"So, you're a 15 handicap?" Mitch Voges asked after watching me beat balls in one of the five indoor stalls at Max Out Golf Labs, his high-tech performance center north of Los Angeles. "We can get you down to a 5. It'll be like cheatin'."
Was he mad? Lately, I couldn't break 90. Like a spurned lover, I'd been burned by many a golf guru who'd promised happiness but delivered heartache. If dozens of lessons and a thousand range hours couldn't chip away at my handicap, could custom-fitted sticks do the trick? Mitch, don't make promises you can't keep. I've been hurt before...
"Trust me," he said. "You just need the right tools and better fundamentals. It's like Hogan said anyone in good health, who goes about it the right way, should shoot in the 70s. You'll be winning cutlery and TV sets in no time."
I was a long way from taking home steak knives, but Voges, 55, knows about beating steep odds. A promising young player, his dream of winning the U.S. Amateur was seemingly over when, at 23, he blew out his back. He underwent a three-level fusion, spent months in a body cast and played sparingly. Then he returned, Roy Hobbs-style, to win the 1991 Amateur, at age 41, with his 13-year-old son, Christian, on the bag. Five years later he co-founded Max Out Golf, which blends high-tech clubfitting with nuts-and-bolts instruction (courtesy of two PGA-certified professionals).
The success stories coming from the Sherman Oaks, Calif., headquarters sounded like so much infomercial blather. An LA-area duffer picked up 100 yards in one session and broke down in tears of joy. PGA Tour pro Duffy Waldorf gained 25 yards, thanks to a better ball-shaft combination and reduced spin rate. And one true believer spoke of Voges the way Tom Cruise speaks of L. Ron Hubbard. "Mitch is amazing!" said attorney Dan Ditlof, 49. "The best money I ever spent. He took 10 strokes off my game overnight. Literally."
Nice try, buddy. How much is Voges paying you?
"No, seriously," Ditlof said. "In golf, shaft is everything. Mine were too whippy. Most fitters push new, expensive clubs on you. He put me in a set of clubs they stopped making, Maxfli Revolution irons, because the clubs were the right ones for me. I went from shooting 95 to 85."
It sounded too good to be true, but I was desperate. Five years after a golden summer in which I flirted with a single-digit handicap, my game had betrayed me. My driver could split any fairway, but swinging an iron felt like wielding a lawn chair. The low point: I hit 13 of 14 fairways and shot 98. Here a shank, there a clank, everywhere a skank-skank. One memorable 5-iron seemingly defied the laws of physics: I chunked it and topped it in a single ghastly motion. A playing partner asked, "Are you sure you work for Golf Magazine?" A fair point. If Voges couldn't help me, I'd send my resume to Badminton Monthly.
High Tech Support
What first strikes you about Max Out Golf Labs, which serves as the official clubfitter of the Southern California PGA, are the manufacturer banners: There are none. No Callaway, Titleist or TaylorMade signs to be found. Voges works with all the major clubmakers but is beholden to none of them. "I want to be able to select from all available options," says Voges. "One manufacturer alone doesn't have the best shaft for you, the best ball, the best irons. My goal is to make you play better, using talent, technique and technology."
A lifelong garage tinkerer, Voges always was fascinated by the idea of marrying high-tech fitting and instruction. After winning the Amateur, he was the elder statesman on the 1991 Walker Cup team, which included collegians Phil Mickelson and David Duval. (Voges taught some of the younger players how to tie their ties.) Before the matches, he cornered then-USGA technical director Frank Thomas and asked, "What's better for players Cycolac or gamma-fire inserts? Surlyn, lithium or balata balls? And what kind of shaft? Shouldn't you be able to tell me what kind of equipment each individual would perform best with?" Thomas said technology hadn't advanced that far. "I told him I had a method of fitting people for the best equipment, to take clubfitting high-tech. He said, 'Do that, and you'll revolutionize the game for the average player.'" To which I say, Viva La RevoluciÃ³n!
Voges has a detective's eye for detail, which is fitting, since my clubs deserved to be cordoned off with police tape: I had a knock-off TaylorMade 360 and ill-fitting steel-shafted Hogan Apex Plus irons I bought off the rack. "I'll bet you're good from the first cut but death from the fairway." Bingo! How'd he know? "The Apex's sole is sharper and digs into the fairway, causing mis-hits, but it slides through the rough."
A Max Out fitting can last hours. It's tiring but compelling. Voges has an array of high-tech toys at his fingertips, most of which he developed. More scientist than clubfitter, he's way beyond black tape and Plexiglas hitting boards. High-speed cameras, sensors and accelerometers capture the physics of the swing while computers measure ball velocity, launch angle and ball-spin rates. His team analyzes your shaft, clubhead size, grip size and ball selection. And Max Out's fitting system allows Voges to quickly mix and match various shafts and club heads, to help insure the proper loft, center of gravity and shaft length. "It's like buying a suit," he said. "You can buy off the rack, and it'll be OK, but you'll look like a million bucks with an expert tailor."
The coolest toy in Voges' box is a wireless device called the ShaftMax, which resembles a wristwatch. It attaches to the shaft and measures a club's bend, or load. Maximum load means maximum power, but my too-stiff steel Hogans had little bend. Swinging them was like trying to pole vault with a steel rod there was no snap.
The ShaftMax spits out data that looks like an EKG reading. A horizontal line means little load, or stored energy; an ascending, ramp-like line means lots of bend and...pow! Golf shot! I tried a TaylorMade RAC 6-iron, with a lighter graphite shaft. I swung from my heels and flatlined. Just 1.5 inches of bend. "You're casting and losing power in the downswing," said Chris Mullane, a class-A PGA pro of 23 years. He tweaked my backswing while Voges pecked at his computer. The fix: A shorter backswing ("You're not trying to ring the bell at the county fair," Voges said) and Mullane's order to "fire through" with my lower body. I then blistered an iron like I hadn't in years. And another. The proof was in the printout: Pages of ramped-up, power-packed swings, with 3.3 inches of bend a 120 percent spike in stored power. Eureka!
Next up: driver. I've never been especially long 240 to 250 yards. For that I can thank a low launch angle: 6 to 8 degrees, instead of the optimal 12 degrees. Voges hit me with a dozen ball-shaft-driver combos while monitoring spin rate, carry and right-or-left deviation and ball speed off the clubface. The best fit was TaylorMade's r7 Quad, 10.5 degrees, back-weighted, GAT YS6 shaft (regular), with Maxfli Noodles. The gear, coupled with my new compact swing, immediately led to unholy (for me) yardages 260, 270, 280, and straighter than Fred Funk. Then again, golf isn't played in a lab.
It's Physics, Not Gimmicks
Armed with forgiving RACs, an r7, SonarTec woods, a box of Noodles and a revamped swing, Voges and I hit Angeles National Golf Club, a Nicklaus design in Los Angeles County. Brimming with confidence, I strode to the first tee. Then I topped it. Bogey. Bladed 5-iron on the second: double bogey. Badminton, I thought, the sport of kings!
I took shorter swings. I fired through. Then a funny thing happened: good contact. My misses were many but manageable approaches finished just off the green, not 30 yards short. I piled up pars. Still, I was a little disappointed. It wasn't until the last hole that I felt that intoxicating sizzle of a pured iron a 7 which I knocked to eight feet. Birdie. It was a nice finish. But a 5-handicap? That was way off.
"What'd I shoot?" I asked Voges. "Did I break 90?"
"No," Voges said. "You broke 80 a 77." He showed me the card, and there they were: eight handsome pars on the back, plus a birdie. The round was as neat and tidy as a kitchen drawer. "And an easy 77. It's about physics, not gimmicks."
Voges then offered his hand, and said, "Welcome to golf."
Max Out Golf Labs, Sherman Oaks, Calif. (maxoutgolf.com; 818-385-1414). Performance evaluations cost $245 (90-120 minutes). Max Out has three other locations: The Complete Golfer, White Plains, N.Y.(914-328-8411); The Golf Lab, Palo Alto, Calif.(650-493-1770); the PGA of Southern California GC, Beaumont, Calif. (877-742-2500, ext. 250).