The average handicap in America has dipped just two strokes from 18 to 16 since 1994, which, considering the advances in equipment, instruction and course conditioning, is rather scant. The most underused method for improvement and the one that by far holds the best chance of success for you is a personalized club-fitting, because no matter how good your equipment gets, you sometimes hit bad shots when a club doesn't fit you.
Each month, we put two readers through a club manufacturer's custom-fitting system and we publish the results. In every case these players showed clear improvement, but it didn't end there. We tracked these guinea pigs afterward they've played hundreds of rounds since-to find out whether custom-fitting leads to permanently better scores.
Over the course of 18 months we've determined the long-term benefits of customfitting are very real and, in fact, you are leaving shots out on the course if you haven't been custom-fit. More than 90 percent of our test cases report improved performance with their custom-fit clubs. [See golf.com/buyerbeware for the other side of the story.] Mid-handicappers lowered their handicap by two or more strokes on average within a few short months. Elite players aren't necessarily scoring better (it's difficult to drop it much when you hover near scratch), but they're seeing greater consistency. Many players who were fitted strike their new clubs up to one full club longer with irons and 10 to 20 more yards on drives. They're having more fun playing the game, too. A poll of golf.com readers reveals similar satisfaction levels.
Read on for an in-depth look at five success stories from players just like you, plus a comprehensive chart that lists fitting services offered by major club manufacturers. The fitting process requires just 30 to 45 minutes, and fitters often waive their charge if you purchase the clubs. The payoff will be priceless. Success Story 1 John Rice pulled most of his shots until he changed the lie, shaft flex and grip in his irons. Now he hits them straight and as much as 10 yards longer.
HANDICAP BEFORE: 15
HANDICAP AFTER: 11
AGE: 39 HOME: New Rochelle, N.Y.
OCCUPATION: Investment banker
Game-improvement cavity back, 3-PW, steel shaft, medium-stiff flex, standard lie, length and grip size
Mizuno MX-900, 4-PW, steel shaft, stiff flex, 3Ã‚Âº upright, standard length, + 1/32" grip Mizuno FLI-HI CLK hybrid (20Ã‚Âº), graphite shaft, stiff flex
Cost: $1,264 for eight irons, $250 for hybrid
FITTER: Darren Anderson, owner, Custom Golf of Connecticut: "An out-to-in swing path, combined with a standard lie angle, caused John to catch the ground with the toe of the club just before impact. This forced the clubface to open. He'd compensate by yanking the ball left."
Fix: The fitted club's lie angle is bent to 3 degrees upright. A heavier, firmer shaft and thicker grip also provide better head feel and more control over ball flight.
Result: John strikes the ball more squarely, with a consistently straighter ball flight and hits it longer. Distance jumped five to 10 yards per club.
READER: John Rice: "These clubs make me a better player. I'd been stuck at 15 for years and now I'm an 11. I'm hitting the ball straighter with more consistent yardages. And I can hit the hybrid from just about anywhere. Before the fitting, I'd only use the 3-iron in perfect lies."
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
If you only carry your 3-iron so you can punch out from under trees, get fit for a hybrid club. Not only is the hybrid much easier to hit, your mis-hits will react far better. Success Story 2
Dana Burns was a classic slicer with a weak grip and poor swing path. Now he hits his driver in the fairway and 34 yards longer.
HANDICAP BEFORE: 25
HANDICAP AFTER: 22
HOME: New York, N.Y.
OCCUPATION: Portfolio manager
360 cc, 9.5Ã‚Âº, graphite shaft, regular flex, 45.5", standard grip
Adams RPM 460 Ti (Draw), 9.5Ã‚Âº, Grafalloy Pro Launch 65 graphite shaft, stiff flex, 45.5", standard grip
FITTER: Max Miller, custom-fitting specialist, Custom Golf of Connecticut: "Dana's classic slice swing steep and outside-in and too weak of a grip led to an open clubface at impact."
Fix: Dana switched to the offset, draw-biased head and a lower-spinning ball, and he strengthened his grip. He's also teeing it higher and aiming slightly left of target.
Result: A stronger grip takes some sidespin off his ball and straightens his ball flight. The offset head has extra weight in the heel to promote a right-to-left flight. A lower-spinning ball further cuts down on sidespin. Teeing it higher increases launch angle and forces Dana to swing more on plane. And aiming left allows his fade to drift back to the fairway, and that means more clubhead speed because now Dana releases the head instead of guiding it.
READER: Dana Burns: "I'm finding two more fairways per round on average and I'm hitting it longer, but consistency is the biggest factor. Of course, the much larger head, with larger sweet spot, compensates for lots of mis-hits."
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
A custom-fitting is a great chance to demo balls, too. Matching your swing to the right ball can improve your ball flight and carry. Success Story 3
Joe Nagel was already a good player, but he didn't get the carry he wanted on shots. Now he generates 15 more yards with the big stick and swings with confidence every time.
HANDICAP BEFORE: 3
HANDICAP AFTER: 3
HOME: Winthrop, Mass.
OCCUPATION: IT consultant
Titleist 983E, 9.5Ã‚Âº, Graphite Design YS-6 graphite shaft, stiff flex
Titleist 905T, 10.5Ã‚Âº, Aldila NV65 graphite shaft, stiff flex
FITTER: Michael Gibson, director of custom fitting, Harmon Golf & Fitness Club, Rockland, Mass.: "Joe's got a good swing but he wasn't getting enough backspin. Drives shot out low and like a knuckleball, stripping him of carry distance."
Fix: A bigger head, an extra degree of loft and firmer-tipped shaft (to tighten up misses).
Result: Shots fly higher and with more spin, to keep the ball in the air longer. His average drive is easily 15-plus yards farther.
READER: Joe Nagel: I'm hitting the ball farther than ever before. And it's easy power. Better ball flight my launch angle is higher allows me to hit the ball much straighter. But ultimately, the big dog doesn't get the ball in the hole any faster. I only get to hit the thing 14 times. I'd hit it for every shot if I could."
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
It's fun to watch a knee-high tee shot that rolls a mile. But our longest drives are the ones that max out carry distance and then roll. Success Story 4
Chris Schraft had a handsy swing that lacked power. Now he hits every iron as much as 8 yards farther.
HANDICAP BEFORE: 12
HANDICAP AFTER: 8
AGE: 41 HOME: Madison, NJ
OCCUPATION: Marketing executive
Game-improvement cavity back, 3-PW, steel shaft, stiff flex, standard lie and length
MacGregor MacTec NVG2, 4-PW, steel shaft, stiff flex, 2Ã‚Âº flat, standard length MacTec NVG2 hybrid, 20Ã‚Âº, graphite, regular flex
Cost: $699 for eight irons, $219 for hybrid
FITTER: John Hobbins, owner, Greenside Golf Services, Rye, N.Y.: "Chris tended to get a little upright and armsy, which zapped power from his swing."
Fix: A flatter lie angle (2-degrees flat) encourages a rounder, more on-plane swing, which results in more distance. He also replaced his 3-iron with a 20Ã‚Âº hybrid.
Result: Much more control over iron shots. Adding the hybrid gives Chris a higher ball flight and more length than his old 3-iron.
READER: Chris Schraft: The clubs have definitely added five to eight yards per club. Ball flight is much higher as well. Good shots fly straight and the effect of wayward shots is minimized. Extra distance and straighter shots is a nice combo, right? Every so often, the 12-handicapper in me shows up. But these are much more forgiving than my old game-improvement cavity-backs. so it's not as big a deal."
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Don't assume that regular-flex shafts are best for you. Stiff-flex shafts, or even senior-flex, could be a better match for your swing. Success Story 5
Michael Jo was an inconsistent player prone to hitting snap hooks. Now he's added 11 yards of carry off the tee, and he puts it in play more often.
HANDICAP BEFORE: 14
HANDICAP AFTER: 11
AGE: 32 HOME: New York, NY
460cc, 10Ã‚Âº, graphite shaft, regular flex, 45"
Cleveland HiBore, 9.5Ã‚Âº, Grafalloy Blue graphite shaft, stiff flex, 45"
FITTER: George Yelvington, East River Golf School, Randall's Island, N.Y.: "Michael was one of those 14 handicappers who could shoot 78 one day and 98 the next. He hit a nice high draw, but he had a tendency to lose it left hard left, as in snap hooks."
Fix: The 9.5-degree loft helps to reduce his sidespin. A stiff flex shaft (with a stiff tip) might seem like a surprising option for a mid-handicapper. But it actually makes his misses more predictable by neutralizing his hook.
Result: Consistently straighter, longer carry and added roll.
READER: Michael Jo: "Previously, I found myself losing strokes because too many drives were unplayable and that made the game much less fun. Now I've got shorter approaches and much less trouble to deal with. Of course, I'm not saying that suddenly I'm bombing 'em 300 or anything, but it has been a marked difference."
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
It's nice to pick up distance during a fitting, but a 230-yard, fairway-splitting drive beats a 240-yard bomb into the junk any day of the week.