My first impression when I walked into Hot Stix Golf was that I had entered the headquarters of SMERSH. Men in lab coats scurried about. Technicians fiddled with chrome gadgets. On a raised platform, a man—Goldfinger?—stared at a flat-screen monitor while aiming a laser between the feet of a subject standing below.
Then I remembered why I had come to Scottsdale—to have my golf clubs analyzed at the world's most advanced independent club-fitting facility. Unlike the proprietary fitting systems promoted by the major clubmakers, Hot Stix is at the cutting edge of a trend toward unbiased recommendations for equipment from all manufacturers. Unlike retail golf shops with hitting bays that may or may not have a diagnostic launch monitor, Hot Stix is the Mayo Clinic of the graphite-and-titanium set, the place where touring pros like Hale Irwin and Tom Lehman go for top-to-bottom examinations of their equipment. Need a golf ball prescription?A Hot Stix fitter can write you one. Tired of playing Army Golf (right, left, right, left)?Hot Stix will tell you if mismatched shafts are to blame. "We can't make you Tiger Woods," said Allen Gobeski, the club fitter who gave me a tour of the facility, "but we can make you as good a golfer as you can be."
Lured by that promise, I set aside several days for my visit. The fittings can be done in a day ($150 each for irons and woods fittings, $75 for the putter), but Hot Stix urges its customers to try out various shaft and clubhead combinations at their mobile unit, which moves between the nearby Talking Stick Golf Club and JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. Corporate types, I was told, fly private planes into Scottsdale Airport, a few blocks from Hot Stix's unlikely location in an industrial park, and squeeze in their fittings between rounds at Troon North, Paradise Valley Country Club or McCormick Ranch. If they need lessons, they check into one of the area's many golf schools, such as the Kostis McCord Learning Center at Grayhawk Golf Club or the Nicklaus/Flick Game Improvement Center at Desert Mountain. "We don't advise people on their swings," Gobeski told me. "We're just here to fit you."
After sending me back to my car to fetch my sticks, Gobeski introduced me to my fitter, John German, a thirty-five-year-old former touring pro from Grinnell, Iowa. The affable German (pronounced Grrr-mun) began by analyzing my clubs. My Callaway X-16 irons had been fitted for me a few years ago at the Callaway test center in California. My TaylorMade r7 Quad driver was so new I had yet to hit it. And my Titleist Vokey lob wedge had moved into the bag a decade ago and never left.
"When sets are off, the errors are usually in the utility clubs," German said as he began locking my irons, one by one, into a loft-lie machine and calling out numbers to Gobeski at a computer. "Particularly the wedges. Length and shaft-flex problems are common because people buy them off the rack." Sure enough, my Titleist wedge turned out to be a full inch longer than my Callaway wedges and had a swing weight of E5. That would make it a great weapon if I ever had to face a burglar in my basement at 3 a.m., but not so hot for delicate pitch shots. "We preach consistency and continuity throughout the set. We want you to be able to make the same swing with every club."
My irons, German found, had the desired lofts, with roughly four-degrees difference between clubs to avoid yardage gaps. ("Callaway is consistent. You know what to expect.") Moving on, he locked the grip end of my driver into the vise of a frequency-analyzing machine, pulled back the clubhead and let go, causing the shaft to vibrate like a cartoon cat hammered with a skillet. "We don't talk 'flex,'" he said, referring to common golf industry terms like "stiff" or "regular," which he considers too broad to be useful. "We use the FM Precision scale." In other words, he was testing to see if the frequencies of my shafts, measured in cycles per minute, were consistent. "The average golfer assumes that all his shafts are the same," German said, "but most companies just put the shafts in with the logo facing down. They don't have the time to frequency-match every set." He shrugged. "They do a good job, but it's stock equipment."
German handed me my six-iron. "Let's hit some balls."
The next phase of the Hot Stix treatment was unremarkable, but fun. I hit balls into a net under the watchful eye of a launch monitor, which recorded variables such as launch angle, clubhead speed, face angle at impact, spin, and my favorite: Power Transfer Index (PTI), which German called the "smash factor." Lacking an engineering degree, I didn't fully understand this flood of data, but it was comforting to know that my test results would go into a personal file and be stored, as in a doctor's office, with the hundreds already there. The fitters, apparently, read the customers to determine how much science they want with their fitting. If you seem uninterested or intimidated by such detail, or just in a hurry, they're happy to keep it to themselves.