After last year's British Open disaster, Tiger Woods set golf junkies buzzing when he changed his irons to those made by his sponsor Nike. Hackers like me wondered: If the greatest in the game thought his performance might improve with new clubs, maybe mine would, too. No more shanked long-iron approach shots from 185 yards, no more punch and roll on the par threes. New irons. New technology. New game.
Not quite. While pricey clubs might add a few yards to Tiger's drives, they offer little solace to muni-course hacks like you and me. The idea that high-end clubs will significantly improve a hack's game is lucrative fiction. If anything, buying top-of-the-line woods and irons will probably add more strokes to your game than they'll take away.
The problem with high-end golf equipment is that new "innovations" are designed specifically to combat minor flaws in a PGA tour professional's game. If you're Phil Mickelson—spinning balls intentionally, slicing them precisely, or hooking 'em smartly—top-end clubs might help you get over the hump and win your first major. But if you're a weekend player, with serious flaws in your swing and far less ball control, you're better off with less-advanced woods and irons. The highest of high-end clubs are just a waste of money.
Take the Callaway Golf Forged Wedges, a beautiful new set of clubs designed by golf maestro Roger Cleveland and hawked by pros Annika Sorenstam and Charles Howell III. (A sand and pitching wedge will run you about $200.) Cleveland shrank the club heads of the Callaways, while retaining the density and weight distribution pro golfers need for smooth, consistent shots and a true "feel." The smaller head will undoubtedly help pros like Sorenstam hit balls cleanly out of crummy lies while still allowing them to feel exactly what they did with a shot in terms of loft, spin, and power. But for the hack golfer, smaller club heads aren't helpful. The average golfer is more concerned with "forgiveness"—essentially, that poorly struck and errant shots will not stray too wildly and get a golfer into much trouble. Smaller clubs are much less forgiving of tiny mistakes than larger, blunter heads, which means they'll probably just send your balls whizzing from one sand trap to another.
Or consider the design leap at the other end of the spectrum, the oversized club head. The new Redline Driver from Adams Golf features tungsten perimeter weighting and the highest possible "coefficient of restitution" (that's golf geek speak meaning it will generate the greatest possible velocity). The company says the clubs will give you "maximum distance, maximum accuracy, and maximum ease." Sounds promising, no?
But there's a tradeoff, and it's one a lot of golfers don't realize they are making. As Dick Rugge, senior technical director for the USGA, and others have pointed out, oversized clubs encourage people to swing a lot harder. With a bigger club head, you are psychologically less worried about hitting a bad shot. So, you overswing. Who wants to pull that huge No. 1 out of his bag in the tee box in front of his friends, only to lay off the backswing and follow through? It's true that a bigger club head is more forgiving. But it's also encouraging people to think they can swing like Tiger and get away with it. Bigger cuts actually mean less control and bigger misses. And that results in some truly awful golf shots.
Even high-end golf balls are suspect. The new HX balls (pronounced "Hex") go for $45 for a box of 12, about two to threetimes the cost of standard balls. The innovation? They replace the circular dimples found on normal balls with hexagonal dimples, designed to give your drives an aerodynamic boost. And whereas traditional balls have about three-fourths of the ball surface covered by dimples, the new HX balls have dimples on almost 100 percent of the surface, which should reduce wind drag. The manufacturer claims HX balls will likely add yards to your tee shot.
The problem for casual players is that HX balls can magnify your mistakes as much as they minimize your distance to the green. And that can be a big problem. For the weekend player, catastrophic mistakes are what make a golf game disgraceful. (There's a reason golfers say "the woods are full of long drivers"—referring to people, not clubs.) And HX balls mean that while it's now likely that a perfect tee shot might sail an extra 10 or 20 yards, it's just as likely that an errant shot into the high rough will become an errant shot into another fairway.
Why do golfers keep buying this stuff? Well, for one thing, they tend to have a lot of disposable income. For another, they tend to confuse equipment changes in golf with those in other sports, like tennis. (Indeed, since they are both club sports, racket and golf equipment are often sold in the same specialty stores.) Whereas a graphite tennis racket allows the average player to hit the ball much harder than the wooden paddle Bjorn Borg used, new golf technology hasn't really changed the fundamental nature of the game—even for the pros.
Bob Haines, a mechanical engineer who outfits well-to-do golf clients in the Washington, D.C., area, says there's a reason "scoring averages are the same as they were 50 years ago." Tiger and Annika Sorenstam might be hitting a little longer today than they would using clubs made 30 years ago—but that has as much to do with athletic conditioning and course upkeep as it does their clubs. As Haines told me, "An old Wilson-made Sam Snead set is basically the same design as the top-of-the-line Nike clubs Tiger uses today. … They may use new names—beta titanium vs. regular titanium—but, look, I can tell you all these fancy names don't make much difference. If your swing isn't good, your game won't be either."
I, too, can testify because I'm one of the dupes. After upgrading to a $1,500 custom-made set of clubs several years ago, I was hopeful a new era of sub-90 rounds was imminent. Nope—my scores still exceeded my IQ. Despite longer steel shafts and elliptical back-weighted heads (whatever the hell those are), my rounds collapsed in a John Daly-esque fit of blown shots at the 13th and bourbon shots at the 19th. New gear won't do anything to reduce a hack golfer's high scores. For that, there's a cheaper albeit less sexy alternative: practice.