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The Scoop on Wedges

Face it. You know it's wrong to try to buy a better golf game. You honor Ben Hogan, who told us that the only true way to improvement was in the dirt. You tell yourself you'd practice like Hogan did, except that you don't have the time. But since we're really being candid here, you don't have Hogan's obsessive desire, either. The truth is that you'd buy a better game if you knew how to shop for it.

You're not alone. Millions of your fellow golfers would, too. The problem is that most of them don't buy wisely. Every year many invest their new-club budgets in a bigger, hotter driver. The new driver may well add yardage, but it may not do as much for accuracy. Their scores refuse to go down.

Meanwhile, these golfers ignore an aspect of the game where modern club technology would definitely help them buy improvement: bunker play. How often do you leave a shot in a bunker? How often do you fail to get up and down from the sand?How often do you fail to get it close when you're pitching to a green from an uneven lie, or to reach the green from a fairway bunker?Two, three, four times a round?That's where strokes can be saved.

A reason for your bunker and general wedge problems may be that you're still playing with the wedges that came with those irons you bought ten years ago. Or with new wedges that aren't right for your game. Or you may still be trying to reach the green from fairway bunkers with a long iron. You're making the game harder than it has to be. You need some help, help of the sort that Kirk Lucas and Wade Heintzelman provide.

Lucas is a former professional player and caddie who currently teaches both Tour pros— Jonathan Byrd and Kris Tschetter—and mid- and high-handicappers. He sees the amateurs on his seventy-five-acre facility called The Farm in Warrenton, Virginia, where he's built four practice greens, a few tees and two intersecting fairways. When Lucas takes on a new pupil, one of the first things he checks is whether the club set matches the game, particularly the wedges. There's a wide variety of wedges available these days, designed with different swings and needs in mind. Lucas sends pupils who need new clubs to Heintzelman's Golf Care Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. Heintzelman has worked in several of the equipment vans that follow the pro tours, and he's fitted a number of pros. His specialties are analyzing golfers' swings, prescribing club specifications and grinding wedges to meet the needs of particular players.

One of the first things Lucas and Heintzelman try to do is disabuse mid- to high-handicap pupils of the notion that they can use the same clubs as the pros. "The players I work with who are really good have gone to wedges with less bounce and thinner soles," says Lucas. "But their wedges wouldn't work very well for the average ten-handicapper."

To explain why, it's necessary to define a few of the features of wedges, most importantly bounce. Another key variable in a wedge is the width of the sole. A wide sole, like bounce, helps prevent the club from digging into the sand. Bounce and sole width work synergistically. "The width of the sole dramatically influences bounce," says Heintzelman. "The wider the sole, the greater the bounce in play. The wide sole, when the clubhead is opened up, creates massive bounce."

There are other variables. Camber is the amount of arch in the sole of the wedge, both from the heel to the toe and from the leading edge to the trailing edge. Generally speaking, the greater the camber, the more forgiving the club when you hit off turf, although it has little effect on bunker shots.

If a player who tends to scoop the ball and often hits it fat tries to hit from a tight turf lie, the trailing edge of the wedge without camber will contact the ground first and cause the leading edge to bounce up—skulling the ball. A sole with a lot of camber tends to forgive the fat scoop. Camber from heel to toe adds forgiveness to shots off turf where the player must stand either above or below the ball. A wedge without camber will tend to dig in at the toe on lies above the feet, opening the clubface. A wedge without camber, playing a shot below the player's feet, will tend to dig in at the heel, closing the clubface.

At the professional level, there are yet more variations. Frequently, Heintzelman grinds down the heels of pros' wedges, because when they open the club up, they don't want the heel to catch the turf first. In effect, he is creating camber in a portion of a wedge that doesn't have any.

But unless you're a pro, buying wedges with pro specs is like buying Formula One racing tires for your Volvo. "The pros are so good they could hit bunker shots with a shovel," says Heintzelman. Unlike most amateurs, they play in virtually uniform bunker conditions every week: an inch or two of sand over a firm base. Using low-bounce wedges, they can take fine slices of sand like an Italian butcher cuts paper-thin slices of prosciutto, putting backspin on their shots. They also want thin-soled, low-bounce wedges to hit shots like the flop from a tight lie. Amateurs attempt such shots at their peril.

Lucas and Heintzelman use video and other devices to analyze a client's swing and prescribe the right wedges. But there is a way you can do it yourself: Check your divots.

Do you make a big, deep divot with your wedge from a fairway lie?If so, it's an indication of a steep approach angle. The most frequent cause of this is the over-the-top and outside-to-in move of most amateurs. A player who casts his club like that has no choice but to approach the ball from a steeper angle than a player who drops his club into the "slot" and swings inside to out.

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