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The Right Stick

Larry Olmsted
Posted: December 1, 2007

For the first time in two decades, Robert Pedrero addresses the golf ball with complete confidence. Surprisingly, it was never his swing that worried him, since Pedrero, who flirts with a single-digit handicap, has as fluid a swing as you could expect for someone who plays intermittently and rarely practices. Nor does he fret his choice of venues, since he has traveled the world's best courses (Pedrero serves as a golf poll panelist for Cigar Aficionado) and belongs to Mayacama and U.S. Open venue Olympic Club, two of the Nation's Top 100. So what has bothered the admittedly anal golfer for over two decades? His equipment. "With so many brands, and new models coming out all the time, and hundreds of shafts, it always seemed to me that the chance I had the best clubs for me was statistically remote. You can't possibly try them all, especially in real world settings. Going to demo days didn't help, because there is often a love affair with a new club, where it can do no wrong for a day or two, but then a few hundred dollars later it's the same old story. The way we, as avid golfers, buy clubs, has always bothered me, because something about it just doesn't make sense."

That all changed last year when Pedrero discovered Hot Stix Golf, a Scottsdale, Arizona—based company that does nothing but offer intensive, high-tech club fitting sessions that span every major equipment manufacturer's offerings. He eagerly flew to Scottsdale just for the half-day program. "I was always a proponent of custom fitting. I got Pings back when they were the first to push fittings, and since then all my clubs have been fitted, but there is a big difference between having clubs that fit you and clubs that perform well for you. You might be able to adjust the seat and mirrors in a Hyundai so it fits, but it's still a Hyundai. I wanted a Ferrari. I know my swing could always improve, but Hot Stix convinced me that at least I have the absolute best clubs for my game that I could have—at any price."

No PGA Tour golfer plays off-the-rack clubs, so why should you? Club fittings for amateurs have become much more popular in recent years, but it is time for the fervid golfer to step up from mere fittings to a focus on equipment selection, which is exactly what a handful of cutting-edge programs do. Few PGA Tour pros play stock shafts, and many have different shafts for their irons, wedges, fairway woods and driver. Likewise, even many sponsored pros don't just play a single brand: their optimum setup includes a driver from one manufacturer, fairways woods from another, irons from someone else, and ditto for wedges and putters. When Mark Wilson won The Honda Classic this year, he carried not only a slightly unusual configuration of driver, one fairway wood, one hybrid and three wedges, but a fairway wood from Cleveland and a driver from Ping, plus a mix of steel and graphite shafts from four different manufacturers. Amateurs often have every club in their bag from a single company, while pros often carry clubs from three to six different manufacturers, in order to have the best gear possible for their game. Shouldn't you?

My first foray into the world of next-generation club fitting comes from TaylorMade, the No. 1 woods brand on the PGA Tour. Like all top manufacturers, TaylorMade has a special tour fitting center at its headquarters, in Carlsbad, California, where sponsored pros like Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia come to be perfectly fitted for custom clubs. Whereas you or I might go to our local club pro and have him break out a tape measure and impact tape and watch a few shots, Garcia puts on a suit covered with computer sensors and hits balls with sensor-equipped clubs in front of a multimillion-dollar array of nine high-speed cameras and several computers that map his every move, in addition to all aspects of his ball flight. Unlike almost all other computerized swing analyzers, which tend to focus on ball velocity, spin and launch angle, TaylorMade's proprietary system measures the golfer's full body motion from address to impact in real time, including total duration of the swing, which when measured over a series of swings, equates to rhythm. Clubface angle to the tenth of a degree is measured continuously, as is the amount of shoulder turn, club path, arm angles and much more. The system gathers nearly one million data points during a typical 24-swing series, and by going through this process, I learn more about my swing and the golf swing in general in a couple of hours than I have from weeks of lessons over the course of my lifetime, many with the world's top instructors. "It's a phenomenal way to testÉ. It allows the operator to see and demonstrate exactly what happens in the swing," says Charles McLendon III, master fitting professional and the manager of the TaylorMade Performance Lab at the Reynolds Plantation golf resort in Greensboro, Georgia.

The system is so good, TaylorMade decided it could no longer limit it to its tour pros and licensed the technology to Performance Golf Labs Inc., operator of TaylorMade Performance Labs worldwide. In addition to the facility at Reynolds Plantation, there are two other resort-based Performance Labs in the United States: at the Four Seasons Aviara, in Carlsbad, and, as of June, at the Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, Florida. Interestingly, the resort version improved on the original: the factory system was only for woods, irons and putters, whereas McLendon helped develop software for wedge fitting, making the Georgia lab true one-stop shopping. Even PGA Tour pro Kenny Perry popped into Reynolds Plantation in late 2005 when he was struggling with his putter, and found the tiny flaw in his path. "Guys on Tour had been telling me that I was pushing my putts a bit the past few weeks, but I had no way to verify other than by feel. This really showed me something." The Performance Lab's analysis quickly paid off for Perry—to the tune of six figures—when he won the Franklin Templeton Shootout a week later and continued to putt better, soon climbing into the world's Top 10 in career money earners. The lab can't sell you Perry's swing, but you can get the same experience: fitting sessions run about three hours, starting with a pre-fit interview and questionnaire covering your ball flight, goals and current equipment, which at any of these next-generation fitting operations you should absolutely bring with you. After being fitted with sensors, you hit shots with various clubs, then the computer and Performance Lab staffers, all of whom are top-notch teaching professionals, work their magic.

The TaylorMade Performance Lab is unique in that it offers a mix of part-lesson, part-fitting. Some golfers who have already been fitted come back solely for instruction. Besides getting specs for custom-made clubs, you learn an enormous amount about your swing, and can compare yourself to other golfers by handicap. One of the keys to the system's success is the incredible database that TaylorMade has assembled during years of testing, so it knows specifically what the average swing speed, ball flight and other results are for golfers of every ability. This allows a client to identify the part of his game that is substandard compared to his peer group, so he can work on this weakness.

In the world of high-tech club fitting, data is king, and Hot Stix Golf took another approach to the information issue. The company tested every major clubhead on the market, and thousands of shafts, to see exactly how each performed under different circumstances. By using a mind-boggling array of computerized testing equipment like something out of a science fiction movie, technicians built a database that helps them match a player's swing with the best equipment for that particular swing. Their brand neutrality, with no ties to any manufacturer, is what gives Hot Stix credibility with demanding and skeptical customers like Robert Pedrero. "We are the world's largest independent tester of driver heads, fairway heads, hybrids and so on," said Hot Stix chairman Tom Graunke. "We've tested every major brand, most second-tier brands and over 2,700 shafts. Our process is so in-depth, we call it 'getting the club's DNA.' We then offer a fitting experience that gets the player's DNA and matches them up."

Graunke himself came to Hot Stix as an avid golfer in need of better gear and became such a fan, that much like Victor Kiam in the old Remington shaver commercials, he bought the company. "I went from 12 to a 7 handicap after my fitting. I found that shocking. I have played golf all my life, took lessons regularly, hit balls at least once a week, did all the things you are supposed to do, but had stopped improving. When I came to Hot Stix, I hit the ball low with a low spin rate and had trouble holding greens, even with mid-irons. Now I hit a high fade, not from lessons or changes but simply from playing the right equipment. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want the very best equipment to improve your game, or do you want clubs from Brand X, which is how many golfers have traditionally made their decisions. Before I came in, I never thought I was a Mizuno guy, didn't think I was good enough for those blades, but boy was I wrong. Most people are shocked with what we recommend, because we are brand agnostic. All major manufacturers are making very good clubs these days, but they have different characteristics. Everyone asks, 'What's the best equipment?' There is no best, but there is a best for you."

I quickly learn how Graunke felt about Mizuno. While Hot Stix likes the TaylorMade irons the Performance Lab selected for me, my master fitter, Chris Ferguson, thinks he can do much better on the driver, even though I have been happily playing TaylorMade drivers for years. After reviewing data, he hands me a 905R from Titleist, a brand I have long avoided because of its reputation for "player's clubs"; these are marketed to the best recreational players, of whom I am not one. But the computer does not lie: I hit the Titleist consistently straighter—and nearly 20 yards longer. Pedrero had a similar surprise when he was told to toss his Callaway driver and switch to a Cleveland Launcher, a brand he had never considered buying, and now loves.

"Your driver is Hot Stix in a nutshell," says my fitter, Ferguson. "Your swing does not generate a lot of spin, which you need to get and keep the ball airborne, so you clearly need a high-spin driver. But you also draw the ball, so you don't want a draw head, and most high-spin drivers promote a draw. Since we know how every single driver performs, I check your swing against our database, and I am not guessing when I hand you the 905R. Our numbers say trade in your r7 for the 905R—with a Fujikura ZCOM TW64 shaft—and the results will be more fairways hit, more height, more distance." Neither Ferguson nor I can imagine the golfer who doesn't want all of the above. This includes the very best: while Hot Stix sponsors exactly zero players, Graunke says that it counts among its customers such Tour pros as this year's FBR Open Champ Aaron Baddeley, Billy Mayfair, Tom Lehman and Hale Irwin. "We don't pay them a thing. They come by choice to improve their game and equipment."

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