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Pro Shop: Stepping It Up

WILSON GOLF DEEP RED II TOUR
Nike Golf broke into the club biz last year with sticks designed for low handicappers and then filled out its line to accommodate everyday players. Wilson is essentially pulling a reverse Nike. Known for quality clubs designed with the rest of us in mind, Wilson now brings a new driver and a beautiful set of irons intended for highly skilled players.

The Deep Red II Tour Driver ($449) is part of the second generation of Wilson's Deep Red line. Along with weight that's pushed lower and farther back to increase ball velocity, the Deep Red II Tour has a non-huge, 350-cubic-centimeter clubhead, a tapered shaft (shedding the distinctive Fat Shaft of its predecessors) and is neutrally balanced to help good, brave golfers work the ball off the tee. Despite its elitist claims, however, we found this driver to be plenty forgiving and were pleased at the reduction of the rear protuberance on its soleplate.

The Deep Red II Tour Irons ($849 steel shafts) have the thin topline, small head size and minimal offset of blades yet, like the driver, are reasonably forgiving. That's due in part to the progressive muscleback weighting, which makes the lower irons easier to hit high than true blades, and to the handsome urethane insert at the top of the muscleback ridge, which helps create a luxurious, vibration-dampened feel. Well-hit shots with these clubs seemed to carry remarkable distances. Call 800-469-4576 or visit wilsongolf.com.

TOURSTAGE Z101 IRONS
Bridgestone Sports is best known in the U.S. for its Precept golf balls. But in its home country of Japan, Bridgestone is famous for the premium clubs it sells under the TourStage moniker. The company has now committed itself to establishing TourStage as a premium brand here, focusing (for the time being) on low handicappers with an initial line of metalwoods, wedges and irons. Of the bunch, the Z101 Irons ($999 steel shafts) are the most intriguing. Forged from mild carbon steel, the irons feature a simple but visually pleasing peaked flange and progressive cavities: deeper in the short irons to enhance feel, fortified by tungsten inserts in the long irons to add forgiveness. The company is also dispatching a roaming custom-fitting van; check the web site for schedules. Call 800-358-6319 or visit preceptgolf.com.

TOMMY ARMOUR 845 SILVERBACK IRONS
Tommy Armour 845 Irons have been one of golf's longest-running success stories since they were first marketed in the late '80s. The newest iteration is the SilverBack Series: three distinct iron models for three different player profiles. The easiest to hit is the cast 845u ($750 steel shafts; $900 graphite), with a thick topline and generous offset. That said, the attractively forged 845c ($900 steel only) should appeal to the widest range of golfers. A sleeker club with a more modest cavity, we found that it was both forgiving and long. The 845m ($900 steel only) is the player's club. The size and position of the forged muscle flange change over the set, providing limited game-improvement functionality, but these clubs are not for beginners. Call 800-723-4653 or visit tommyarmourgolf.com.

TITLEIST TITANIUM 983 DRIVERS
You might think, as it's been six years since Titleist launched its previous driver series, that the new 983 Series ($500) would come in splashy colors and feature clubheads the size of shoe boxes. But that's not the Titleist way. The new clubs have the same classic pear shape as the outgoing 975 Series, a similar silver-and-gray aesthetic (now slightly darker), and the clubheads top out at only 365 cc. So what's different?For one thing, Tour pros are hitting their 983s a long, long way: Ernie Els is up more than twenty yards. Granted, other factors (such as Titleist's Pro V1x ball) contribute to these gains, but so do subtle changes in the club's construction. A new "plasma" welding process allows for gram-by-gram weight distribution; the thin beta-titanium clubface is microscopically inset for a larger sweet spot. Most players will prefer the slightly higher trajectory of the 983K, which Els and Phil Mickelson use; the 350 cc 983E (Davis Love III's choice) produces a more boring ball flight. Our experience with the 983K confirmed the club's power. We also liked how the 983's balance helped us sense where the clubhead was during the swing. Call 800-225-8500 or visit titleist.com.

PING Si3 DRIVER
The key innovation to Ping's new Si3 Driver ($465) is a titanium clubface that isn't simply welded to the club but actually wraps around the frontmost half-inch or so of the body. Although this construction is not visible beneath the paint and burnishing, Ping claims it produces an unusually thin but sturdy face for maximum distance. A lighter grip and shaft then minimize the total weight of the club, which helps produce a faster swing speed. Rare in the industry, the Si3 is available in various combinations of lie and face angles to enable players to achieve their desired ball flight. We found that the club's deep (tall) face promoted a sense of control at address. Call 800-474-6434 or visit pinggolf.com.

BACKYARD BALLS

These new-concept balls are just plain fun to goof around with—and, if you're a practice hound, quite useful. AlmostGolf Balls ($13 per dozen) are made from a rigid polymer foam that holds its shape and are molded with realistic dimples. The dimples assure that the flight characteristics (draw, fade, backspin) are remarkably true, while the light material (they weigh roughly a quarter of regular balls) means that AlmostGolf Balls don't break windows, dint cars or endanger passersby; they travel a third to half as far as Titleists. That's satisfyingly farther than a Wiffle ball—enough to achieve genuine hang time, even with woods—but short enough to use in a large backyard, in city parks or at the summerhouse. The company anticipates a big market teaching kids to play in limited spaces (including gymnasiums) and is organizing some wild tournaments routed through urban landscapes. Call 310-998-3313 or visit almostgolfball.com.

SHARPENED BLADES

Tweaking Ben Hogan's blades is not an enterprise to be taken lightly, but the new Hogan Apex 50 Irons ($1,080 steel shafts) manage to remain faithful to the design simplicity and aesthetics of the Apex tradition while introducing a bit more playability. In the first revise since 1998 of the Ben Hogan Company's most famous product, the muscleback has been made more progressive and redesigned slightly with a thin, crescent shape added to the back. In addition, the company has increased the offset in the short irons just a smidgen and made other subtle, alignment-enhancing changes to the leading edge and topline. If you are looking for and have the ability to hit blades, you won't find a more solid-feeling or prestigious model on the market. Call 800-772-5346 or visit benhogan.com.

SKIN DEEP

A good sunscreen is a good sunscreen, you may say, and to some extent that's true: Almost any reputable block rated SPF 15 or higher will protect your skin from the sun's damaging rays. Proderma ($8-$30), however, has created a line of products specifically for golfers, and the differences are not trivial. Most importantly, the SPF 30 Sunscreen is oil-free, nongreasy and absorbs almost instantly into the skin, minimizing club-slippage concerns. The Sunscreen and the unique Windscreen product, which protects against chapping and burn on cold, blustery days, are highly sweat- and water-resistant. This reduces the time between necessary reapplications. All of the company's products, including SPF 30 Lip Balm, a Moonscreen for nighttime recovery and a Burn Gel, have a luxurious feel to them and light, distinctly nonfeminine fragrances. Call 800-447-3035 or visit prodermaproducts.com.

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