By Jason Lusk
Chances are, you’re using the wrong golf clubs. Unless your current set was assembled with the help of a competent custom club fitter – and that’s not the case for most golfers – you’re likely giving up yards, accuracy, consistency and, ultimately, strokes.
In common golf vernacular, those are wasted shots. The ready availability of free or relatively inexpensive professional club fitting, and the proliferation of advanced launch monitors that support it, make it easier than ever to have each club in your bag customized to produce your best results.
“It’s the easiest way to get better,” said Josh Talge, vice president of golf club marketing for Titleist. “Taking lessons and practicing, or changing your diet or changing your fitness routine and all these other things, that’s hard work. … The easiest thing you can do is go spend 45 minutes or an hour with a fitter, just hitting regular golf shots. You’re going to leave there, and you’re going to score so much better.”
Talge estimates that 50 to 60 percent of players buying current models of Titleist drivers and irons are fit at some level. When it comes to fairway woods, hybrids, wedges and putters, his estimates drop to as low as 10 to 15 percent of clubs having been fit to the player. And because those numbers don’t reflect older sets of clubs still in play, most clubs launching shots around the world are not properly fit.
Fittings are readily available at thousands of local demo days, retail locations, private clubs and destination resorts. Opportunities extend all the way to exclusive fitting boutiques and brand-specific centers operated by major club manufacturers.
Typically using a digital launch monitor that tracks clubhead speed, ball speed, launch angle, spin rates, dispersion and more, a good fitter can help any player pair shafts with clubheads to achieve measurable improvements with every stick in the bag. Lofts and lie angles are tinkered with. Club lengths are optimized. Set makeup is scrutinized, and the distance gaps between clubs – and styles of clubs – can be optimized. Some fitters then build the clubs to a player’s specifications, while others send the specs to major club makers who do the assembly.
So why would modern golfers who care enough to buy new equipment use clubs that don’t properly fit their swings?
Many players believe they are not accomplished enough to benefit from a customized set. Others worry about price. People are embarrassed to swing in front of a stranger, don’t want to commit the time or money, don’t understand the benefits and stubbornly hold onto old clubs that no longer perform.
“We hear all the excuses: I’m not good enough, I know my specs, I’m working on my swing right now,” Talge said. “Every time I hear it, I’m like ‘Great, you should still go get fit today.’ It’s the best single way to get you better at golf ASAP.”
Joe Ierubino didn’t think he was a great candidate for a fitting.
The 12-handicapper is a resident and member at Orlando’s Bay Hill Lodge and Club, annual host of the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. A rater for Golfweek’s Best course-ranking system, Ierubino often travels to play top destinations around the country. He uses recent-model clubs, has a gorgeous leather carry bag and can describe the green contours of several major championship courses with first-hand experience.
Still, Ierubino thought he might not be a good enough player to really benefit from a proper club fitting.
“Trust me, you’re right in our sweet spot,” said Rob Stumpf, a regional sales director for Club Champion who does fittings in the company’s Orlando location, where Ierubino had agreed to be a Guinea pig for this article. Club Champion has 28 locations across the U.S. and plans to open 11 more by the end of summer.
The early morning iron fitting started with Ierubino filling out a questionnaire, then answering a handful of verbal questions: What are your shot tendencies, where do you struggle, which type of poor shots bother you most, how is your fitness and conditioning? Ierubino said he misses regularly in both directions with a low ball flight, hates low pulls to the left of greens, and is in pretty good physical shape after years competing as a wrestler.
As a goal for the fitting and his game in general, Ierubino said he was more interested in improving his consistency, especially in his approach game, than in hitting the ball farther.
Stumpf checked out Ierubino’s current iron set, ranging from 6-iron to pitching wedge with a 56-degree sand wedge and a 60-degree lob wedge. Ierubino carries only 13 clubs, one short of the limit, because he and his 5-iron are not on speaking terms. He is on his third set of the same brand and model of cavity-back iron, but he had not had a professional fitting with a launch monitor. (The model of clubs he uses isn’t listed here, because it isn’t inherently important – his swing is his alone, and the results of this fitting almost certainly would be different for another player.)
Ierubino warmed up with his 9-iron, hitting balls into a screen covered with a computer projection of a range. Directly behind him was a TrackMan radar-based launch monitor, which fed shot data into Stumpf’s laptop.
Ierubino progressed to his 6-iron, the club used for most iron fittings at Club Champion, Stumpf said. Ierubino took five shots for measurement, most of them pulled hard to the left of the target. His clubhead speed with the iron averaged 80.4 mph, the ball speed was 101.1 mph and the height of the shots averaged 36 feet. His shots carried an average 128.9 yards with a rollout total of 149.9 yards.
Perhaps most important was Ierubino’s smash factor of 1.26. Smash factor is the ball speed divided by clubhead speed, and it tells a fitter how efficient is a player’s strike on the ball. The higher the smash factor, the more swing energy is transferred into the ball. Ierubino’s smash factor was too low.
“I know we can do better than that,” said Stumpf, who mentioned 1.4 as a target smash factor for a 6-iron.
Stumpf wanted to find a shaft to match Ierubino’s swing first, so he attached various shafts, both graphite and lightweight steel, to a test clubhead. Ierubino would swing, and Stumpf would track data and adjust the test 6-iron. Club Champion uses a quick-change shaft-to-head attachment system, making it easy to try different clubheads. The company is also “brand agnostic,” as Stumpf said, with more than 35,000 combinations of shafts and heads from major manufacturers, all available to hit during a fitting. The company can build a set of clubs to precisely match a player’s specs.
After finding a shaft that tightened dispersion and produced higher shots, Ierubino swung several clubheads on that steel shaft. Stumpf finally settled on a popular cavity-back clubhead from a well-known company, which Ierubino said he had often admired but never seriously had considered purchasing.
With the new clubhead and shaft combination, Ierubino’s improvement was eye opening. His new smash factor averaged 1.42, an improvement of 0.16 that showed in every other performance metric. Swinging at almost the same speed, with no adjustments or coaching, Ierubino’s new ball speed was 114.2, an improvement of 13.1 mph. His carry distance improved by 33 yards to 161.9, and his total distance improved 28.9 yards to 178.8.
“I wasn’t really looking for more distance, but I’ll take it,” Ierubino said.
Perhaps most importantly, his grouping was much tighter. He still missed slightly left on average, but his grouping would have been much more likely to find a green. His shot distances also showed significantly less variation. And with a new average height of 62 feet, an improvement of 26 feet, his shots were much more likely to stay on a green as the angle of descent improved, an especially important shot trait on the firm greens at Bay Hill and many other top courses.
The club “feels good, not really much different, but those results speak for themselves,” Ierubino said. “The impact is just so much better. That’s crazy good.”
The whole process took less than two hours and fewer than 100 shots. Stumpf wasn’t surprised by the results. “His improvement is pretty dramatic, but we see this kind of thing fairly often,” Stumpf said.
Given a couple days to consider his results, Ierubino – of course – said he was planning to buy a set of irons to his specs. Almost no golfer who cares much about the game could stand to give up those kinds of performance benefits.
Ierubino’s case was common, because he was using a popular, well-made set of clubs basically off the rack without a fitting. His model of clubs is frequently seen in PGA Tour bags, especially as long irons built to provide a little extra forgiveness. The clubs just weren’t optimized to his swing.
The problem isn’t the clubs. There are few lemons on the market today. The major club makers excel in design and production compared to what was available as few as 10 years ago.
“All the equipment is so good today, it really is more about making sure you get fit for you, as opposed to saying, ‘Well, this driver just isn’t any good.’ That’s just not the case,” said Mike Helfrich, vice president of club fitting and merchandise at GolfTEC, an international chain with nearly 200 locations that focus on technology-assisted instruction and club fitting.
“There may be some drivers that are better for you than others, but all of them need to be fit properly to get the most out of them.”
Drivers are the most common clubs to be custom fit, several industry insiders said. But as with Ierubino’s case, length isn’t the greatest benefit.
“If I had to pick one thing (that people achieve with a fitting), I would say consistency is what people see most often as the biggest uptick,” Helfrich said. “Keep the ball on grass and good things tend to happen.”
One technological advancement in the past decade, as far as clubs go, has been most helpful: adjustability. Starting in 2008, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient allowed clubs that easily could be adjusted, typically with a simple torque wrench. Players since have been able to tweak lofts, move weights to benefit launch angles and spin conditions, change shafts without a torch and epoxy, and change the lie angle to help hit straighter shots. The greatest benefits have been with drivers.
But while some players tinker with their clubs, most do not. Adjustability really has been a panacea for club fitters, first and foremost. With continuous improvements on the part of manufacturers, clubs can now be adjusted to the “nth” degree. Fitters have taken advantage.
“The ability to adjust weights in a driver is such a big deal,” said Randy Peitsch, senior vice president of operations for PGA Tour Superstore. The chain of giant retail stores, with 31 locations around the U.S., did more than 100,000 fittings last year. Those fittings could be as simple as a sales associate watching a walk-through buyer swing a new club in a digital bay with a launch monitor, then helping dial in the club, which is a free service, all the way up to the company’s Fitting Van Experience, a paid service in which a player receives undivided attention and can do a full-bag fitting.
Peitsch said the greatest benefit of adjustability may be the capability to try new driver heads and weight configurations on a familiar shaft.
“When drivers were static, you had to live with wherever the weights were,” Peitsch said. “If you found a driver you liked, you probably didn’t want to change it. Today, if you like the shape and feel of a driver, you can put the shaft in it that you’re accustomed to, then you can place the weights exactly where you need them.”
But technology hasn’t just improved the clubs, it has vastly improved the way fitters obtain data. Modern launch monitors provide a staggering amount of data about what the ball and club are doing at impact.
“For a long time, they were very good at giving us information about what the ball was doing, but you really had to infer a lot about the club delivery from what the ball was doing,” said Erik Henrikson, Ping’s manager of innovation and fitting science. “Both with radar launch monitors as well as the camera-based systems, there has been an increase in the accuracy to which we can measure what the club is doing. … Now, that technology is really becoming more prominent in the fitting environment, which gives the fitter that much more information about impact.”
With reams of data points garnered during thousands of club fittings, the fitters can more quickly establish trends to benefit players.
“There are two ends to using the technology,” Henrikson said. “There’s the recommendation piece, and there’s the validation piece. The recommendation piece helps with the efficiency, so you can make good judgments based on what you see as to the next club to try. On the validation side … there is a process of elimination that needs to occur when you’re validating the fit.”
By taking less time to find the right club for any player, fitters can ease the process and make it even easier to make the game, well, easier.
It all makes for fewer reasons to ignore the quickest way to improve your game. Gwk