Specials

Technical Tips

September 2007

Tech Tip - Standard…Is There Such a Thing?
By Jeff Jackson

A #5 iron is a #5 iron is a #5 iron...or so equipment manufacturers would have you believe. In reality, not all five irons are created equal – there is no industry standard for club length, loft or lie. What one manufacturer considers a #5 might actually be similar to another’s #4. And this is just in the present golf world. If we factor in clubs of the past couple of decades, we can see a definite change in the performance and specifications of not just #5 irons, but of just about every club in the bag. Even a quick look tells us lengths have increased, lofts have gotten stronger and lies are becoming more upright. The weights of clubs, especially ones with graphite shafts are typically less today than in the past as well. The combinations of these changes make it no small wonder that many players today are hitting the ball longer than ever - and with less effort. Golf equipment and so called “standards” have evolved tremendously in the past quarter century and before. For a look at just how much, read on...

To get an idea of just how much equipment has evolved over the years, one has to look no further than the Senior PGA Tour. The driving distance of the senior pros has been getting longer and longer. A few years ago, the leading long-ball hitter on the senior circuit, Jim Dent, actually averaged longer drives than did the leading driver on the regular PGA Tour. As players get older, logic would be that they would hit the ball shorter, not longer, right? Wrong! Equipment technology has permitted players of all levels, not just seniors, to hit the ball longer than ever before. Jack Nicklaus, as will most Senior PGA Tour professionals, will tell you they hit the ball longer now than they did twenty years ago. Driving distance continues to increase every year on the PGA Tour. It might be argued that the golf ball plays a large part in that, but as golf head and shaft technology change, expect even more distance increases over the next several years.

So what’s so different about today’s clubs? Just about everything. Initially, let’s look at loft. Examining the irons first, we see that the loft of a #5 iron in the 1970’s (and before) was an average of 32 degrees. There may have been a degree or two of variation, but not much more than that. Think about the design of the clubs in that era. The clubs were forged; investment casting did not even come about until the late 1960’s and really didn’t become the norm until at least the mid-1980’s. Forged clubs at that time were strictly muscle back or blade designs. They weren’t oversized or cavity-backed. If a player didn’t hit the blade on-center, the ball didn’t fly very far and felt even worse. “Game improvement” irons were far down the road in terms of club design.

The blade design has a definite effect on the iron’s loft in the following way. The more loft a club has, the more backspin it will produce. A key factor in the accuracy of a golf ball is the amount of backspin that it has. That is, if a ball has backspin, this will tend to negate or reduce any right-to-left or left-to-right sidespin that it may have due to a less than perfect impact. In other words, backspin helps to reduce negative sidespin. The more backspin on a ball, the less sidespin it will have. Thus a higher lofted club will actually make a player’s “misses” go straighter. Perimeter weighting will also help shots go straighter, but such designs had yet to be invented.

Loft Standards - Traditional, Modern and Present Day

IRONS

Iron

Traditional
Pre 1975-80

Modern
1980-95


Present Day

#1

17

16

15

#2

20

19

18

#3

24

22

20

#4

28

25

23

#5

32

28

26

#6

36

32

30

#7

40

36

34

#8

44

40

38

#9

48

44

42

PW

52

48

46

SW

55

55

55

AW, GW

N/A

52

50 & 52

UW

N/A

60

60

WOODS

Woods

Wooden Woods
Pre 1975-80

Metal Woods
1980-90’s

Ti/Steel Woods
Present Day

Driver

10-11

9-10

9 or more

#3

16

15

14 or less

#5

                22

20

18-19

#7

N/A

25

23-24

#9

N/A

N/A

27+

N/A indicates that the club was not available during that period.

As technology improved and investment casting came along, cavity backed irons were born. These irons featured a design in which weight was distributed around the perimeters of the head. These heads were, in effect, better balanced than blades. Thus, when a player hit them off-center, they didn’t twist as much (You may have heard this labeled as “higher moment of inertia” or MOI.), allowing shots to fly straighter. These designs though, had a higher percentage of their weight toward the sole of the club as compared to blade designs. That meant that shots with cavity backs tended to fly higher than shots with blades. The answer to this situation...stronger lofts. Most manufacturers took the “old” standard of 32 degrees and now produced #5 irons with lofts closer to 28. This helped lower the ball flight for sure, but it was such a dramatic change that distance was noticeably increased as a result. Golf club companies believed that the added perimeter weighting would help make shots go straighter (more so than backspin from added loft) and that the stronger lofts would yield more distance; certainly a win-win scenario for most players. Just about any player who was playing clubs made in the 70’s who bought new clubs in the 1980’s hit them longer as a result.

Enter the 1990’s and oversized iron heads. The effectiveness of perimeter weighting was increased, moments of inertia went up, and shots were potentially straighter as a result of iron design. But, here again, as the weight distribution was altered, a higher percentage was moved toward the sole. Lofts were made a couple of degrees stronger to compensate for the potentially higher shots...now a #5 iron might commonly have 26 degrees of loft; as much or more than a #4 iron only 15 years ago! While this may sound great to those who want to hit the ball longer - and all of us do - it does create some potential “problems” in the set of clubs. This is especially true in the long and short irons.

As club lofts are made stronger the longer irons become more and more difficult to hit, even with their game improvement oversize designs. Most companies have ceased production of #1 irons; many do not offer #2 irons either. The #3 iron has the same (if not stronger loft specification) of the older #2 iron. Hybrids, introduced shortly after the turn of the 21st century, have commonly replaced the long irons in many sets. Hybrids, which are clubs utilizing iron shafts at shorter lengths and heavier weights with more forgiving “wood-type” heads, are being seen in the hands of all level of golfer. These new designs act as transitional clubs in place of high-lofted woods or strong-lofted irons, making the set of clubs probably more playable for most golfers. A set will still have fourteen clubs, but they may not necessarily thought of as “woods” or “irons”, but rather just as specifically lofted clubs as evidenced by a number of today’s designs.

Related to the short irons, the loft situation may have an even more dramatic effect on scoring. Today’s #9 irons and wedges are more stronger-lofted than ever. While it might seem great to hit a 46 or 48 degree pitching wedge 150 yards, the standard loft of the sand wedge (54 degrees) hasn’t changed much over the years. The gap between these two clubs approaches 50+ yards. Well over 50% of a golfer’s shots occur within 110 yards of the green. Effectively a player has no club, save for an extremely hard SW or an extremely finessed PW, to accommodate these important scoring shots.
The solution: additional wedges. Whether they are labeled as a “AW”, indicating an “All Purpose Wedge”, as “GW”, for a “Gap Wedge” or are give a number, such as “W2” or “W3”, these clubs have lofts in between the strong pitching wedge and the 55 degree sand wedge. In effect, the golfer is often carrying the same number of irons as in the past, but with most of them having stronger lofts, making an additional wedge a necessary part of the set makeup. The numbers on the soles of the clubs have changed, but the playing characteristics through the set may not have actually changed as much as many players think.

A similar loft decrease can be seen in drivers and woods as well. Until the 1970’s all woods were just that - wood. The late 1970’s ushered in the metal wood era, with woods now being made of 17-4 stainless steel. Typical wooden driver lofts were in the 10-11 degree range, while smaller metal drivers with 9-10 degrees produced similar ball flights. Today’s 450+cc titanium heads are available with lofts as low as 6 degrees and as high as 14, with each designed to hit the ball long and straight depending upon the swing speed and launch angle of the person using the club. As advances in materials take place, the CG of drivers can be designed to create optimum launch angles for added distance. Related to fairway woods, they too have become available in a number of lofts. The designations, #3, #4, #5, etc., have given way to fairways being numbered with degrees of loft rather than specific club numbers. It is not uncommon, for example, for a player to have a 10-degree driver with accompanying fairways of 13, 17, 21 and perhaps 26.

Club lengths have been on the increase as well. It is not uncommon in today’s world to have the same numbered iron being 1 1/2” longer than in the past. Twenty years ago, most #5 irons were 37” long; today there are #5 irons on the market at more than 38 3/4” in length. The reasoning behind this trend is twofold. One, players want to hit the ball longer. The longer the club, the longer the swing arc, and the potential for more club head speed and distance. But longer clubs may be more difficult to control than shorter ones. Here is where perimeter weighting comes into play again. While longer clubs may be more difficult to return to an on-center position, the perimeter weighting of cavity backed and oversized clubs make the results of less -than-perfect impacts not so poor. Plus, when the player does return the longer club to a square impact position, the ball does go longer. Hence, the player feels he hits longer clubs a greater distance; his good shots go farther and his “misses” are longer and more playable as well.

Golf Club Lengths Through The Years

WOODS

CLUB HEAD

1950's & 60's

1970's & 80's

1990's & Present

Driver

43"

43 1/2"

45"  

3

42"

42"

43+"

5

41"

41"

42+"

7

N/A

40 1/2" 

41+"

9

N/A

N/A

41"  

N/A indicates clubs were not produced during those years
  
Note 1) Some titanium drivers exceed the 45" 1990/Present standard length depending upon manufacturer.
Note 2) Graphite shafted clubs in the 1970's through today may be 1" longer than the above standards.

IRONS

1

39"

39 1/2"

40" or more

2

38 1/2"

39"

39 1/2"

3

38"

38 1/2"

39"

4

37 1/2"

38"

38 1/2"

5

37"

37 1/2"

38"

6

36 1/2"

37"

37 1/2"

7

36"

36 1/2"

37"

8

35 1/2"

36"

36 1/2"

9

35"

35 1/2"

36"

PW

35"

35 1/2"

35 1/2"

SW

35"

35 1/2"

35 1/2"

UW

N/A

35"

35 1/2"

AW

N/A

N/A

35 1/2"

N/A indicates those clubs were not available during those years

Note 1) There is a trend among manufacturers today to make clubs even longer.
Note 2) Clubs with graphite shafts were produced in the 1970's through to the present. Expect their lengths to be at least 1/2", and more likely 1", longer than the above standards.

A second factor when discussing longer clubs today is a “material” one. Shafts are lighter today than they were twenty-five years ago. Back then just about all shafts were standard weight steel, having an approximate raw weight of 125 grams. Lightweight steel shafts debuted in the early 1970’s, as did even lighter weight graphite models. The steel shafts used in most clubs today weigh at least ten grams less than they used to. Graphite shafts that weigh less than 60 grams - or half of what the “old” steel shafts weighed - are used on some of the best selling clubs in the industry. As the weights of the shafts became less, the lengths were increased to maintain the feel and balance of the golf club. A 37” #5 iron with a sub-60 gram shaft will not feel very good to a golfer and will be virtually uncontrollable. At least 1/3 of new iron sets sold are made with graphite shafts; adding length is an inexpensive and simple method by which to maintain balance and playability in a golf club, even though the total weight of the club is light when compared to clubs of only a few years ago.

One more “standard” change…the lies of most modern clubs are more upright than in the past. There are two potential reasons for this trend. One is that people seem to be taller today than in years past. While it is not a blanket statement, most tall golfers are best-fit with upright clubs. Hence the manufacturers have designed clubs a degree or two more upright than in the past. A second part of the upright lie equation relates to face plane. The more upright a golf club, the more its face plane tends to angle to the left (for a right handed player) at impact. Where do most golfers hit the ball? They slice it. The fact that the face plane is positioned to the left helps to counteract the effect of a slice, benefiting the vast majority of golfers.

The lies of irons seem to have increased no more than 2 degrees over those made in the 1960’s or 70’s, but the lies of woods have certainly become much more upright. A 43” wooden driver usually had a 54-degree lie angle; some of today’s drivers approach 60 degrees. The 60-degree drivers of today at 45” are effectively as much as 10 degrees more upright than were wooden drivers of yesteryear. Assume an iron of today is 1” longer than in the past and is two degrees more upright. This indicates a club that is effectively 4 degrees more upright than before, not anywhere near as much as the dramatic change in the lie of woods. (Each 1/2” increase in length effectively yields a club 1 degree more upright at impact.)

Standard. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines it as “something established for use as a rule or basis of comparison in measuring quantity or quality.” What we find when we compare the standards of various manufacturers over time is a variety of different lengths, lofts, and lies used to identify their particular pieces of golf equipment. When talking about standards, it quickly becomes obvious that there is not a single uniform standard in the golf industry, but so-called standards used by specific companies in an attempt to make their clubs perform better than anyone else’s. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Standards vary greatly and they may change nearly every year. Keep in mind the industry trends we discussed, study manufacturer’s specification charts and perhaps more importantly before choosing equipment based on standards, look to a custom fitting for your next purchase because, chances are, you are no more “standard” than are the other members of your foursome!


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