But one of their biggest perks is available to you too: getting fitted for equipment. In fact, you can buy the same clubfitting experience if you like.
Don't fret; there are a range of fitting options available to every golfer, covering all levels of ability and budget. You can keep it simple by just having your current clubs' specs adjusted for your swing, or you can keep moving the fitting bar up all the way to the Tour level where your clubs and ball are optimized for you.
And there are a myriad of places you can go to get the job done. But when all's said and done, there are five different ways to get fit. Each offers a unique experience, plus its own advantages and drawbacks. Read on and decide which method suits you best.
It all started with PING and its color-coded fitting system. You know the colored dots on their clubs' cavities? Each corresponds to a different lie angle. Taller players need more upright clubs; shorter players need flatter clubs. For PING, figuring out how to get the right club in its customers' hands was just that easy. Now the company also offers its sophisticated nFlight fitting software.
Titleist offers many options, too, including being fitted by a company-trained local clubfitter or golf pro, high-end fittings through the company's FittingWorks Tour Van and a Titleist Tour Fitting experience at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif. "Our Tour Fitting experience offers driver, iron, wedge and full-line fitting options," says Brett Porath, director of FittingWorks. A driver fitting typically includes a look at fairway woods, while an iron fitting typically includes a look at hybrids. "The full-line fitting covers you from tee to around the green, and includes a look at your full set composition. The Titleist Tour Fitting is conducted at the same facility, using the same methods, tools and expert fitters as our PGA Tour staff players. From the time you arrive to the time you leave, the experience is the same as what a Tour player receives." The cost is $150 per fitting, or $450 for the full line.
TaylorMade offers a high-tech fitting experience, too, via sophisticated motion-capture technology at seven TaylorMade Performance Labs around America, plus some international locations. The two-hour experience encompasses all your clubs. Using nine high-speed, synchronized cameras, technicians capture the motion of reflective markers on strategic points of your body and club. A moving image of your swing can be viewed from any angle (above, below, front, back or either side). You'll also receive measurements of clubhead path, swing planes, body lines, X-factor, clubface angle, target line, effective clubhead loft at impact, ball speed and spin, launch angle and much more.
Some manufacturers offer ball fittings, as well. Bridgestone stages its roving Golf Ball Fitting Challenge throughout the year at courses all over the country. "Selecting the best ball for your game is important, because it's the only equipment used for every shot," says George Sine, Acushnet Company's vice president for golf ball marketing and strategic planning. "Ball selection should take into account your entire game, green through tee, and for most golfers, a priority should be placed on scoring performance into and around the green. Ball fitting should be conducted from green to tee, rather than solely rely on launch monitor data derived with a driver. Tee shots with a driver represent approximately 14 of the (many) shots hit per round. Maximizing driver distance demonstrates only what ball you hit longest off the tee. It will not, by itself, assist you in lowering your score."
CLUBFITTING STUDIOS Independent custom-fitting studios, like major manufacturers, work on all 14 of your clubs, plus the ball. Many use the latest high-speed video equipment, launch monitors and software, making precise measurements of everything pertaining to your swing and ballflight. Additionally, special software determines your optimal shaft flex, weight and kickpoint–to fine-tune your accuracy, ballflight and trajectory. With putters, studios can show where you're aiming–as opposed to where you think you're aiming–and if you square the putterface at impact. They can then match a putter to your stroke style.
An advantage: You generally have the option to either buy customized sets of name brands or get your current clubs' lie and loft angles adjusted. Costs vary, but expect to pay roughly $250 for a three-hour fitting session–that cost typically is applied to clubs you buy from the studio.
A consideration, however, is that many private studios are indoors, where you can't follow ballflight (some national chains, such as Cool Clubs, have outdoor options, so check first). Regardless, the technology accurately predicts where shots would have gone. But it's not the same as looking up and seeing real flight.
CLUB PROFESSIONALS Here you'll get individual attention from a qualified club pro who's knowledgeable about swing mechanics. Frequently, you'll also receive swing tips–they go hand in hand with fitting. The way pros fit you varies. If the fitting system he or she uses is from a club manufacturer, it's skewed toward that brand's clubs. Otherwise, if it's from an independent fitting-system manufacturer, the resulting data can be universally applied to all brands. With the latter, many pros use high-tech launch monitors with sophisticated software that provides detailed swing data. Other pros prefer the old-school method of taking static measurements while you hold the club at address, then watch you swing while using a lie board, clubface spray and sole tape to figure out where you're striking the ball. Either method is fine, as long as it pairs you with the proper equipment.
At some point in either process, the pro derives the right clubs for you by trial and error. You'll probably be fitted on an outdoor range and will repeatedly hit a driver, using a slightly different version from one hit to the next. The club components will come from a fitting cart. The pro tapes the clubface, to help see where you make impact. He'll also see how the ballflight is affected by each club or shaft change. Once he or she has determined your proper driver specs, he or she will likely hand you a 6-iron and repeat all testing, this time also taping the club's sole, to help determine your lie angle.
"The advantage of going to a green-grass PGA pro is that you can see the ballflight, because you'll probably be fitted outdoors," says Virgil Herring, PGA director of instruction at Golf Institute at Gaylord Springs in Nashville, Tenn. "The ball won't lie to you." Some pros offer clubfitting free of charge; others charge a fee that they'll apply toward any clubs you purchase from them. Another big advantage is that if you see your local pro, he or she will already know your swing.
GOLF SHOPS Many golf discount shops or the golf department in sporting goods stores will put you through a brief fitting session for free. You'll get measured on a launch monitor, which is great.
Beware of clerks who aren't properly trained to fit swings–they may steer you to the wrong gear (although many have been trained by club manufacturers). And some large chains employ PGA pros for the sole purpose of clubfitting.
Ask friends and fellow golfers to find a reputable place. If you question the quality of your fitter, consider visiting a second and third store and undergoing a fitting session at each. That way, you can see if the analyses are consistent with one another before you buy clubs. At the very least, you'll learn some things about your swing and which equipment specs you need.
ON YOUR OWN Many shaft companies and some club companies offer interactive fitting programs on their websites (see ping.com for example). This is a great way to familiarize yourself with some of the products available and to get your ballpark specs. But to truly get proper equipment, follow up your online session with a real fitting through one of the above-mentioned venues.