini won the 2006 Nissan Open and the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing with an off-the-shelf set of Nike NDS cast irons.
Cast vs. forged: It’s a debate that once raised pulse rates. Now, however, the issue is changing significantly as golf turns the corner into the technological wonderland that is the 21st century.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the battle between forged and cast was hotly contested. Ping irons were cast. Mizuno irons were forged. Many other manufacturers couldn’t seem to make up their minds.
Titleist, for example, built its entire iron lineup around the cast DCI, although today the company sells only forged irons (along with cast wedges).
Now the old war of words, with forged warriors on one side and cast infantrymen on the other, has mellowed into more of an academic discussion. Why? Because irons have never been better, whether they are forged or cast.
Forged irons are made from steel that is heated to a red-hot state in a furnace, then cut, hammered and shaped by artisans who follow an age-old procedure.
Cast (or investment cast) irons are made from molten steel that is poured into molds and allowed to cool.
Golfers have learned to associate carbon steel with the forging process, while stainless steel is the material of choice in the casting process.
Forged irons made of carbon steel are plated with a metallic layer (chrome or chrome alloys) to make them shiny and prevent them from rusting.
What are the characteristics of forged and cast irons? For many golfers, this is the $64,000 question. The answer is neither simple nor clear.
Fact: Most PGA Tour professionals prefer forged irons. Ask them why, and most answer with one word – feel.
Fact: Most irons sold to U.S. consumers are cast. Except for a limited number of forged prototype irons produced in the 1960s, Ping founder Karsten Solheim decided to make and sell nothing but cast irons. Widely acclaimed as a visionary, he introduced this new category of irons to golf and popularized the investment casting process among club manufacturers.
Fact: Most golfers, including touring pros, can’t tell the difference between forged and cast irons. This has been verified in test after test.
Ping, when it was developing its S59 iron in 2003, decided to conduct its own test. The company made identical cast and forged 6-iron heads, then assembled them to spec for many of the Ping touring pros.
“I didn’t tell them what they were,” said club designer Mike Nicolette, a former PGA Tour winner. “I would go back and forth, handing them one club and then the other. We wanted to know which one performed better, which one felt better.
“Out of our entire staff, only one guy thought he could tell a difference. But he didn’t know exactly what the difference was or which one was better. I assure you, if our guys had said, ‘This feels better,’ we would be selling forged irons right now.”
That one player was Jeff Maggert.
“They were trying to trick us,” Maggert said of the two-club showdown. “To me, the sound and what you feel in your hands kind of go together. I thought both clubs were good, and I had trouble telling the difference.”
Nike design chief Tom Stites isn’t convinced by the Ping test or any test.
“The best golfers in the world are like musicians,” Stites said. “They have an ear for music that normal people don’t have. They feel things that you and I don’t necessarily feel.”
Stites was endorsing a theory that has popular support among touring pros: They may not be able to articulate the club feel they are seeking, but they know it when they feel it.
Thus we have witnessed the rise of the cast wedge, known for its particular feel and versatility.
“With wedges, we’re putting as many (pros) in our cast line as our forgings,” Stites said.
The two biggest selling lines of wedges in the U.S. come from Titleist and Cleveland. Both are chrome-plated castings, not forgings as generally assumed.
This makes sense to Dave Wood, who, along with brothers Don and Charlie, formed Wood Brothers Golf and later became a club designer for MacGregor.
“The wedge game in golf is like special teams in football,” Wood said. “Wedges are designed to be very versatile scoring tools and usually are not hit at full-out speed. They are not necessarily hit in the middle of the face. The other irons are less versatile and are intended to be struck in the center of the face.”
Cleveland has attempted to redefine the forged vs. cast argument by introducing “form forged” irons and wedges. Form forging, or coin forging, is not a pure forging process. These Cleveland irons and wedges are cast with a soft metal that the company calls CMM, then are inserted into a press that compresses the grain structure and ensures precise clubhead dimensions and flat faces.
This innovation joins an impressive list of modern changes in irons. The Ben Hogan Edge became famous as the first forged iron with a cavity back, and other manufacturing improvements have followed in forgings and castings.
The grooves in cast irons used to be cast. Now they are cut by machine. The faces of cast irons are machine milled to be perfectly flat.
Advocates for forged irons talk not only about feel, but also about repeatable trajectory and distance.
MacGregor, with forged irons from the 1940s that carried the names of Hogan, Byron Nelson and others, has remained a strong advocate of forgings.
Jim Bode, vice president of research and development for MacGregor, stressed that customization
is part of the forged legacy.
“We can bend an iron 4 or 5 degrees, and we can do this many times without the hosel getting hard or brittle,” Bode said. “Forged irons are resilient. We can easily make irons to specific weights and shapes. When you talk about a player like (Jose Maria) Olazabal, he is specific down to minutia. The offset on his irons has to be within ten-thousandths of an inch.”
On the other hand, Maggert made consistency claims for cast irons.
“I studied engineering in college,” said the three-time PGA Tour winner, “and I can tell you that I feel a cast club is much better from one club to the next. I know if I call the factory and ask them to build me
a new 5-iron, it will be the same as the one I was playing before.”
With its former DCI lineup of cast irons, Titleist was competing with Ping, Cobra, Tommy Armour and other manufacturers specializing in cast irons.
After it acquired Cobra, Titleist eliminated the DCI to concentrate entirely on forged irons. The latest irons from Titleist are groundbreaking – the 755 and 735.CM are available as a stainless steel forging (the 735 also is sold in carbon steel). The big advantage here is that the stainless steel doesn’t have to be plated.
Such a process hasn’t been used by an American company for three decades, since Spalding and custom clubmaker Kenneth Smith sold stainless forged irons.
The 755 has become popular among touring pros, with Troy Matteson (PGA Tour) and Jay Haas (Champions Tour) both playing the 755 while winning tournaments Oct. 15.
“What we always say,” said Chris McGinley, Titleist’s vice president of golf club marketing,
“is that golf has become a power game off the tee and a precision game into the greens. We spend a lot of time talking about precision.”
KZG, a small manufacturer in North Hollywood, Calif., offers more forged models than any other American company – seven
right-handed models and three left-handed models. Among the KZG forged irons is the popular Evolution with its progressive cavity back and the unconventional ZO (Zero Offset) model.
Through the entire forged versus cast drama, Mizuno has maintained its reputation as a clubmaker obsessed with forged irons. As an amateur, the soon-to-be-famous Woods used Mizuno irons.
“The grain of the forged metal is important,” said Harry Taylor, a member of the design team that produced the modern “Cut Muscle” Mizuno irons. “We’ve got it down perfectly. A forging doesn’t mean it’s only a good player’s club. It’s a good club, period. We have many average golfers who love these irons. At Mizuno, we really hang our hat on forged irons.”
The whole golf industry can hang its hat on the quality of today’s irons, whether cast or forged.