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Kiss Your Long Irons Goodbye

Remember how you initially resisted switching from your trusty old persimmon driver to a new metal one?And before that from your old-fashioned, hard-to-hit irons to perimeter-weighted, game-improvement versions?Well, prepare yourself for another switch. Most people in golf, from equipment makers to teaching pros, are convinced that a comparable sea change is going on now in the long end of the bag—that region between the driver and roughly the five- or six-iron. In the past few years, manufacturers have learned to make clubs that are indisputably easier to hit straighter, higher and farther than traditional long irons. These clubs—tailored fairway woods with extra-high lofts, new-style hybrids and wide-soled extreme-game-improvement irons that may differ dramatically in style from the short irons in your bag—could take a bit of getting used to (about five minutes, in most cases), but in the long run, resistance is futile. Think of it this way: Would you ever even consider going back to your old persimmon driver or those masochistic blades?

The welter of new choices in clubs, together with the proliferation of manufacturers' claims for them, make it tempting to bury one's head in the sand. (Didn't buying golf equipment used to be simple?) But once you understand a few key concepts about why the new clubs work better and how they differ from one another, navigating the changed landscape shouldn't be intimidating. At first glance it may seem perplexing that a traditional three-iron, a seven-wood and a hybrid such as the one Adams Golf markets as a four all have the same loft: twenty-one degrees. But each type of club has its own characteristics—for instance, fairway woods hit the ball much higher and with greater spin than long irons of the same loft, with hybrids in between—and once you know the basics, you can figure out which of the new clubs you need and how to configure your bag to accommodate them (see below). As a general principle, few players these days, even low handicappers, should be carrying traditional, narrow-soled irons longer than a five.

For many golfers, the hardest part about adapting to the new clubs will be overcoming macho resistance to them. Long irons have a totemic place in golf. "The ability to hit a long iron has always been one of the traditional measures of expert golfers," acknowledged Richard C. Helmstetter, Callaway's senior executive vice president for strategic initiatives. It is hard to imagine Ben Hogan swapping his famous one-iron blade (the one with blood dripping from the grip) for a chubby-headed half iron/half fairway wood known as a rescue club. But today's Tour pros aren't so finicky. In fact, TaylorMade's Rescue Mid was put in play more than a thousand times on the PGA Tour last year by, among others, five of the top ten money winners. With big stakes on the line, Tour pros care only about what works, and they've discovered that hybrids hit the ball higher and with a lot more stopping power than comparable long irons. Last year's money leader, Vijay Singh, wore out his seven-wood and sometimes even used a nine-wood. On the LPGA Tour, almost every player now carries fairway woods in lofts that didn't even exist a few years ago (up to nine-, eleven- and thirteen-woods), and the same is increasingly true on the Champions Tour. Almost certainly, if you haven't already, you'll be joining the pros soon.

The best way to understand what the new clubs are all about is to get a little historical perspective. Long irons have always been the most difficult clubs in the bag to hit well. Lee Trevino used to joke that he always hoisted his one-iron overhead during lightning storms, "because even God can't hit a one-iron." The main reason is that long irons have low lofts (the angle at which the clubface tilts back from the plane that is parallel to the shaft). The high loft in short irons and wedges automatically produces a lot of backspin, but long irons don't produce much of it except when swung with high clubhead speeds—higher than many recreational players can achieve. Backspin is desirable because it makes golf balls climb high and helps keep shots on track by overwhelming the sidespin that causes hooks and slices. Backspin is also necessary to stop a ball on the green.

As if long irons weren't already difficult to hit, they've actually become more difficult to hit in the last few years, for a couple of reasons. The first is the advent of highly engineered solid-core balls that, when struck at high clubhead speeds, spin less and sail on hotter, flatter trajectories. That's exactly what you want with a driver, when distance is the prime objective. But with long irons the goal is usually to hit the ball a specific distance—to a green—and stop it there, and at this task the new balls simply aren't as proficient as the old, soft-covered, three-piece balls. (When struck at lower clubhead speeds with more-lofted shorter irons, the new balls spin plenty—that's part of the ingeniousness of their design. But the spin characteristics of long-iron shots are inherently closer in nature to those of drives.)

The other reason long irons have become harder to hit is that over the past decade, manufacturers have stealthily de-lofted the clubfaces of all irons and added length to the shafts. Their motive was to make the ball go farther (the new eight-irons outhit the old eight-irons) and thus help convince consumers to shell out for new sets. But for the long irons in particular, the negatives of this arrangement outweigh the positives. The added shaft length makes the clubs that much harder to control, and the lower loft leaves even more players unable to get the ball airborne.

Fairway woods as an alternative to long irons have always had several advantages. Most stem from the larger, bulbous clubhead, which allows designers to distribute weight farther from the point of impact than with long irons, in ways that stabilize the clubhead and compensate for off-center hits. Even more significantly, the center of gravity in fairway woods is typically set low and well back from the clubface, which increases the club's moment of inertia (or resistance to twisting) and its dynamic loft, significantly boosting backspin. (Dynamic loft is a combination of the static loft of the club at rest and the force produced by the clubhead in motion.)

But fairway woods have their limitations, particularly the more lofted they get. Players with faster than average swing speeds sometimes hit the ball too high with fairway woods, and with so much backspin their shots balloon (especially into the wind), making distance control problematic. In addition, since the shafts of fairway woods are usually at least an inch to an inch-and-a-half longer than on comparably lofted irons, perfect timing is more difficult to achieve. They are harder to hit with precision.

That's where the new hybrids come in. You can think of them as mini fairway woods, with similarly shaped, hollow clubheads roughly half the size, and with shorter shafts (although still typically a bit longer than the shafts in long irons). They hit the ball high like fairway woods and with lots of backspin—just not quite as much. The shorter shafts keep them from hitting the ball as far as fairway woods, but make them easier to control. They are also easier to control than comparably lofted long irons because of their larger clubheads with ample perimeter weighting and low, set-back centers of gravity. Like fairway woods, hybrids work well with the shallow swing arc that most amateurs have; by contrast, long irons work best with a steeper, pro-like, divot-producing angle of attack. As in game-improvement irons, the clubfaces in hybrids are usually offset (or set slightly behind the plane of the shaft), which can give the player additional help in getting the ball airborne and in fighting slices. The clubfaces of fairway woods, by contrast, are usually neutral or onset (set slightly in front of the shaft plane), which can be helpful when hitting out of the rough, because grass is less likely to wrap around the hosel. Hybrid makers often try to compensate for this disadvantage by making V-shaped soleplates that partially resist getting tangled in the cabbage.

All the tinkering and research that club manufacturers have done with hybrids, made possible by the widespread use of high-tech launch monitors and advanced computer-aided design tools, has inevitably circled back to influence the design of other clubs. "The line between hybrids and fairway woods is blurring," said Chris McGinley, head of golf club marketing for Titleist, which is testing hybrids but has not yet come to market with them. The line between hybrids and long irons is even finer. Some new extreme-game-improvement irons, such as the Nike Slingshots, Ping G2 HLs, Callaway Big Berthas and TaylorMade RAC CGB irons, rival the high-ball-flight performance of hybrids and—with bigger heads and centers of gravity pushed back off the clubface—even look somewhat like them.

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