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Fit To A Tee After visiting six major manufacturers, our man had the answer

Feb. 16, 2004
Feb. 16, 2004

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Feb. 16, 2004

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Fit To A Tee After visiting six major manufacturers, our man had the answer

It was the kind of assignment that comes from the golf gods, not
an editor: Visit a half-dozen equipment manufacturers, go through
each company's custom club-fitting process and then apply a chunk
of the GOLF PLUS budget toward purchasing my favorite sticks.
(O.K., that last bit isn't true, but I'm working on it.) ¶
High-tech goodies once available only to Tour pros, such as
computerized launch monitors, are now popping up at public
driving ranges across the country, yet most weekend warriors have
failed to take advantage of the technology. (In a November 2003
survey by Golf Datatech, only 33% of "serious" golfers had been
custom-fitted in the past three years.) This means that even as
the price of a set of clubs approaches the cost of a used car,
buying decisions are still being made largely on the basis of a
couple of waggles in the aisle at Nevada Bob's. I was the
perfect candidate for a fitathon because of my indifference
concerning equipment. Lie and loft? Aren't those the essential
elements in any discussion of Manhattan real estate? Bounce?
That's the title of Bon Jovi's latest CD, right?

This is an article from the Feb. 16, 2004 issue

PING It made sense to start my quest for enlightenment at Ping
headquarters, in Phoenix, because company founder Karsten Solheim
pretty much invented custom fitting. In 1972 Ping introduced its
color-coding system, in which a player's height and the distance
from his fingertips to the ground were charted to determine his
clubs' optimal lie (which, it turns out, is the angle formed
between the shaft and the sole of the club).

I was in the pink when I arrived at Ping on a perfect January
day. Awaiting me on the driving range was a gleaming pyramid of
balls and a cart stuffed with 40 clubs, most of them six-irons,
the industry standard for club fitting. (They were the handsome
new G2 series.) The cart, with its bevy of clubs that are all
marginally different from each other, is the same setup used by
the 3,600 Ping fitting accounts that are available to golfers
across the country.

It was obvious from the start that Ping takes fitting seriously.
Very seriously. My session began with a 40-item questionnaire
administered by my cofitters, Scott Summers and James Uttecht.
Then they measured my longest finger and the distance from my
wrist to the ground, among other things. I was getting ready to
turn my head and cough when I was finally allowed to slap a few
six-irons.

Like Kenneth Starr, Ping fitters are obsessed with lies. "If you
don't have the right lie, you have no chance of hitting good
shots," said Summers. In search of enlightenment, he set up a
wafer-thin sheet of plexiglass known as a lie board, from which I
would hit different clubs with a special tape on the sole. With
every swing the tape would reveal what area of the sole struck
the board first.

As the fitting progressed, I was asked to rate, on a scale of 1
to 10, the quality of each swing and, separately, the result.
This was a mind-blowing concept. I had always assumed that the
two were inextricably linked. But now the pointy heads at Ping
were telling me that I could make a good swing, and the result
could be sabotaged by a bad club. This sparked questions about
free will versus determinism that I hadn't wrestled with since
the first Matrix.

On a club with standard (flat) lie, the vagaries of my outside-in
swing forced the toe of the club into the turf ahead of the rest
of the sole, opening the face at impact and producing my
trademark leak/push. Thus it was determined that I needed my
irons "up" by 3 degrees, raising the toe and effectively leveling
the sole. It was also recommended that, because I'm 6'1" and
fairly upright at address, I use shafts a half-inch longer than
standard.

By the time we had tested all the irons, wedges, drivers and
putters, I had three blisters and my left hamstring was
(inexplicably) throbbing. As I limped away from the range under
an orange sunset, I became aware of a small piece of grass in my
right eye. After vigorous rubbing, the wayward sod was dislodged
by a tear that streaked down my cheek. Yes, the boys at Ping had
made me cry.

CLEVELAND On the second stop of my fitapallooza it became obvious
that club fitting is a window into the soul of each manufacturer.
Cleveland employees are more surfer dude than scientist, prone to
calling would-be customers bro or homey. No wonder the new
company headquarters is being built in Huntington Beach, Calif.,
the self-styled Surf City, U.S.A.

Cleveland is staking its custom-fit program on six mobile RVs
that are minimanufacturing plants on wheels. The so-called tour
vans will crisscross the country this year for up to 1,000 public
events, showing up at courses and driving ranges, and taking on
all comers. "We want to treat you like a Tour player," says
Cleveland's field promotions manager, David Hunter. "We'll fit
you and then build the clubs in the van, and you can play with
them the same day."

During my fitting we did due diligence with the six-iron
(verdict: 2 degrees up, half-inch longer shafts), but Cleveland
is famous for its wedges and I was happy to make that the
emphasis, considering that one of my specialties is the skulled
60-yard pitch. The key to fitting wedges is the amount of bounce,
which, I learned, is the angle formed by the leading edge of the
club and the lowest part of the sole. Wedges with a high degree
of bounce move through the sand more easily but do not dig into
the turf, which can lead to thinned shots from the fairway.
Naturally, I've been playing high-bounce wedges, exactly the
opposite of what I need. When Hunter put a low-bounce wedge in my
hands--it was from the newly redesigned 900 series--I discovered
that sliding the club under the ball was like cutting into cake.
This revelation sparked a similar reaction to the one I had at
Ping, when it became clear that I had been playing the wrong lie:
For the love of Hogan, why didn't anyone tell me this years ago?

CALLAWAY These days there is so much talk about launch angle on
PGA Tour telecasts that it seems as if NASA should be a sponsor.
The 21st century has ushered in a new space race for drivers, in
which computer analysis of ball speed and spin rate and launch
angle--that is, how the ball leaves the face of the club--can
identify the club that produces maximum distance for any player.
This was the focus of my trip to Callaway, in Carlsbad, Calif.,
the ancestral home of the Big Bertha.

Callaway had the coolest launch monitor I had seen so far, an
indoor setup in which numerous high-speed cameras follow the path
of the club and the ball's flight, producing actual photos and
gigabytes of revealing data. Though I was hitting into a net, it
was from the glorious vantage point of the tee box at Pebble
Beach's 18th hole, thanks to a wall-sized photo that served as a
backdrop. The calculated trajectory of my shot was then projected
onto a flat-screen TV that had an amazingly detailed
representation of the fairway. Callaway has 500 outdoor cart
operations outfitted with portable, lower-tech launch monitors,
but it's worth seeking out the deluxe Pebble setup, available to
the public in Carlsbad, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Indian Wells,
Calif.

As Tiger and Ernie and Phil have discussed endlessly, the optimum
driving condition is high launch (around 12 degrees) and low spin
(about 2,500 revolutions a minute). Naturally, I had low launch
(9-10 degrees) and more spin than Karl Rove (3,500 rpm), due
mainly to the sidespin created by a power fade that sent ball
after ball into the backyards of houses along the right side of
Pebble's 18th fairway. Finally my fitter, Randy Peterson, could
take it no longer, and he gave me a minilesson, moving my club
through a more inside path to create a better release. I was a
little startled by his hands-on approach. After all, the folks at
Ping had studiously avoided dissecting my swing, not wanting to
prejudice the fitting process. Peterson saw it a little
differently. "As handicap numbers rise, swings don't repeat as
efficiently, so the custom-fitting process becomes as much about
the swing as the club," he said. "It's a blend of art and science
that allows for a little interpretation and assistance."

Thanks to Peterson's tip, I began pounding the ball. According to
the computers, my clubhead speed remained constant (106-109 mph)
but the telltale ball speed jumped considerably (to around 156
mph) because of the purer strike. I was swinging a new ERC
Fusion, which felt pretty hot, with a Peterson-ordained loft of
10 degrees. (Ping had determined that my driver should have 9
degrees of loft; Cleveland went with 9.5.) When I was given a
10-degree Great Big Bertha II that was 44.5 inches long, a
half-inch shorter than standard, the numbers got even better.
Finally I struck the mathematically perfect drive: 11.9-degree
launch angle; spin rate of 2,550. According to the computers, my
ball traveled 281.6 yards and was only 11 feet off-line. It was
time to move on.

TITLEIST The next day I journeyed to the Titleist test center, in
Oceanside, Calif., with a modicum of apprehension. Titleist is
the official manufacturer to Serious Golfers everywhere. I was
afraid that if they found out I own a seven-wood, I would be
laughed out of the building. My fitter, Greg Cesario, turned out
to be warm and welcoming, but he frowned when I mentioned that 24
hours earlier, I had dug out of the AstroTurf the secret to my
swing. "You don't want to be working on a new action while being
fitted," he said. "Try to go with your natural swing." Problem
was, I could no longer remember what that was.

One of the hallmarks of the Serious Golfer is an obsession with
shafts, and that dominated the conversation at Titleist. Its
fitters were the first to focus on swingweight, which is the
degree to which the club balances toward the head--it plays a big
part in the feel of a club. Swingweight measurements are
represented by a letter-number combination. With my 8.5-degree
983K driver I was a D3, which means I like it when the clubhead
feels a little on the heavy side.

A bigger revelation was that I prefer graphite shafts in my
irons. I had always thought this was strictly the province of old
men who need more cushion to protect their tennis elbows, but, in
fact, graphite-shafted irons are becoming common on Tour. As I
discovered, the lighter shaft increases clubhead feel as well as
clubhead speed, a tough combination to beat. Marrying Titleist's
classic 762 irons to a GAT shaft by Graphite Design, which has a
steel tip for stability, the club produced a tighter shot
pattern, and my occasional thinned shots no longer felt like
broken-bat grounders on a cold night. And if the tastemakers at
Titleist say it's O.K. to use graphite in your irons, that's good
enough for me.

TAYLORMADE Ever wonder what it would be like to star in a
science-fiction movie? At TaylorMade, also in Carlsbad, I found
out, thanks to the Motion Analysis Technology by TaylorMade
(MATT) system. MATT was designed by the same folks who helped
bring Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings movies, and to
begin the fitting, my body was outfitted with dozens of small,
round reflective markers, which also adorn the heel, toe and
shaft of the various test clubs. With every swing, the movement
of the sensors was captured by high-speed cameras. From the data
they produced, a three-dimensional computer animation was created
and displayed on oversized flat-screen monitors, on which I
magically became a Tron-like character. My swing could then be
viewed from an endless number of perspectives and manipulated to
highlight idiosyncrasies. (I was aghast to discover that at
address, my feet were 9 degrees closed, my hips 12 degrees open
and my shoulders 11 degrees closed.) Needless to say, this is a
long way from lie boards and tape.

"With golf clubs becoming increasingly sophisticated, it's time
to have swing analysis that can draw on the same science," says
John Hoeflich, TaylorMade's senior director of business
development. By this fall MATT will be available to the public at
Carlsbad's La Costa resort, as well as at the Golf Club of
Georgia, in Alpharetta; Jones Creek, in Augusta; and the PGA
Learning Center, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

As cool as the visuals are, there is a downside to such
cutting-edge technology. Wearing the bralike vest of sensors and
various other adornments was a little weird, as was hitting into
a black tarp, devoid of target or context. At Titleist my fitting
had been conducted on a manicured grass tee box with the sun at
my back, because, I was told, the fitting process should
re-create playing conditions on a course. MATT's virtual reality
is anything but. And though two actual humans fussed over me
throughout the process, they left it up to the computer to spit
out the specs, which, interestingly, were the most extreme I
encountered.

According to MATT, I needed irons that were 4 degrees
up--Callaway and Titleist had deemed that flat was best for my,
ahem, new swing--and I was fit into an R580 driver with only 8.5
degrees of loft and a very stiff shaft. When I was allowed to
test the recommended driver, I couldn't keep the ball on the
planet. After a dozen banana slices, one of my hosts, Will Miele,
handed me the same head with a shaft that had more torque. I
immediately started hitting it better, and it was nice to know
that no matter how futuristic the process becomes, custom fitting
will always require a human touch.

NIKE It's the end of the line, hoss--Fort Worth, Texas, home to
the Nike test center. My host was one of the industry's foremost
artisans, Tom Stites, who has built clubs for Ben Hogan, Jack
Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. I had no illusions that he would be
impressed by my action. Founded in 1995, Nike's golf division was
waiting to fill out its product line before launching a
custom-fitting process. This spring the first 150 fitting
accounts will be introduced, and by next January up to 1,000
locations should be up and running, many using proprietary launch
monitors. Stites is overseeing the rollout, but in talking with
him I sensed an ambivalence, even skepticism, about mass-market
fittings. "There's no plexiglass on the course," Stites snorted,
alluding to lie boards, "and you're probably going to need more
than a six-iron during a round."

When we finally moseyed to the range, I was handed the radical
new Slingshot irons and began roping high, soft three-irons with
alarming ease. Watching my ball soar to the horizon, the laconic
Stites finally came to life. He had spent 10 years developing
these ultimate game-improvement clubs, the likes of which Tiger
has no use for. But here I was, the target audience--double-digit
handicap, dying to improve--and Stites surprised me by throwing
himself into the fitting process. He sent two helpers scurrying
back to the lab for ever more clubs, and with the furious pace of
testing I began to sweat, even though the temperature was in the
low 40s.

For the iron fitting Stites eschewed a lie board or launch
monitor. "Ball flight and divot pattern tell me everything I need
to know," he said. "Every swing is a crime scene, and I'm looking
for forensic evidence." The verdict? A half-inch long and 2
degrees up on long irons, 1 up on the seven-through nine-irons
and flat with the pitching wedge. Using the launch monitor,
Stites put me in the new Ignite driver, with a massive 460cc head
and 10.5 degrees of loft. I was leery of both the size of the
clubhead and the high loft until I began bashing dead-straight
drives to the back of the range. After one particularly blissful
drive, Stites, the club-fitting skeptic, exclaimed, "Wunderbar!
That's it, you're done."

It was the best I'd hit the ball in a long time, maybe ever. For
that I could thank a swing tip from Callaway and alignment keys
from TaylorMade; a heightened understanding of how the club
interacts with the turf, gleaned from Ping and Cleveland; and a
greater sensitivity to feel, discovered at Titleist. Here at Nike
it all came together. Was it me or was it the custom-fit clubs? I
know enough now to say it was a little of both.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA GUINEA PIG All of the club fitters had different methods, and sometimes wildly different results.COLOR PHOTO: CLUBS: MEL LEVINE G2 HLCOLOR PHOTO: CLUBS: MEL LEVINE Tour Action 900COLOR PHOTO: CLUBS: MEL LEVINE ERC FusionCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG 983KCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG R580COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG SlingshotFOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA DOWN TO A SCIENCE At TaylorMade, the author was (from left to right) analyzed, scrutinized and digitized, but an old-fashioned swing tip at Callaway (far right) netted good results as well.

SI.COM
See SI staffer Gary Van Sickle's test drive of all the new clubs
displayed at the recent PGA Merchandise Show at si.com/golf.