The Right Stick
Posted: December 1, 2007
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Hot Stix sits in a Scottsdale corporate park, looking more like a doctor's office than a golf shop. As you enter, the entire left wall is filled with color-coded manila folders labeled like hospital charts, reflecting the "DNA" of nearly 20,000 customers, many of whom come back regularly to see if the latest clubs can help their games. Just before I arrived, a foursome came in a private jet from Japan just for a fitting. Staffers wear white lab coats, and the Tour-quality custom shop sits prominently behind a glass wall, like a trendy restaurant's open kitchen, so visitors can see clubs assembled. From unique color finishes on wedges to custom sole grinds to drilled tungsten inserts for weighting, no amount of customization is too much for Hot Stix.
In back are fitting bays, where launch monitors help club fitters optimize customers' swings against the database. To begin each fitting, staffers put your existing clubs on machines and double-check loft, lie and shaft flex. Pedrero was shocked with the results: "I had the same steel shafts in all my irons, labeled stiff, but when tested, some were stiff, some were normal and one rated a women's regular in flex. Likewise, the gaps in loft between my irons were uneven. I had no idea how imprecise off-the-rack clubs are." A fitting results in several recommendations, often for two to three optimum heads from different brands for drivers, fairway woods, hybrids, irons, wedges and putters. To Hot Stix, set composition is also important and, depending on a golfer's swing data, the staff might recommend long irons, hybrids or lofted fairway woods. "Everyone needs a putter and a driver. I help them find the 12 clubs in between," said Ferguson.
The company's newest offering is the Hot Stix Performance Center, an indoor/outdoor testing facility that opened March 1 at Scottsdale's Legend Trail Golf Club. This 10-acre compound includes a 2,000-square-foot building with indoor bays, but the main advantage is being able to try clubs under more situations and observing actual ball flight. The center consists of six Game Fitting "experiences," to address every club in the bag. Accompanied by their personal fitter, visitors rotate through the stations, leaving no club untouched. Ferguson notes that the wedge evaluation is much better under real conditions, where the fitter can see flop and sand shots and make recommendations for bounce. The Performance Center books only four guests per day, and each fitting takes three to four hours. Graunke, who plans to roll out additional Performance Centers nationwide, says, "This is the elite of the elite, a new level of fitting that incorporates all the same technology and database of our indoor facility. This is the equipment fitting experience Tiger Woods gets when he visits Nike."
Besides the fitting process, Hot Stix offers recommendations for golf balls, something most golfers know surprisingly little about. Hot Stix is so serious about this that it keeps balls in a lab-quality incubator at 77 degrees Fahrenheit to test accurately. "Balls are very misunderstood," said Graunke. "People think the top models from top manufacturers are comparable, but they're not. If you and I both play off of seven and we both hit a Pro V1, we will get very different results, very different spin, based on our golf DNA." J. P. Lincoln, spokesman for Hot Stix competitor Max Out Golf, which has an entire Web site, golfballtest.com, devoted to proper ball selection, agrees: "You pick up a box of balls and it says super long, soft and mid or high trajectory, and that's all. There's no way to tell the difference." Lincoln notes that all balls make essentially the same claims, and all have to conform to United States Golf Association rules, yet many of the buying decisions that fuel an $800 million annual ball industry are uninformed, which is why Max Out recently performed robotic testing of every major ball with several different clubs. "For my swing," says Lincoln, "a mid-priced ball like the Maxfli Noodle actually outperformed more expensive balls like the Pro V1. How would I know that?"
Balls are mysterious, but no segment of the golf gear industry is as confusing to the average player as shafts. While top equipment manufacturers like Titleist and Callaway are household names, shaft specialists such as Grafalloy, Graphite Design International, Fujikura, True Temper, United Sports Technologies and Aldila are not. Each of these companies, and dozens more, makes an endless array of models, and this is one of the key reasons Pedrero went to Hot Stix in the first place. "I'd look at the pros and none are playing stock shafts, but if I took my driver to a retail shop and asked what would be a good shaft, I never got any inkling that they knew what they were talking about. The odds of picking the right shaft from hundreds are, well, one in hundreds, and some of these shafts cost hundreds of dollars each." Consider the case of Titleist, which offers more than 60 different driver shafts from nearly a dozen manufacturers just in its direct semi-custom sales program.
According to Hot Stix's Graunke, "Shafts are the single least understood component of all golf gear, but also the most important, offering the single biggest opportunity for improvement. If you have a limited budget and need to decide between new clubs and re-shafting, re-shaft every time, as long as you can get shaft-fitted by a competent place. The shaft is the engine of the golf club, but everyone thinks it is the head. I can take any brand of five-year-old heads and put them on the exact right custom shaft for you, and I guarantee they will absolutely outperform any brand new club you have." In fact, after Pedrero was fitted by Hot Stix, the company recommended that rather than buy clubs, he pull his old Ping irons out of the closet, re-shaft them, and have the heads bent to new angles, to replace his newer and more expensive set.
Max Out Golf puts so much importance on shaft fitting that much of the company's process is based on its patented Shaft Max technology, in which sensors attached to a test shaft measure the load your individual swing puts on the shaft and at what points. "Our system for fitting is unique, and as a result we were just granted several U.S. patents," says Max Out founder Mitch Voges. "The very first thing we do is look for the right shaft for you. The right weight and bend profile is all based upon how you load the shaft, which has nothing to do with how far you hit the ball. Grabbing any old shaft is like needing glasses and buying a random pair without a prescription."
Shaft Max data helps Voges's staff pick the perfect shaft for you from well over 100 different models the company stocks from various manufacturers. "There is a reason why we carry so many, because of their unique performance features," says Voges. "We measure them and I can even tell you exactly how much effective loft a particular shaft will add to your club. It used to be they would wheel a cart with 25 5-irons with different shafts out to the range and you ended up buying whichever one you hit better at that moment. The industry has missed the boat, and they are all based on marketing and hype. Heads, shafts and balls are all unique products, and we measure them all rather than accepting manufacturer claims. We have no preconceived notions, we are vendor-neutral and we start the fitting process with a blank canvas."
Voges, the 1991 U.S. Amateur champion and a former Walker Cup player, started the company in 1996 in Sherman Oaks, California, and will soon have more than a dozen locations worldwide. When he was playing competitively, Voges was fascinated with club building, and constantly tweaked his own equipment, then started Max Out due to the mystery and the public ignorance surrounding golf equipment.
"We have fit several thousand golfers, and I probably have the happiest customer base of any company," says Voges. "We have no inventory to push, no commissions, and no one comes in here and feels hustled. John Public is used to buying the clubs they see on TV. Almost no one who comes in here has ever had a putter fitting, or maybe even heard of a putter fitting. Do they want their shafts counterbalanced? They don't know when they come in, but by the time the fitting is over, they don't want to leave. They are like a kid in a candy store. And not everybody needs new clubs. We get people who come in and their clubs are pretty close to ideal. Some just need adjustments in lie, loft or shafts. Others are 180 degrees from the right equipment for them. Some need entirely new sets. But they all leave here understanding why."
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