Iron Trends: The More Things Change …

Old school? Miura's all-forged orientation is just one of many trends that are thoroughly modern

There is no denying the tide of technology is carrying all to longer and higher, and perhaps straighter, if not truer of chip and putt—the equalizers. Yet when looking at the larger grid, a good amount of the buzz that’s charging the equipment dialogue has a big jolt of old fashioned tried-and-true running clean through it. If seeking coalescing trends in all the “Madison Avenue,” a number jump out: The blade is not dead, cast rules, forging is in growth mode, the consumer embrace of custom fitting could be bettered by a bit more reach and manufacturers are increasingly going GM, and hopefully to greater success.

Soup to Nuts

Looking for a hot trend?  Integration is in, with more companies embracing a Chevy-to-Caddy-type orientation to the showroom.  Look at stalwarts Ping and Titleist, for example.  One remains mid-and high-handicap friendly yet its stealth play is an iteration of the blade, of all things, a buttery blend of target seeking and an enviable amount of assistance, and, heaven forbid, there’s now a forging in the line.  The other continues to try to reach the market segment that doesn’t receive free name-embroidered bags, even as it solidly remains the brand of sticks for sticks.

“We want to be able to provide the perfect set of irons for every type of golfer out there,” explains Sharon Park, manager of irons and wedge R&D at Cleveland Golf, of her company’s reaction to what’s overtaking much of the industry.  “Obviously there is such a range of skills, and we want to make sure players have the opportunity to choose from among Cleveland products rather than being required to go somewhere else.”

Take a look at Cleveland’s catalog. The tour crowd can grab a wee manly blade in the CG1 Tour, the accomplished and the aspiring can opt for variations of the CG7 and CG16, and chops can cozy up to the HB3 hybrid irons.

So like others, Cleveland can take players from cradle-to-grave, so to speak.

For all the thunder and lightning that always emanates from Callaway, last year’s release of a game-improvement forging was the company’s most striking release, arguably, since the S2H2 concept was conceived back in golf’s Jurassic period. The Diablo Forged slots in to serve the needs of a customer torn between the forgiveness of the X-24 HOT and soon-to-be-released RAZR X clubs, and the “tour” forgings.

“We have a full range of irons for all players now,” says Luke Williams, Callaway Golf’s director of innovation, addressing playability factors as well as the metallurgical processes used. “Historically, we, and most of our competitors, tended not to have such variety in the lineup. Most have gone or are going that direction now. By targeting designs for specific players, with the materials and techniques now at our disposal, we can offer that variety.”

Forging Ahead

“Typically our forged offerings have been our better-player irons, the irons that are sought out on tour, by club pros, and by other highly skilled players.  Forging has always had a ‘meaning’ for such players, the look, the feel,” adds Williams. “The Diablo Forged was an effort to take forging more toward the average player.”

The for-America extension of an immensely popular club sold in Asia under Callaway’s Legacy sub-brand, the Diablo Forged did not reach this market without what Williams dubbed “some internal debate,” essentially driven by the much more widespread acceptance of and appreciation for forged clubs in Asia than here, and that it might appear as “a bit more of a player’s club” than Americans have come to expect from the company. It’s here, and from the market’s reaction Callaway is “glad we did it.”

Like an NFL front line, golf club design is all about moving weight around effectively.  There’s more sky’s-the-limit potential when it comes to casting, at least on a dollar-for-dollar investment basis, and it is a less-expensive process overall, which translates well to sales, and as a result cast remains the alpha male of the market, particularly here in the states.

Conversely, some of the bugaboos, deserved or not, associated with investment casting have gone by the wayside.  There was a time when the cognoscenti pointed to hot and dead spots in cast clubs, a marble-or-mush effect reputedly endemic to the procedure of pouring molten steel into an empty shell. Williams doesn’t believe cast clubs from the names in the game were ever truly inconsistent, but acknowledges improvement: “There is no doubt the castings of today are much better than they were 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.”

And there is the matter of feel, one of the supposedly superior traits of forged irons. Yet for all the improved tactile sensation of a well-struck non-cast club, it is our ears that are picking up the distinction between materials and techniques, so that improved “feel” of a forging is auditory satisfaction.

The success on tour of all-cast or mostly-cast club lines from the Pingss and Clevelands and Taylor Mades of the world belies the notion that the best players in the world seek out sticks only of hammered-and-cut blocks of soft carbon steel.

Yet forging has its fans, as seen in so-called cast companies—Ping?!—embracing what’s long been considered the material of choice for “players,” greater numbers of game-improvement forged models entering the market, and companies such as Mizuno long feasting on a nearly exclusive diet of forged steel.

Then there is Miura Golf.

Katsuhiro Miura got into the golf business in the late 1950s, and several decades later he established Miura Giken, or Miura Manufacturing, where he began forging what became a line of highly-sought-after niche irons. Far from a household name on this side of the Pacific, Miura gained somewhat sub rosa fame in the 1980s and ‘90s manufacturing for the Asian market Miura-tagged clubs and also models stamped with the names of other companies, including some of the leading retail brands, says the company’s vice president of North American operations, Bill Holowaty. (Confidentiality agreements limit what the company can disclose.)  Seeing its acclaim rise, the company now produces clubs only under its name.

Based near Osaka, the heart of the steel industry in Japan, and where samurai swords were first manufactured, Holowaty says, it is not surprising that Miura makes only forged irons (and wedges) using a number of proprietary processes including a “spinforging” process for attaching milled and pre-drilled individual hosels to faces that have a grain structure that the company claims is the best in the industry.  Holowaty equates the grain of the steel, if seen under magnification, to a “glass jar filed up with sand, while other processes would show marbles and grains with small voids and spaces.”

Better Arrows Still Need Better Indians

The he said/she said of manufacturing claims notwithstanding, Miura’s love affair with the process of forging lies in more than the art of the craft.

“Mr Miura’s feeling on who can play a forged golf club and what a forged golf club delivers is such that he believes there is talent in every golfer.  He believes that forged clubs allow that talent to come to the surface. The level of performance, the level of feedback you get from the iron may not be totally realized [by all players], but there certainly is a benefit to it.  His feeling is anyone can play a forged club.”

Holowaty holds that a forged club, in Miura’s experience, will close to square more efficiently than a cast club, and for all the players out there channeling Trevino or Furyk, the impact position is where pure or putrid is realized.

Take a blade (cast or forged): Those who play ’em know there isn’t as much wiggle room when it comes to contact and result, and that’s exactly what many are looking for, the idea being equipment can help—or force—us to improve when we aren’t falsely assured by something that looks like a spatula with more forgiveness than grandma.  Now add another parameter.  The pleasing and telling forged “feel” provides another type of feedback at impact, and it can turn in an instant; a forged club can be a highly sensory and effective instructional tool on hits both solid and missed. (And let’s be honest, as the technology that allows weight to be moved all about the clubface is nearly as applicable to the process of forging, a forged Frisbee-on-a-stick is possible.)  So the moral of the story is that clubs that are made, however they are made, to mask less can teach us more, or at least some of us.  As Callaway’s Williams contends:

“Are you someone who is more inclined to look to equipment for improvement, or are you on the other end of the spectrum, the player who has used the same clubs for 20 years and who thinks improvement is something that comes through practice and instruction?”

Randy Henry has spent decades working both sides of the player-improvement game.  Henry is the founder of Henry-Griffitts, like Miura a long-time niche-sized provider of equipment, albeit cast not forged irons.  Henry-Griffitts has had professional players in its stable over the years—Peter Jacobsen for one—but the corporate focus remains recreational players and getting well designed, fairly priced and perhaps above all else properly fitted sticks in their hands.

Henry also is a teaching pro.

“With my background, I have a different point of view. The swing is always a part of selecting and being fitted to equipment.  It is not just the club and the player.  When we fit someone he [or she] will have an idea about that equipment and the swing.  You can’t go in and condemn people to who they are; you need to fit them to who they can become.”

Not everyone has the time or the inclination to find the answers in the dirt, a la Hogan.  Jobs, family, other interests—no one seeking to improve should avoid a fitting simply because Jim McLean’s not on speed dial. (Seeing your local PGA or LPGA teaching pro is a good alternative, however.)

The big manufacturers are not blind to the notion, even if all of their fitters and retail accounts don’t sport a stable of PGA of America Class A instructors in house.  Williams says Callaway does fit with a nod toward why and how the person being fitted hits the ball, apart from the sheer mechanics of body dimensions relating to some discrete shaft length and lie angle.

Williams offers another piece of advice—be honest.  If you can’t or won’t spend the time on the range, under the watchful eye of an instructor, you might need to lean more toward a radical fit solution to help compensate for a bread-tie-length backswing and Lizzie Borden-like move from the top.  (I once underwent an OEM fitting and the immediate “solution” was to put me in excessively long and upright irons as a means to compensate for physical limitations and how they played out in my swing.  I went more standard in set up—length and lie in keeping with my static measurements—and have been working on flexibility and range time.)

“The ‘best’ players I play with, whatever the handicap, are those who are most honest with themselves,” he advises. “And that’s the key to a good fitting.  Be honest about yourself, your physical abilities, your time, and set your expectations at a reasonable level, then relay that to the fitter.”

Honesty?  We are talking golf, are we not?

Ah, go ahead, give it a try.  And if you lapse, the next iteration of the equipment cure-alls debuts next month.

2 Responses to “Iron Trends: The More Things Change …”

  1. Jay Stuller

    Good analysis, Ken. I’ve never much liked game improvement clubs and preferred the look and feel of forged, muscle-backed irons. While my index has crept into double digits over the past few years – – mostly due to an aversion of spending time on the range – – I still feel I hit the ball better forged clubs. Folks who says average players can’t handle forged are full of crap. Whether it’s a four iron or pitching wedge, the ball gets up and into the air and with a good swing goes mostly straight. Conversely, I can take a game improvement club and shank the hell out of any given hole.

  2. Ken Van Vechten

    Thanks, Jay. Anything can be done well and and done poorly with the exact same stick. As I learned researching and beating sticks myself is what they said over at Callaway: the tolerances have pretty much tightened down to the point of insignificance. Give me a boat anchor and a blade, and I will get the boat anchor into the air more efficiently more times, but I’m still not sticking it tight so it comes down to the short game, and I don’t know that a 10y miss is any worse than a 5y miss when your short game is like mine. And I think the manus did a great job over the years convincing a lot of folks/a lot of us that we needed a spatula. Have we improved as a lot? No. When my game is off, it is off, way off, and you could give me something the size of that old Armour titanium shovel and my game still would be off. Off is off. When I’m playing within my more usual band of play I certainly haven’t gone backwards playing my last two sets (Mizunos) than the cast clubs that came before. As you note, there are tactile things inherent to “better” player and forged clubs that can help all of us. It does help to get feedback that tells you why you effed up, even if you can’t make the perfect fix each and every time. And one last thing, there are some wicked good cast clubs out there. The last two iterations of Ping’s blade have been superb. The previous one even “outforgave” the i10, as my hands and some pros and Ping guys admitted to.


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