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Custom-made Golf Clubs

Custom-made golf clubs provide links weapons made expressly for you
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

(continued from page 2)

Hey, you with the 7-iron in your hand. Yes, you with the Calla-Made Cobra-Titleist-Ping titanium, oversized, diamond-faced, guaranteed-tour-action ultimate weapon.  

You, with the 150-yard carry over water, alligators and quicksand into a 20-mile-an-hour breeze and a hailstorm of locusts.   Got the right club?  

No, it's not whether it's a 6-, 7- or 8-iron. It's not about this shot, or any other shot you are about to play with your current set of clubs. It's about whether you have the right set of clubs in the first place. Do they have the right lie angle, the right shaft flex, the right grip size for you? Do your clubs fit your flat, inside-out swing or your upright whiplash backswing or your half-swing, bad-knees bunt action? Do your clubs help you get the most out of your game, whether you are a scratch player or a 20 handicapper?  

If you are preparing to spend $1,000 or more on a set of clubs, then it's about time you had them fitted to your golf swing. It won't take much time, won't cost you any more money, and you may learn much about your swing in the process. Most major club makers can fit you to a custom set of their own clubs, whether it's done at something like Callaway Golf Co.'s high-tech, computer-controlled fitting center at its corporate headquarters in Carlsbad, California, or by a teaching professional equipped with fitting programs provided by manufacturers like Ping and Zevo.  

All fitting programs have one purpose: to match a set of golf clubs to your swing style, swing speed and body type. Whether you are tall, thin, strong and athletic, or short, plump, weak and pathetic, golf club makers want you to know they have a set of clubs for you, a set that doesn't come with any guarantees but does fit the way you swing a club.  

Clubs purchased off the rack can perform well and last an eternity. Plenty of players only care that they wield a club that advances their ball rather than their score. And practice, practice, practice is almost assuredly a better way to lower any player's score. No one ever opened a box of new clubs and saw a swing fall out.  

But there's no denying that equipment custom fitted to your size and ability will help you play better. When you have the feeling that the club can do the work and all you have to do is swing it, then you have the confidence to make the best swing you can.  

It's important to remember that the person custom fitting you to clubs ought to be a PGA teaching professional, or at least someone with a reputation for putting players and clubs together in harmony. What you think you need and what you actually need might differ widely. A teaching pro who can analyze swing planes and ball flights can help you narrow the field of clubs and swing properties that can fit your game. Whatever the method of a club maker's fitting program, the goal is to determine your specific requirements in several areas: shaft length and flex, club head lie and size, club weight and swing weight (the force the player feels in the club head when he swings), and grip size and composition.  

Shaft length is a function of a player's height and arm length combined with his swing posture. A shaft sized too short causes a player to hunch over and lose balance. Too long a shaft can cause too flat a swing. Shaft flex, the amount of whip in a shaft and where along the shaft it occurs, can determine how far you hit a ball. Distance is also a function of swing weight and overall weight. The lie of the club, the angle between the hosel (socket) of the club head and the head itself, is important in making square contact with the ball. Fitting programs may be as simple as a pro handing you several different drivers and 5-irons, either of one club company or many, and having you swing them until you decide which one is for you. That's the old-fashioned way, but of course golf isn't old-fashioned anymore.  

You won't realize this any more clearly than after walking into the Callaway Golf Performance Center. In this big box of a room, there are bright lights, a hitting stage, a several high-speed cameras, a computer and a television to which the computer broadcasts a simulation of your ball flight right down the fairway of the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. Callaway has gone to all this trouble because it has the money to do so, wants you to play its extremely popular clubs (you didn't think you'd get fitted for another club maker's clubs, did you?), and wants those clubs to be what your swing requires.  

"It's been our experience that 75 percent of the people who come to us are not using the proper clubs for their swing," says Clark Renner, the senior club specialist at Callaway who helps professional players and VIPs find the right tools. "They usually have the wrong flex in their shafts and the wrong loft in their drivers. There is this myth around that less loft in a driver face will give a player more distance. That's usually true only for good players. For higher handicap players, more loft is usually the right thing to get the ball airborne longer."  

It usually takes a referral from a club professional or golf club dealer with a Callaway account to get fitted for clubs at Callaway. When the appointment is made, you will be asked to bring your driver and 5-iron. These relics of your golf game tell tales. Renner, or possibly club specialist John Degen, will examine them rather like archaeologists interpreting the use of primitive tools. They will observe where the wear marks are on the face. This can tell them if you are hitting the ball squarely. They will also test the shaft for its degree of flex.  

Then they will ask you to hit a few shots on stage. That's the hitting platform in the room that's equipped with two high-speed cameras, one directly overhead of the ball, the other at tee height on the opposite side of the ball from your address. These cameras rip off frames at the rate of 2,500 a second. When the film is replayed on a television monitor, it has the eerie look of a sonogram of the birth of a golf shot.

The cameras are linked to a computer that will determine club head speed, speed of the ball at launch, the height angle of launch, the angle of dispersion from down the middle, the side spin on the ball both directionally and by rate of revolution, back spin and side spin in rpms, and what Callaway has called an efficiency ratio, which is the ball speed divided by the club head speed (a ball speed of 1.5 times club head speed is considered to be 100 percent efficient).  

Now the bright lights, the cameras, the monitors, the stage and the technobabble may all be a bit daunting in the beginning, at least until you get comfortable with being the star of what amounts to a video production. What your club fitter is looking for, what the cameras and the computer are trying to calculate, is how you hit the ball, how high, what direction, how far, and what the plane of your swing is based on your old clubs. He analyzes the characteristics, discusses the nature of your swing, and then starts reaching into the bins of Callaway drivers and 5-irons that surround you, the ones with bar codes on them that tell the computer, the fitter and the player the lie and loft of the head, the properties of the shaft, and the swing weight of each club.  

If the testing concludes that you are hitting the ball with the toe of the club too upright and thus starting every shot to the left, the fitter will offer you a club with a flatter lie. Depending on where the ball is traveling, the specialist will give you a proper lie angle that will give you the straight ball flight. Callaway has designed shafts based on a given player's swing speed and swing type, and will fit your shaft accordingly. Callaway will also determine the loft of the driver by proper launch parameters. With drivers, if your launch angle is too high, he will offer a club with less loft. If too low, he will offer a club with more loft.

If you hit the ball to the right, you might try a club with a face angle more to the left, and vice versa. With each club you will make many swings until you find the one that feels the best and seems to provide the most consistent ball flight as seen on the television monitors. You might go through a dozen drivers of various lofts, shaft flexes and lengths, and lie angles before you find the one for you. Same with the irons. As dazzling as the technology can be, it's still you hitting the shot and searching for the sweet spot. By the end of the session, the Callaway computer will print out a spec sheet for your personalized set of Callaway clubs.  

Only a few miles from Callaway's performance center is the one operated by Taylor Made-Adidas Golf, another giant of the golf industry. Its testing and fitting center, across the street from its headquarters building in Carlsbad, consists of a driving range cut into the side of a hill with a sign that warns pedestrians of the possibility of rattlesnakes. Here, fitter Gary Gallagher will take you out in the Southern California sunshine and do things more the old-fashioned way. Here, you get to hit balls the way you usually do, and to see the results of your efforts. Here, too, you will need a referral. Don't expect to walk in off the street.  

Gallagher will talk with you about your game, about your handicap, how far you can hit a 6-iron, whether you fade or draw the ball. He will take a bunch of clubs, a bucket of balls and a plastic board to the range. Along the sole of the 6-iron he will put a strip of tape. Then he will ask you to hit balls off the plastic board. This isn't so bad once you get over the fear of hitting the board. In fact, it becomes pretty easy since you can drive down and through the ball without burying it in the ground. Gallagher will then look at where the scuff marks are on the tape to determine where the club is striking the ground in relation to the ball. If the scuff mark is toward the toe, your swing may be too flat. If it's toward the heel, it may be too upright.  

"I think you have to see the ball in the air to really tell what a player is doing with his swing," says Gallagher. "When you see what he can do consistently with his swing, you try to match your clubs to it. If you see that he can't carry a driver 200 yards and hits it real low, then you go to a club with more flex in the shaft, maybe a lower kick point in the shaft [which launches the ball higher] and maybe more loft in the face. You have to keep working at it until there is a series of shots that look good and feel good to the player. Most players can't put a consistently good swing on the ball, so in a sense you're looking for the club that forgives him the most. You are trying to give him a club that minimizes his misses."  

Many club companies have portable fitting systems that are operated by club professionals and professional club fitters. The advantage of going to a club professional for a fitting is that he is likely to have several brands of clubs for sale, and may have a fitting system for more than one. This means that you won't be captive to a particular club maker, and may mean that the correct driver for your swing will come from one club maker, the fairway woods from another, and the irons from a third.   Ping has a system that is fairly standard for the business.

The fitter takes static measurements, such as height, wrist to floor distance of the lead hand, wrist to the longest finger, and the length of the longest finger. This helps to determine shaft length and grip size. The fitter also will want to know the average carry and roll of your driver and the average carry of your 5-iron. He then watches your ball flight and looks at the marks on the impact tape on the sole of the club. He can check several factors against a color-coded chart that cross-references lie angles and shaft lengths.  

The Zevo fitting system is a small, portable version of Callaway's big box. Another Southern California maker, Temecula-based Zevo has developed FITZ, which stands for Fitting Intelligence Technology from Zevo. Its dry circuit board and computer installed in a small indoor swing room develop what director of marketing Gerry Stefanko calls a swingerprint. "We can analyze a player's swing in 10 swings," says Stefanko. "We can determine the club head speed, the angle of attack, the loft and lie angle of a club."  

Kenneth Smith Golf Clubs in suburban Kansas City has sold catalogue golf clubs for decades to better players who know what they want. It will also make custom clubs for players who want a better game but don't know what they need. Kenneth Smith president Pat McMahon says that it isn't enough to match a line of golf clubs to a player. You need to match each club in a set. "We don't think that most companies have the ability to make exactly what each player needs," says McMahon. "We are craftsmen here. We can individually weight each club in a set, individually tool each lie angle."  

If you were to go on site for a club fitting, you would fill out a four-page questionnaire and be given a series of static measurements, including a tracing of your hands to determine the right grip size. You would be asked to bring your clubs for analysis, then you would be asked to hit balls--with every club in the bag if necessary. After a thorough reckoning of how you hit each club in the bag, the properties of your custom clubs are determined. "We have certain shafts made for us that have 36 different flexes," says McMahon. "That's how specific we can be."  

The process of club fitting can be both a fascinating and perplexing journey. You may find yourself adrift in a sea of  specifications that will differ in some degree from manufacturer to manufacturer. But you will also learn something about your swing, about how your posture and swing plane and physical strength act together to determine how well you hit the ball. You may learn that you don't need more upright clubs, you just need to stand more upright. You may learn that instead of club shafts with more whip for weaker players, you are strong enough for firmer shafts that will help you keep the ball under control. In the search for custom clubs, you can also find out what's worst and what's best about your swing. You can work to eliminate the bad and accentuate the good. A customized swing. Now that's a revolutionary thought.  

Jeff Williams writes on golf for Newsday.

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