I am not a golf equipment addict.  Not sure why, exactly.  I suppose it has to do with the beginning, at the age of eleven and my first set of irons, all odd numbered.  I do not know when I realized clubs also came in even numbers or whether I cared.  Back then, it was good enough just to be out there and I simply used whatever was in the bag.  Good thing the set also included a putter, I guess.

Since then, new sets have been far between and normally occasioned because I’d lost (or broken) a club and couldn’t find a replacement that matched.  So as one might imagine, it was quite the rare event a couple of years ago when I decided it was time for something different.

After a visit to my local golf shop, nodding vigorously as the salesman spoke of such things as swing weight, offset, progressive verses perimeter weighting, camber, torque and other such valuable technical information, taking a few test swings to determine club head speed and testing four or five alternatives that should be just perfect, I walked out with a brand new set I was assured would make all the difference.  After all, it was determined scientifically.  I went to the driving range.

While I liked the look of these new irons and the solid thwack they made when meeting the ball, I had little expectation there would be much of a difference in play.  As such, one might imagine my surprise when I appeared to be hitting each of them an additional 10-12 yards.  Not quite believing the result, I returned the next day with two or three representatives out of my old set just to confirm my suspicions.  Yep!  I was hitting the new ones almost a full club further. Eureka, I had found them.

On my way home, I stopped by the golf shop to gush a little and to figure out the loft angle on the new approach wedge.  About five years ago I had read a great little book by Stan Utley called “The Art of the Short Game.” At the time, I had confirmed my old pitching wedge to be 48 degrees and found my existing wedges spaced out closely to Stan’s suggestions.  At this point, however, the old wedges were looking a bit shoddy in the bag with the shiny new irons, so I was thinking of replacing them too.  In an effort to correctly space any new ones, however, I would first need the angle of the approach iron to determine a starting point.  The store, however, did not have this information.

A bit of searching on the web gave me the number, 50 degrees. Hmmm! It seemed low until I noticed the pitching wedge was set at 45 degrees.  Wait!  Aren’t pitching wedges normally set at 48?  I grabbed my copy of Utley’s book, remembering he had a loft table in there somewhere, and this is what I found:

    Club                 Utley              New Set
4-hybrid            24                      22
5-iron                28                      24
6-iron                32                      27
7-iron                36                      31
8-iron                40                      35
9-iron                44                      40
PW                    48                      45
GW(AW)             53                      50

Oh my gosh, I thought.  My new nine iron is really my old eight, my new seven is my old six.  No wonder I’m hitting them further; they’ve been juiced!

Now I would agree there are many modifications made to irons that have produced incremental improvement (certainly the new sets are easier to hit than the older blades), but changing the loft angle is not one of them.  Golf is physics.  Club head speed determines the amount of force potentially impacting the ball.  The lower the loft angle, the greater the force transferred to the ball and the lower the trajectory of travel.  A driver, with a ten-degree loft angle, transfers a lot of force to the ball, sort of like a head on collision.  In combination with a low trajectory, the ball travels a long way.  In contrast, a wedge with a 50-degree loft angle transfers less force to the ball, more like a sideswipe.  Less force combined with a high trajectory pushes the ball up as much as out and the ball travels a shorter distance. A set of irons space the loft angles so a golfer can change the distance the ball will travel while maintaining a consistent swing.

Initially, I was feeling a bit let down.  After all, I could achieve most of the perceived gain in this new set by covering the numbers on my old set and drawing in new ones one club higher (and I already owned the masking tape and magic marker). It wasn’t long before reality replaced disappointment and I realized the world had returned to normal – after all, I wasn’t expecting much. But, now, I was curious.  Was this process of lowering loft angles particular to this manufacturer or part of a common trend?

A bit of searching on the web and I found the answer.  Remember back in the eighties when the Ping irons were all the rage?  As it turns out, Ping had knocked down the loft angles by a couple of degrees, so that each club was giving the golfer 5-6 yards in extra distance.  I can just imagine much of the tee talk back then:

“Great shot, Bob!  You are certainly hitting the ball well.”
“Yeah it’s these new irons by Ping.  They’re really great.”

Of course what one didn’t hear was:

“Great shot, Bob!  You are certainly hitting the ball well.”
“Yeah, well Ping lowered the loft angles by a couple of degrees so my 7 now plays like a 6.5.  Other than that, they’re pretty much the same as my old ones.”

Of course, most would never realize the added length was due entirely to physics.  I’m sure there was some alternate justification:  “the lowered point of attack and modified weighting enlarged the sweet spot, thus allowing us to lower the loft without sacrificing”….yada, yada, yada.  So what were other manufacturers supposed to do?  There really wasn’t any choice but to follow along.

So, is there a magic bullet?  What do you think?  From a golf design perspective, it really doesn’t matter whether the the club is a newly minted seven or an old six covered with a piece of masking tape.  Its about the ball….and the last time I checked, the ball can’t read.




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