It's not as if the concept of using fairway-wood-type designs as a substitute for long-irons is new. As far back as the 1950s, a club maker named Kenneth Smith custom-made fairway woods in lofts up to a wedge-like fifty degrees to help high handicappers. What is new is the way they've caught on.
The first modern club to enjoy widespread success as a long-iron replacement was Callaway's Heaven Wood, now sold as their seven-wood. Richard Helmstetter co-designed the original Heaven Wood with company founder Ely Callaway in 1991. They had a specific goal in mind: to help Helmstetter's father, then seventy-four, clear a frustrating 125-yard water hazard on a par-three hole at an annual father-son tournament. "Our engineers measured Dad's swing speed and other specs and calculated what spin and launch angle the club would need for him to hit a shot that both carried the water and stayed on the green," Helmstetter recalled. When a version of the resulting club was put on the market, it became an instant success.
Helmstetter's father was not unique in being unable to carry 125 yards on a playable trajectory—that is, with sufficient height and spin to stop the ball a predictable distance away. Manufacturers have determined that for many golfers, playable trajectory ends with the six- or seven-iron. For them, snuggling the ball next to a pin tucked behind a bunker 150 yards away is impossible. Club makers have also discovered that many slow-swing-speed players have no practical distance gap between their long irons. For these players, the advent of high-lofted fairway woods has been a godsend. Among female golfers in particular, seven-, nine- and eleven-woods have become ubiquitous. Hilary Lunke won the U.S. Women's Open last summer by hitting one clutch shot after another with her twenty-five-degree eleven-wood. Most manufacturers these days sell fairway woods up to at least twenty-one or twenty-three degrees of loft, intended to replace the three- and four-irons, and many (see chart on previous pages) sell even-more-lofted woods, capable of replacing up to a six-iron.
Hybrids were originally designed for this same group of slow-swing-speed players and high handicappers. But to the surprise of manufacturers, Tour pros have been among the most ardent early adapters. "The pro game these days is played almost entirely in the air," said Tim Reed, head of research and development for Adams Golf. "As soon as the guys started hitting these clubs, they almost instantly understood the advantages." A player such as Stuart Appleby, who packs a twenty-two-degree TaylorMade Rescue Mid, has no trouble hitting a two-iron, but with a hybrid of the same loft, he can fly the ball, say, 230 yards and have it roll five, instead of fly 220 and roll fifteen. For him, there's little question which club he wants in the bag.
"The closer an average player gets to the hole, the more his clubs can be like Tiger's," said Tom Stites, Nike's chief club designer. "But the longer the shot, the more useful this new technology is." Stites said he can't see any good reason for anyone to use traditional long irons anymore. Does that include Woods, who still uses blades?"Well, Tiger's Tiger," Stites said with a grin. "Maybe he's just waiting to switch to give his game some place to go when he's in his thirties."