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The Right Stick

Larry Olmsted
Posted: December 1, 2007

(continued from page 1)

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."

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."

Max Out's Performance Analysis includes shaft analysis, swing analysis using the company's patented Launch Max launch monitor, equipment recommendations, lie and loft analysis and, if needed, adjustment of your existing clubs. You can add a putter fitting and order custom clubs.

Like TaylorMade, other top manufacturers have precision club fitting and swing analysis for their sponsored players, but almost none makes these available to the public. The Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) is the minor exception. The package is mainly aimed at small corporate groups of six and can be booked only through your local Titleist PGA golf pro. The appeal of TPI is that it emulates the true tour fitting experience offered to Titleist players, and includes a three-dimensional body motion analysis of your swing, along with a complete physical examination and personalized exercise routine that were designed by Dr. Greg Rose, president and founder of Clubgolf Fitness Center, the largest golf-specific health club in the United States. Then there is a swing analysis, putter analysis and custom putter fitting by Dave Phillips, a Golf Magazine Top 100 teacher. After fittings and recommendations are made for driver, irons, wedges and balls, a complete set of custom-fitted Titleist clubs is given to each participant. The package also includes a mental golf analysis, nutritional consultation and even a custom FootJoy golf shoe fitting. Attending TPI gives you a glimpse into the world of a top professional golfer.

Golfers of all abilities will greatly benefit from equipment that is precisely customized for fit and with the right shaft and performance characteristics, and any of these next-generation fitting sessions will improve your game. Which one is best for you depends on whether you want just an equipment fitting or you also want to learn more about your swing, as is the case at TaylorMade Performance Labs. If you want a whole gamut of golf-related health and strategy advice, there is the Titleist Performance Institute. No matter where you go, the fitting cost itself may be irrelevant when compared with the new gear you will want. These companies are happy to give you printed club specs to take to any retailer, but due to the high level of customization and particular shaft recommendations, it is easier just to order them directly after the fitting. Graunke estimates that 90 percent of Hot Stix visitors buy some or all new clubs. Performance Labs's McLendon says, "For most people who come through the lab and then test out our recommended clubs, the immediate performance gains are so substantial that the money issue goes out the window and the question is, 'How fast can I get them made?'"

Some golfers dread that a detailed club fitting will improve their game and thus change their swing, making the gear obsolete, but the truth is the worse gear you already have will become obsolete equally quickly, and chances are that initial changes will be minor enough so that your new equipment can be tweaked as you progress. All of the specialty fitters cited a preponderance of high handicappers as among their best customers. "The Hot Stix client is the avid, affluent golfer," says Graunke, "but that doesn't mean scratch. We get plenty of 20 to 25 handicaps." In most cases high handicappers benefit more from club fitting than better players, who have less room for improvement. McLendon agrees: "Many people are concerned about getting fitted without reaching maximum improvement first, but you can't think that way. If you look at the percentage of improvement, the players who benefit the most are the players who aren't that good. Since we opened, our average customer has had an index of 20. We get scratch players, but while people think that is the lab's target customer, it is actually a small percentage."

Golf is ultimately a game most of us play for fun, but there is no doubt that the better you play, the more fun it is. Many avid golfers buy new drivers, putters or even entire sets every season, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars in pursuit of better scores, when less money could go a lot further toward lasting improvement through proper club selection. I am truly more excited to play than I have been in years, thanks directly to my high-tech fitting experiences, and while golf is not a cheap sport, just the feeling of elation my new clubs have given me is priceless.

Larry Olmsted is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

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