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July 2013

Long irons or hybrids? The importance of bag setup
By Rich Hunt

Merion Golf Club’s East Course, the site of the 2013 U.S. Open, saw players use a variety of different equipment setups in order to navigate the course’s combination of very long and very short holes.

Bag setup was one of the parts of the game I was very interested in when I started doing my statistical research. And from my experience, even Tour players have a variety of opinions on what type of bag setup to use come tournament time.
In my debut column for GolfWRX, I discussed that if you broke the game down into more finite details, you will see that shots from what I call “The Danger Zone” (approach shots from 175 to 225 yards) have the strongest mathematical correlation to success on Tour.

There are many ways to “skin a cat” when it comes to lowering a golfer’s score, but those who struggle from the Danger Zone are putting themselves behind the 8-ball and will require better play from the other facets of the game to make up for that deficiency.

With that said, I wanted to look at what the best Danger Zone players on Tour were carrying for a bag setup. To do this, I  looked at the number of irons each player carried in 2010, 2011 and 2012:

Note: I left out the sixth-ranked player from the Danger Zone in 2010, Jay Williamson, due to being unable to find any record of his bag setup in 2010.

Here is the final tally of bag setups for the players listed:

As we can see, the overwhelming majority of Tour players carry a bag setup of a 3 iron through pitching wedge. The rest mostly carry a bag setup of 4 iron through pitching wedge. And only one player in the list used a bag setup of 5 iron through pitching wedge — Graeme McDowell.

What this means is that Tour players are carrying fewer wedges and/or fewer hybrids than the average amateur. I feel most of that has to do with their skill level, which alters the purpose of long irons, hybrids and gap wedges with relationship to their game.

First, the thing that sticks out with the top Danger Zone players is that they typically make sure to have their yardage gaps tight from their 3-wood to the long irons. This means that there is usually no wide gaps between long clubs, like a player having a 3 wood and then the next club being a 3 iron. They typically have another club in-between the two like a hybrid or a 5-wood. And they usually end up not using a gap wedge in order to make sure they have the proper gaps for their long approach shots.
The reason why this works is that Tour players are skilled enough that if they get into a situation where they are in-between wedges and could use a gap wedge, they can simply take some distance off with their pitching wedge, or hit their sand wedge a little harder. They’re skilled and creative enough to still hit very good shots when they do this. But, when they get into a situation where they are in-between clubs from long distance, it is much more difficult for them to execute a shot by hitting a “soft” 3-wood or a “hard” 3 iron.

Another interesting aspect is the average club head speed of the players with the certain aspect as noted in this chart:

 

As we can see, the more irons the top Danger Zone players carry in their bags, the higher their club head speed is.

From my experience of discussing bag setups with Tour players, they feel that the irons are more precise and accurate than hybrids. However, if they want to increase their odds of consistently hitting a shot the furthest, they prefer hybrids over irons.
So, if they get on a long par-3 where they may have some difficulty clearing the water, they are apt to pull out the hybrid instead of a long iron in order to increase their odds of doing so. But if there is no trouble that they have to carry, they are likely want to use a long iron so they can hit a shot closer to the hole. And that explains why golfers who uses 2 iron-through-pitching wedge setups have super high clubhead speeds. They simply have little difficulty carrying any trouble in front of them because they hit it so far.

Therefore, I feel that hybrids should be considered more of an “advancement” club than anything for all golfers. For the Tour player, they need the hybrid if they are trying to advance the ball from a bad lie or if they are trying to ensure that they advance a ball over trouble like water, a bunker or other types of hazards.

For the average amateur, they are not likely to be able to hit a long approach close to the hole and can even struggle to find the green from long distance. Therefore, they are better off carrying more hybrids just so they can be more consistent in their ability to advance the ball toward the hole. If they have a 180-yard shot, they will be better off using a club that they will consistently hit in excess of 170 yards even if it causes them more issues with directional control.

In the end, whether the golfer is 2013 U.S Open winner Justin Rose or 20-handicap Joe Smith, their game can benefit from a proper bag setup that matches their ability.

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