This is good news for the easily intimidated because it means you can begin in precisely the same intuitive way you would if you were buying clubs with no intention of being custom fitted. Focus in on the brand that inspires the most confidence, based on visual appeal, budget, talks with friends, articles in magazines, hunch, instinct, the image you have of yourself as a golfer and anything else that seems relevant, including feedback from surreptitiously fondling clubs in pro shops. Custom fitting is both art and science, and this part of the process is almost all art. As long as you buy from a reputable manufacturer, there is no wrong decision. The only mistake you could make would be to pick a brand that doesn't speak to your gut.
If you need help settling on a brand, consult the chart ("Stick Selection," below) that characterizes most leading companies' various approaches to club making and custom fitting and lists their best-selling lines. Today most manufacturers offer some degree of custom fitting (Nike is the most notable exception, but it has big plans to roll out custom fitting later this year), and a few, like Henry-Griffitts, offer only custom-fitted clubs.
Another approach is to attend so-called demo days. These traveling road shows, at which potential customers may test-hit a manufacturer's clubs and talk to company representatives about the pros and cons of each model, have become increasingly popular in recent years as most of the main club makers have jumped on the custom-fitting bandwagon. In most cases you will be able to hit a version of each club that approximates the correct fit for you; this provides much clearer feedback than hitting the crowbarlike version of the club that happens to belong to a friend or one of the stray clubs your local pro shop may have in a barrel by the door. Most manufacturers' web sites let you search for the dates of demo days in your area; you can also call the companies' toll-free numbers or look for notices at local clubs, driving ranges and pro shops. Rarer but better are so-called megademo days, at which multiple manufacturers converge on one site, allowing golfers to sample brands side by side. Most big golfing cities have at least one super-range or golf course that stages occasional megademo days; look for notices. The web site golftourtrailer.com keeps track of some megademo days; you might also try calling your local PGA of America section for information.
In researching manufacturers, you may find yourself drawn to one particular model within a brand (Mizuno's MX-15 instead of the MP-33, for instance), but don't absolutely commit yourself to that club at this stage of the process. This is best done later, in consultation with the fitter. Also bear in mind that there is no particular reason you have to be fit for irons and woods at the same time or even by the same fitter.
Find a Fitter
The best possible club fitter is the pro who regularly gives you lessons. If he happens to be a trained fitter for the company you want to buy your clubs from and has a fitting cart with sample clubs at the place where he teaches, your search for a fitter has ended. In fact, he's probably already tactfully suggested, many times, that you let him fit you. The rest of us have to look a little bit harder.
The major manufacturers have networks of fitters, most of them teaching pros, who have received at least some kind of training specific to that company. You can call or visit the web sites of those companies to find a list of fitters in your area. There's no getting around the reality that some fitters will be better trained, more experienced, more personable, more caring and better communicators than others, so—as always—word of mouth is helpful. But don't let the lack of a personal recommendation deter you. Almost any company-certified fitter will do a competent job; the technology and guidelines that many of the manufacturers provide to fitters these days ensure a baseline of quality. Callaway, for instance, rigs out all of its fitting carts with launch monitors and laptop computers running software that orchestrates the entire fitting process, from start to finish.