Iron intelligence: New era of customization changes way players match with clubs

Adam Scott Titleist David Dusek/Golfweek

Iron intelligence: New era of customization changes way players match with clubs

Equipment

Iron intelligence: New era of customization changes way players match with clubs

For big sporting goods stores with salespeople selling lacrosse sticks and camping gear along with golf equipment, the old way of marketing irons was just fine. For decades, golf equipment-makers designed muscleback blades for the best players, cavity-backed game-improvement irons for mid-handicappers and oversized clubs that featured large, under-cut cavities and wide soles for golfers who shoot in the 90s and 100s.

The system was easy to understand and seemed logical, but the days of making and selling irons based on handicap levels are long gone, replaced by a new era of irons built to address specific demands and shortcomings.

“Part of the presentations that we gave, year after year, was to show our iron line and a handicap matrix,” said Chris Voshall, a product engineer with Mizuno. “So if you were a 10, we recommended you look at these two irons, and if you were a 12 we’d recommend you look those two and so on. But starting two years ago, we stopped supplying a matrix because that’s an antiquated way of looking at the golf world.”

Using handicap as a basis for equipment recommendations is flawed thinking because two golfers with the same handicap can have completely different needs. For example, one might be a 13-handicap player who swings hard but lacks consistency, while another might be a 13-handicapper who is a former club champ with an aching back that robs him of clubhead speed. Those two golfers may have the same handicap, but they have completely different requirements from their irons.

For that reason, many manufacturers are now selling more types of irons, and product cycles are lengthening. While some new products are coming later in January and February, Callaway currently has eight different irons for sale, Mizuno has seven, TaylorMade and Titleist are selling six, Cobra has five (plus two one-length options) and Ping is offering five.

Trying to find the perfect iron to match your needs can confuse consumers, but Voshall said the variety of offerings is part of a new era in customization.

“We don’t want retailers to bring in one set of irons for the wall and put five just like it in the back,” Voshall said. “What we are trying to do (by offering so many types of irons) is have one on the wall as a showpiece that guides you to our fitting cart. There are four different kinds of MP-18 irons, but custom-fit the proper way, they can be blended to create one perfect set for a lot of different players.”

Blended iron sets are common on the PGA Tour, and pros such as Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and others have carried a few different types of irons in their bags for years. Today, the trend is spreading to recreational golfers. Voshall said approximately 90 percent of all custom-order iron sets blend at least two types of irons.

Club players are not only showing they are willing to work with custom-fitters to mix and match irons, more golfers are open to the idea of using hollow-bodied clubs, too.

A decade ago the few hollow-bodied irons available were built
for players who needed more ball speed and forgiveness. They were similar to miniature hybrids, so good players never considered them.
But over the past three years, more and more brands have started making hollow, compact irons designed for players who want a classic look at address but who need more ball speed than they can get from a blade or traditional cavity-back. Pros are not only using clubs such as the Cobra King Utility, Mizuno MP-18 MCC Fli-Hi, TaylorMade P790 and Titleist 718 T-MB, they can be found in recreational players’ bags, too.

“I think the challenge of making clubs like this has always been a manufacturing one,” said Paul Wood, Ping’s vice president of engineering. The Phoenix-based company has a new, hollow-bodied iron coming in 2018.

“It’s relatively easy to make a big, hollow-bodied club. But things get pretty intricate inside smaller heads. The pressure on the welding, the actual casting … 10 years ago it would have been challenging to make clubs like this. We could design it, but we might not have been able to build it. The manufacturing technologies have come a long way.”

If your New Year’s resolution is to become a better iron player, don’t let all the clubs on the pro shop wall intimidate you. Working with a knowledgeable fitter, you have more types of irons at your disposal than ever, so creating an iron set that will blend distance, forgiveness and playability has never been easier. 

PGA Merchandise Show

WHEN: Jan. 23-26

WHERE: Orange County Convention Center, Orlando

WHAT: There will be more than 1,100 exhibits by golf merchandise manufacturers and distributors. Everything from clubs to golf carts will be on display. The PGA of America also will conduct a range of educational sessions.

WHO: Open to industry professionals only. There are no tickets available to the general public.

DEMO DAY: Jan. 23 at Orange County National Golf Center. Equipment companies will show their newest offerings around a massive, circular range.

(Note: This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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