In some cases you can be fitted at a company's demo day (you may even be able to take home your clubs that day, if the manufacturer has a club-fitting van present). Demo-days fitters usually bring a lot of experience to the task, but there are two downsides. First, they may be booked when you get there (you can try arranging a time in advance), and second, they won't be around to give follow-up lessons should you desire them. This isn't always an issue, but sometimes a good fitting session develops into a lasting teacher-student relationship, and in other cases, the fitter and fittee decide to postpone ordering a set of clubs until after a few lessons, so that possible swing changes can be accommodated in the new set (see "When to Get Fitted," below). The fitter's fee—often around $50, or whatever he or she customarily gets for a short lesson—is almost always waived or deducted from the cost of any clubs you buy through him or her. Fitters that work directly for manufacturers, such as those who are at demo days, will usually provide fittings for free.
Another option is to go to a permanent fitting facility. Some high-end ranges and golf schools, such as the PGA Learning Center at Port St. Lucie, Florida, and some golf resorts maintain fitting systems from multiple manufacturers. Retail shops also can often fit you in clubs from several different companies, but all too often at off-course facilities the fitting takes place indoors. The measurements taken off indoor swings, as you hit balls into a net, are as technically accurate as those taken outdoors, but in my experience, having been fitted for this story numerous times in a variety of circumstances, it is more difficult indoors to feel confident that you are making a natural swing. Even at indoor locations where sophisticated launch monitors provide instant analysis of each swing and sometimes even project the results, along with simulated ball-flight paths, up on a screen, the feedback is inferior to what you get outdoors, where you can feel the turf, hear the impact and watch your shots fade, slice, rise and fall through the open air. Others may feel different, however, and it is certainly fun to interact with the technology at high-tech studios like those found, for instance, at Callaway's performance centers.
But remember: Any fitting is better than no fitting at all. Even the simplest indoor fitting—taking a few swings on a Plexiglas lie board under the watchful eye of a fitter and having a few measurements made—puts you ahead of the game.
THE FITTING ITSELF
Typically it goes like this: The fitter asks a series of questions about your golf game and your aspirations, takes a few "static" measurements, such as the width of your palm and the distance from your wrist or fingertips to the ground, and then starts trying to zero in on the right club by watching you hit balls with a variety of models (in iron fittings, you typically hit multiple versions of a five- or six-iron). A little paperwork generates an order and, depending on the company, within a few days to a few weeks you have your clubs.
Usually one of the first things the fitter tries to determine is which of the manufacturer's models to put you in. High-handicap players, for example, are usually happiest with forgiving models that have generous offset (to help counteract slices) and low centers of gravity (to help get the ball airborne), while better players may want less-forgiving clubs that allow them to work the ball and receive more feedback from mis-hit shots. Your input at this stage is important. Fitting carts typically contain several dozen clubs, including variously configured versions of each model the company offers, so you'll be able to try each type on for size.
As you hit balls, the fitter is primarily trying to determine three things: the best lie angle, shaft length and shaft flex for your swing and your game. When you strike a ball, you normally want the sole of the club to be flat, or horizontal, to the ground. If the toe is pointing up as the result of a too-upright lie angle, your shots will tend to go left; if the toe is down, they'll tend right. The fitter can make a preliminary assessment of the correct lie angle by observing your posture at address, but strange things happen during the swing, and a proper lie angle at address sometimes skews into a flat or upright lie angle at the moment of impact. That's why any good fitter will have you hit balls off a lie board to determine the so-called dynamic lie angle; a piece of impact tape stuck to the sole of the club, examined after each shot, tells the tale of whether you're hitting toe-up, toe-down or dead solid. Most fitters also put impact tape on the face of the club, to determine which clubs best help you hit the ball in the center.