We like to think of ourselves as highly rational actors when we step into our favorite pro shop or equipment store, coolly weighing each club's critical features and game-changing benefits. Never mind that many if not most of us lose focus and grow weak in the knees at the sight of a driver used by our favorite Tour pro, or a sale tag, or the way the fluorescent light strikes a shiny putterhead just so.
If the romantics have their issues, so do the nerds — the hardcore geeks who get all jacked up about COR and know their MOI from their CG. Wonkiness isn't always clear-headedness, and it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. Even the sanest buyers tend to overlook key features and trends that don't attract headlines. While the following considerations might fly under the radar, our experts say they might also help you start lowering your handicap and gunning for your best-ever score.
The Intangible: Overall weight
For a generation of golfers (or two) raised on the "bigger is better" mantra when it comes to drivers, it may be hard to get one's head around the idea that less can be more. Less weight, that is, and more distance. Emphasis on the "can."
"Lighter-overall-weight drivers are geared to the player who wants more clubhead speed," says Nick Sherburne, founder of Club Champion, a nationwide clubfitting retailer. "But just because you can swing a driver faster doesn't necessarily mean you can transform that speed into the ball. That's the question."
And the answer is: It depends. If you're an 80-mph-or-less swinger with the driver, these feathery sticks were made for you, with some veteran clubfitters reporting immediate 4 to 5 mph swing speed increases that can lead to 10- to 15-yard distance gains. But it's not just leisurely swingers who might benefit from giving the new breed of lightweight drivers a test drive.
"I've had some younger players with physical ailments who have found that lighter is the way to go, because it puts less strain on the body," Sherburne says. "Many manufacturers also make their lightweight models with stronger shaft flexes, and I've seen stronger players who I was shocked would try them get good numbers out of these drivers."
The Intangible: Loft
It took a while, but by now most golfers realize that lofting up on their driver — from 9 degrees to 10.5 or more — can produce more distance. Ours is a higher-lofted, lower-spinning golf world. But we've been slow on the uptake with fairway woods, mindlessly grabbing 15-degree 3-woods and 18-degree 5-woods because that's what they've always been, rather than considering the latest iterations, which are moving into the 16.5-17 and 21-degree range, respectively.
"Fairway wood heads have gotten as hot as most drivers now, and golf balls don't spin like they used to, either," says Sherburne. "Without the added loft, the ball isn't going to carry as far or spin as much as it should. It's like delofting the club. Most players want a fairway wood you can drop in from anywhere — you need your playability angles."
Translation: Without enough loft in your fairway woods, the clubs don't perform their jobs in terms of going specific distances with specific trajectories. Instead of working in harmony with the driver and hybrids or long irons in your bag, they leave gaps in yardages and arcs that must be filled with contrived swings.
"You don't want to have to manufacture partial swings," says Leigh Bader, co-owner of Joe & Leigh's Discount Golf Pro Shop in South Easton, Mass., as well as the 3balls.com online store. "We don't play enough to marshal that kind of touch and precision. You need progressive distance and trajectory between your driver, fairway woods and hybrids."
The Intangible: Loft and lie adjustability
Ever since they came on the scene, adjustable drivers have unleashed our inner mechanic, allowing us to monkey around with wrenches, slide weights on tracks, and fiddle with whatever else is available to get the big dog tweaked. Now it's time to turn our attention to the driver's kin, the hybrid.
"Adjustability is at least as important in hybrids as it is in drivers, if not more so," says Chris Marsh, master fitter and general manager at Hot Stix Golf. "A driver is designed to do one thing — go far and straight. As a long-iron replacement, hybrids are designed to fill in a gap, so you need to be able to dial it in to go a certain distance or produce a certain shot shape."
If you play most of your golf on one course, it's all the more useful to be able to add or subtract loft to produce a specific yardage that you often come across. Regardless, you want your hybrids to match the turf interaction you have with your irons, whether that's heel digging, toe digging or just plain perfect every time. (Yeah, right.) With the adjustable lie angles in the latest hybrids, you can.
The Intangible: Sole width
Bader has sold tens of thousands of iron sets over the years. He's always found it amusing that most of them are displayed heads up when we literally look down on them during play. And in fact, most buyers immediately flip them over.
"The first thing shoppers do once they've pulled an iron off the shelf is look at the badge, then sole it on the ground," Bader notes. "They have a protocol — it's like a religious ceremony. The badge attracts the eye, while the sole tends to do the opposite. Thick-soled irons especially aren't really romantic to most golfers."
True, but with irons delofted by anywhere from 4-6 degrees in recent years, those large soles help move weight lower. This gets shots up faster, and it also helps prevent steep swingers from "digging for gold" on the course, as Bader puts it. So by all means try out the much-hyped new breed of thin-faced, foam-filled irons, which can add pop to your approaches. Just don't forget to consider the upside-down view of those irons, because that's where the proverbial rubber meets the road.
The Intangible: Non-traditional features
Call it the Alien Effect: Infomercial-driven wedges played their (TV) part to make game-improvement wedges seem beneath the dignity of the serious, or even semi-serious, golfer. However, just as television itself has experienced a recent renaissance in quality, so have less traditional, more helpful wedges started to move into the mainstream.
"Less traditional" is relative — we're not talking about one-use clubs with a flange the size of Texas designed to help players get out of the sand every time! They just have a bit of offset, some perimeter weighting, a grind to the back, and are easily used for full shots as well as short shots. As Club Champion's Sherburne notes, for most players, your gap wedge is your pitching wedge, part two.
"Just because a wedge is a bit chunkier doesn't mean it isn't playable," he says. "With the right loft and bounce, adding some forgiveness can be a good thing. Forgiveness is your friend. It's not like you can't do anything with these clubs that you should be doing."
"We never really had game-improvement wedge options before," adds Hot Stix's Marsh. "In the past, as fitters, we've only had the option of changing [the sole's] bounce. Now we can put a club into a golfer's hands that's almost point-and-shoot."
The Intangible: Loft (yes, that's right, loft again)
Clubhead style: Mallet, blade or Anser-esque? Insert: Harder or softer? Alignment aid: Yay or nay? Grip: Thin or zaftig? Despite the many factors that golfers take into account when searching for a flatstick, they often miss one major puzzle piece.
"The loft of the putter is maybe the single most overlooked consideration in golf equipment," says Chris Ferguson, director of fitting technology for Hot Stix Golf. "Everybody knows the loft on their driver, but maybe two percent know the loft on their putter — and it's the club you use the most."
Putter loft is the critical consideration when you're trying to get the ball to skid less and start rolling faster. Not every putter states its loft — most fall between 2 and 4 degrees — but even armed with that knowledge, buyers need other info to make it useful.
Like a regular clubfitting, a putter fitting can provide the most detailed answers, but in its absence there is a general rule of thumb. "Your hands tend to return to the ball in the position they were at address," says Ferguson. "So if you have a forward press, which delofts the club, you want a putter with more loft. If your hands are over the ball or behind it at address, you want less loft."
The Intangible: Tour touch
"Ball go far," said the clever old ad campaign, and spurred by the ungodly distances that pros regularly hit their ball off the tee, we tend to base our buying on our desire to advance drives deeper down the fairway. But ball go short, too, on approaches, pitches, chips and putts — the majority of our shots in any given round. To pick the right ball, it's time to start near the end, not the beginning.
"Your scores get better the better you play closer to the green," says Dean Snell, a longtime ball designer and now the founder of Snell Golf. "Mid- and high-handicappers might be playing 80 or 90 percent of their shots from 100 yards and in, and that's where you need a ball's performance to shine through. It's counterintuitive, but the benefit to a tour-type golf ball is actually bigger for a mid- to high-handicapper."
That performance doesn't come cheap. For many, watching a well-struck approach release instead of check up will open their wallet; for others, not. Snell's advice is simple.
"Take a two-piece ball and a tour ball and play a few holes from inside 100 yards," he says. "See what you like about each, because the performance is different. If you can tell the difference and can afford it, play the tour ball. If you can't, play the cheaper ball."