Chris Lewis
Thursday January 20th, 2005

We golf industry folks have a saying: the longer you're in the business, the less you actually get to play. For me, that couldn't be more true. This year, my 20-plus weeks of Tour-trotting have allowed for a mere 12 rounds of golf.

But now, with the season almost over -- hurrah, just four events left! -- I'm plotting my revenge. After the final putt drops at the Tour Championship, I'm gonna golf my arms off. Deciding where to play is easy, since I live in sunny Southern California. The hard part is figuring out what new gear to put in the bag.

All year long, I've listened to pros sing the praises of their new utility clubs -- the clunky-looking wood-slash-iron hybrids have lately become ubiquitous on Tour. According to the Darrell Survey, the 144 players in Las Vegas last week had 62 utility clubs in their bags. I can't tell you how many utilities were in play last year in Vegas, but I'd put the increase at something like 600 percent.

Most are using the clubs to replace two-irons and five-woods. What's surprising, though, is that a few pros -- including Retief Goosen, who started this trend-within-a-trend late last year -- are using lower-lofted models to replace their three-woods. Strange, yes, but you can't argue with his results -- en route to his win at the U.S. Open, he bisected (by my count) four fairways per day with his 14-degree Taylor Made Rescue club.

A couple of weeks later, at the Western Open, Joey Sindelar told me he was going to follow Goosen's lead, and swap out his three-wood for a Rescue. In Denver, two weeks after the British, Todd Hamilton talked up his championship-clinching playoff bump-and-run with his 17-degree (bent to 14 degrees) Sonartec Md hybrid club. Last week in Vegas, walking a practice round with Blaine McCallister and Scott McCarron, I watched the two bang their utilities (for McCallister, another Sonartec Md; for McCarron, Callaway's new "Heaven Wood") into the mayor's office every time they teed it up on a short par-four.

What's happened, in a nutshell, is this: the pros have found that the utilities are longer and more forgiving than comparably-lofted irons, and, because of their smaller bulk, more predictable (read: accurate) than woods. They also play better than irons or woods out of iffy lies, and can be employed to hit a bunch of cute little shots around the greens. (Just ask Todd.)

True, these versatile mini-marvels have been around for a while. But like the pros, I've been slow to warm to them. Why? My guess is that they're just a lot better designed than they used to be. My first hybrid was Taylor Made's first-generation Rescue, purchased back when when the company's clubheads were the same color as the fingernails of a University of Texas co-ed. I could barely get the thing airborne. Undaunted, I plunked down $200 for a used PRGR driving iron, with similar results. The experiments succeeded only in making me appreciate my local golf mega-mart's liberal return policy.

Then, early last year, a kid at that same mega-mart hipped me to the Mizuno Fli-Hi utility iron, and it was love at first strike. The dispersion on this little 21-degree miracle was next-to-nothing: I could hit it anywhere on the clubface, and it invariably traveled between 200 and 210 yards, and never strayed more than 30 feet left or right. For long par-3s, it was perfect. My three-iron was quickly exiled. Now, you'd need a gun to get that Fli-Hi out of my bag.

A couple of weeks ago, with Sindelar's and Hamilton's words ringing in my ears, I decided to take the next logical step. Since I've only owned one reliable three-wood since 1993 -- and stupidly gave that club away -- I resolved to Goose up my set, and replace my three-wood with a low-lofted hybrid of, say, 14 degrees. I also figured I'd try to cover the 210-225 range with a utility of 18 or 19-degrees (the standard replacement for a two-iron or five-wood). The 21-degree Mizuno, of course, was staying put.

I hit the phone and solicited some demos from my dear, dear friends at the equipment companies, and, once the clubs arrived, I called three long-lost golf buddies -- each of whom is, like me, a 10-handicapper, give or take a stroke or three -- and set up a couple of days of intensive, extremely unscientific club-testing.

The first stop was Palm Springs for 36 holes with John Gunderson, a displaced Midwesterner whose Chicago Cubs visor is more or less super-glued to his forehead. For my first tee shot of the day -- a short par-four at Desert Willow GC -- I dove right in, grabbing a 14-degree Sonartec TRC utility wood. (A slightly different club from Hamilton's not just because it's not bent, but also because the face of this particular model has more bulge and roll, making it look more like a traditional fairway wood -- OK, a traditional fairway wood after three weeks on Atkins.) Naturally, I beaned it straight down the middle, an astonishing 240 yards. Goodbye, Mr. Three-Wood.

John was a little less eager, shying away from the utilities until our second 18, over at the newish Marriot Shadow Ridge (to my knowledge the only Nick Faldo-design in the country). On the 10th hole, a long par-five, he cold-topped a tee shot, and decided to give the 20-degree Kasco K2K I-tility a try. (Kasco is a well-established but lesser-known company whose sticks have long been popular on the Champions Tour.) With his first swing, Gundo roped it about 210 yards out of the gunch, and into the center of the fairway. With 220 in, he hit it again -- to about 20 feet. "I think I might want to hold on to this club," he deadpanned.

The next day we went back home to L.A. for a full-scale testing day at Rustic Canyon, a linksy Gil Hanse-design that, when it opened in 2002, was hailed, by a couple of golf pubs, as the best new public course in the country. John and I filled out our foursome with two more buddies, Chris Bechtel and the poetically named Steve Shakespeare.

Arriving on the range, we hackers were were joined by two guys who can actually play, Rustic head pro Mark Wipf, and one of his assistants, Dave Tucker. Dave quickly fell for a 20-degree Nike ProCombo iron, saying, "it gets right up in the air, and just keeps going." Next to him, Mark hit one beautiful, piercing little draw after another with Titleist's 503H (which had only hit market the week before). "I can't believe how solid this feels," he said. "A lot of these things have a little bit of a hollow feel, but this feels really solid." Further evidence of their fondness for the clubs: they wouldn't give them back.

Out on the golf course, each of us struggled to find a preference, but for four completely different reasons. The other Chris in the group, Chris Bechtel, hasn't played much since son Cole, his first child, was born a few months ago; for him, solid contact was about as rare as a good night's sleep. He finally settled on the Callaway Heaven Woods, lauding their forgiveness.

Although Shakespeare liked the Ben Hogan CFT Hybrid, he, frankly, didn't need any utilities. An imposingly strong guy, whose salt-and-pepper fu manchu and forebidding Oakleys remind me (maybe a little too much) of Frank Lickliter, his long game wants no help.

If Gunderson and I couldn't settle on particular models, it was because we found too much to like. But that made sense, because we were the two guys who, as owners of the shakiest long games, could benefit most from the utilities. Gundo wasn't going to part with the Kasco, but from the start of our round at Rustic he found himself equally enamored of the Hogans. (Which was a huge surprise --who'da thunk Hogan would even make clubs like these?) On the first hole, a par-five, John reached in two with the company's "3-iron" utility (21 degrees). He hit the same club, from about the same distance, on the next hole, a long par-four, to about eight feet, this time making birdie. On the third hole, a 300-yard par four, he pulled the "1-iron" (17 degrees) and smoked it about 240 yards-for him, an incredibly long way -- but got eaten up by a bunker placed rudely in the center of the fairway.

Despite his success with the Hogans, Gundo went home with the Kasco at the end of the day. And it paid off. Last Monday, while I was in Las Vegas, he sent me an e-mail report about a club match he had played the previous day. He used the Kasco, he reported, "on a 225-yard par 3 (17th Hole) with the match still up in the air. I stuck it to about five feet. Match over."

As for me, I'm still testing. That 14-degree Sonartec TRC has officially evicted my three-wood. But the 19-degree Sonartec Hp (Hamilton's club, kind of) and another Mizuno Fli-Hi (the 18-degree cousin of my original 21-degree Fli-Hi) will be duking it out for space in my bag for the next couple of weeks.

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