Design Trends For '07
Long known as the golf bag's unsung heroes, irons have come full circle. No longer are there just a few options between forged blades and cast cavity-backs. Instead, there are numerous new models that feature varying degrees of exciting new technologies designed to help virtually all kinds of golfers. Some irons have mixed-material compositions that combine steel, titanium and composites for enhanced forgiveness, trajectory and distance. Other irons feature new shapes and geometries that are already causing a stir. Whereas drivers have undergone dramatic improvements in recent years, irons have advanced more subtly. That's partly because of their limited geometry—how much technology can be crafted into an inch-thick clubhead, anyway?—and partly because they're already pretty good the way they are. But that's not to say companies haven't made concerted efforts to improve iron performance, nor that you shouldn't consider buying a new set. No doubt, the latest iron designs will be an improvement over their counterparts from even a year ago.
The primary reason for this fact is that the technologies used to produce irons have rapidly advanced, which, in turn, has improved the end product. Now most golfers get a more pleasing feel at impact, get the ball airborne more quickly and easily and, ultimately, achieve more distance.
"The prominent way to design irons now is through CAD (computer-aided) design," says David Walker, Senior Product Manager of Golf Clubs at Bridgestone Golf. "We're able to control the sound and feel more than ever and can pretty much tell how the iron will sound at impact, before we have an actual club. Another CAD benefit is the precise redistribution of weight: We now know our absolute limits on face thickness, so we can better redistribute the weight. We can design an iron's clubface to be an exact thickness, whereas before we just made the heads with a general thickness."
Essentially, the designers are freeing up weight from the front and putting it in the back, just as they did with metalwoods. "As you thin up a clubface, you increase the iron's COR (spring effect at impact) and the ball speed," says Benoit Vincent, Chief Technical Officer at TaylorMade Golf. "The face has to be very flat, which is difficult to accomplish. The grooves need to work hand-in-hand with the face, too. Essentially, it's driver technology that's been extended into irons. Some of the playability that's been discovered in hybrids—that easy-to-play trajectory with significant distance gains—seems to be the trend with irons, too. Manufacturers are finding ways to do that effectively. It's difficult in irons because you don't have a lot of area to extend the center of gravity back, where in some of the new drivers, you have four to five inches to move it back."
Because of weight redistribution, the three types of irons—blades, cavity-backs and game-improvement irons—have all advanced at independent rates, say experts. "Blades aren't much different than they were 10 years ago," says Bridgestone's Walker, explaining that's partly because less than 10 percent of golfers play blades, so manufacturers have less of a business interest in the segment. "Blade players always want feel and feedback. One interesting thing we've seen is manufacturers making some blades with game-improvement aspects. Part of the limitations of forgings is we can't make lines as clean or add as many features as you can with a cast club. There's not much we can do with a blade's mass," because each blade is forged from a block of steel.
And they can't add other materials, either. While that's generally prevented weight redistribution, manufacturers can alter the sole width to change the feel, as well as manipulate "features in the back of the products, such as some carve-outs and sculpturing of the back design," says TaylorMade's Vincent. "There's been a significant effort to bring added forgiveness to the players' clubs, too."
Better players are also more readily accepting cavity-back products. That is, they're attracted to cast clubs that look forged and offer some level of forgiveness, better ball speed and consistency throughout the face.
Blades are "a double-edge sword," says John Hoeflich, Nickent Golf's Senior Vice President. "You can make blade-looking clubs with super-thin faces, but you won't get the same feel as you would with a true muscleback. And a muscleback design eliminates the advantages of a thin face."
Titleist, however, is one of several companies remedying that situation—its designers thinned the clubface in the 755 irons through improved forging techniques, relocating the discretionary weight saved from the thin face to the low extremes and perimeter.
"We supported the thin face with a special forged aluminum insert that also acts as a vibration dampener," says Chris McGinley, Titleist's Vice President of Marketing, Clubs. "Not only was it our most successful iron in terms of PGA Tour wins in 2006, it's also an iron that we successfully sold and fit to players from 0-12 handicaps."
And that's a prime example of how materials and construction have helped catapult cavity-back and game-improvement irons. Proper redistribution of weight can significantly increase the moment of inertia, which greatly enhances clubhead stability at impact and thus forgiveness. It also helps the ball fly high and straight. Moving weight can also exponentially improve the iron's feel—even bad mis-hits won't sting. And the sole can be designed to glide through turf, no matter how thick the grass. Game-improvement irons—typically categorized as oversized cavity-backs with some kind of weighting technology that provides accuracy enhancement—are played by 70 percent of golfers, while standard cavity-backs are found in 20 percent of golf bags.
And it's that collective 90 percent of golfers who stand to see better iron games in the near future. In fact, these are the golfers mostly using the very hybrids that, interestingly enough, will largely impact irons.
"Over the next two years, the most prominent change in irons will be the set configuration and loft spacing," predicts Nickent's Hoeflich, who, like his competitors, claims that more golfers are now starting to buy sets of irons that are configured as 5-PW and then complement that with two hybrids that replace the 3- and 4-irons. "That trend hasn't worked its way to better players yet, but it will drive what happens to performance and technology in irons. It will force us to rethink center of gravity and open up more opportunities for new materials. As a result of the reconfiguration, a lot of things will happen. But USGA standards will somewhat limit what we can do with thin-face technology."
Also expect to see more complete sets of hybrid-irons, in which all included clubs will look somewhat like hybrids. Whichever irons you ultimately decide on in years to come, you'll almost surely find them easier to hit than the ones currently residing in your bag. And remember, make sure you get them fitted for your swing. That way, you can make sure you'll fully take advantage of all these new iron technologies.