As any chef worth his or her salt knows, using only quality ingredients in the correct proportions leads to an exceptional dish. The same applies if you want to develop an exceptional wedge game. Before we discuss these ingredients, however, a little background. When I was fortunate enough to start working with PGA Tour pros in the late 1970s, I quickly discovered that the highest-lofted club used on Tour was generally a 55-degree sand wedge. Most iron sets back then included an 8-iron (with 43 degrees of loft), a 9-iron (47 degrees), and pitching and sand wedges (51 and 55 degrees, respectively). While performing some research with a young professional named Tom Kite, we found that his lofted shots around the green flew softer and stopped quicker—and ended up consistently closer to the hole—when he added a 60-degree wedge to his set.
Armed with this knowledge, and by applying a great deal of skill and practice, Kite won the Most Improved Player award, the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average, and the PGA Tour money title in 1981. He almost single-handedly validated the use of the 60-degree lob wedge. Many of his victories, including the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, were fueled by his dominating performance on par 5s (a lot of one-putt birdies) and his ability to get the ball up and down, both of which required expert use of the lobber.
Fueled by golfers’ lust for distance, manufacturers have focused on building clubs that hit the ball farther, resulting in longer iron shafts and lower lofts. That’s why a modern 9-iron has the length and loft of an older 7- or 8-iron, and why your pitching wedge now has less loft than the 9-iron you used to carry. These changes have had two important effects: 1) today’s lower-lofted long irons are almost unhittable for amateurs (the reason behind the proliferation of hybrids), and 2) you need a gap wedge with 50 or 51 degrees of loft (your old pitching wedge) to fill the gap between the standard 55-degree sand wedge and the new, longer-hitting 43- to 47-degree pitching wedges to make the whole thing work.