Editor’s Note: Because of his astute attention to detail and Ben Hogan-like move, KVK, as he’s known around the marketing department, was given the voluntary task of documenting his fitting experience at Callaway HQ. Welcome to another edition of “Our Games: Tales From the Zoo Crew.”
I counted down the days to my appointment at the Callaway Performance Center at the company’s world headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif. like a 12-year old daughter does to a Katy Perry concert. I’ve been around the game long enough — 25+ years — to know that golf swings vary mightily and one size doesn’t fit all. At the same time, I wondered how much a fitting would tell me about my equipment needs that I didn’t already know. The short answer: a lot.
A young guy named Ross (Stewart) greeted me in the Callaway Headquarters’ lobby. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand, grinned and said, “C’mon, let’s have some fun.” Tall, wiry and fit, late 20s, you could mistake him for a Tour pro. The CPC reception room he leads me into is long, narrow, neat, well-lit and quiet as a library. The walls are lined with staff bags of different colors and racks of Callaway’s newest equipment, plus big, dramatic black-and-white photos of Callaway Tour Staff pros.
Ross led me up a narrow flight of stairs to a large room lit with low, yellow lighting that created a warm, welcoming atmosphere and made it easier to see the huge electronic image of a driving range, about 12 feet high and 18 feet wide, projected against one of the walls. About 20 feet from the wall, on the carpeted floor, is a faint rectangle outline with a rubber driving range tee – the launch pad, so to speak.
Ross asks just two questions – my handicap (5.1) and what’s in my bag (current distance-oriented models of a leading competitor’s woods and irons). He explains the instruments he’ll be using to measure my swing vitals. Each club has two sensors on top of the head. Two high-speed cameras, one suspended from the ceiling behind and above me and another buried in the floor beneath the launch pad picks up the sensors while you swing. Every key swing statistic is captured: clubhead speed, efficiency (a measure of the solidness of contact, also known as smash factor), face angle, ball speed, launch angle, backspin and sidespin. A computer synthesizes that information and in seconds projects the shape, height and distance of the shot on the virtual range.
Ross took command of a console, located in a corner of the room, consisting of multiple computer screens that fed him my swing info. A few big flat screen monitors hung on the wall behind him displaying graphics that illustrate your swing path, launch angle, spin-rate and more.
“Showtime,” said Ross after I’d self-consciously stretched and hit 20 or so balls to loosen up, trying not to shank any of them (I didn’t). He handed me another XR 7-iron, this one equipped with an S-flex KBS Tour V steel shaft. The large head looked good behind the ball, with the face naturally resting in a square position. The two bottom grooves are white, making it easy to tell where the face is aimed. The topline is substantial but not too thick. I remember the days when the average iron head was smaller. I still like that compact appearance, but I don’t play as often as I like (two kids, enough said) so I look for maximum forgiveness in my clubs.
Shaft Flex Peace of Mind
My swing speed has long put me right on the line that separates an S from an R, so I’ve switched between the two at various points in my golf life, though often with the nagging feeling that one of them had to be better for me, I just didn’t know which. And yes, there’ve been times when my ego made me go with an S instead of R. Ross looked at my numbers and confirmed that yes, I was still straddling the line between S and R.
“How do I know which is right for me?” I asked. We discussed the characteristics of my swing and what I want to do with the ball. I’ve always tried to make solid contact through good rhythm and tempo, which makes my move way closer to an LPGA Tour pro than a PGA Tour pro. I also prefer to turn the ball over. Comparing an S to an R, the R won out. My best swings produced a nice little draw, and if there was an average sized green out there on the virtual range, I would have hit it 65% of the time, with the misses not missing by much. “Go with the R,” said Ross with conviction. Great — for the first time in a while I was confident that my shaft flex was correct.
As for the XR 7-iron, I could feel the large sole gliding smoothly across the hitting surface. It felt like the ball was leaving the face especially fast. That wasn’t my imagination – the numbers indicated I was averaging 12 more yards than my current 7-iron, a distance-oriented club of another brand. Wow.
I’m a Better Ballstriker Than I Thought
“Let’s try the Apex iron,” said Ross, thumbing through a variety of 6-irons on a wall rack. The Apex is an undeniably beautiful club, with sleek lines and gorgeous curves and a compact shape enveloped in a sexy satin finish. I was hesitant, thinking it was little out of my league. Like I said, I’m not too proud to go for maximum forgiveness. But my confidence grew with every swing, each a solid strike in the center of the face and on target. Eight balls produced five draws and three slight fades. By my judgement, my GIR percentage was 100%. The kicker was that my distance average was 178 yards – a half-club longer than my current 6-iron. Still, it was a tough call between the XR and Apex. “Typically it’s clear which club is the best one for a particular player,” said Ross, “but this is very close. You hit the XR long and straight. You hit the Apex a little less long, but a little straighter.”
“You’re the expert,” I said. “What do you think?”
“You’re getting decent distance with your current iron,” said Ross, “and the XR is a full club longer. If distance is your priority, XR is the club. That said, the 178 yards you’re averaging with the Apex 6-iron is pretty darned good too, and you have to like the tighter dispersion. I recommend the Apex.”
“I’ve gotta admit I didn’t think I could hit the Apex that well,” I said.
“That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to be fit for clubs,” said Ross. “It reveals things about your swing and your game that you wouldn’t know otherwise.” Smart guy, Ross. And flattering. Apex it was.
Even a Minor Swing Change Can Call for an Equipment Tweak
Ross recommended increasing the lie angle of my irons by a degree. It made sense, since late last year I had started holding my hands a little bit higher at address to get my left arm more in line with the shaft, which I think helps me stay on plane. But the fact that a seemingly small change like that would affect my lie angle was interesting. Not that every swing change you make will require that a tweak to your equipment be tweaked, some will.
On to the new XR hybrids. Like a lot of golfers, my longest iron is a 4. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I like the challenge of hitting a long-iron, Still, I’m not dumb enough to carry a 3-iron anymore. (It says a lot that you don’t see a lot of 3-irons on Tour anymore.) Ross handed me a new XR hybrid and boom, I was smitten. First, I’m a big fan of a matte black metalwood crown. It eliminates glare and I love the look. I also like the XR’s combination of black clubface and white grooves, which makes the face appear more prominent, which gives me confidence that it will be easy to get the ball in the air. Of course, the XR has a lot of other stuff going on that makes it easy to launch the ball, specifically a really low center-of-gravity and 360 Cup face construction that promotes a lot of ball speed across a lot of the face. It didn’t take long to dial in a 19-degree (number 3) XR hybrid with an R-flex CG XR GR hybrid shaft.
The Return of the 5-wood
The next question was whether the next club in the set should be a 16-degree XR hybrid or an XR 5-wood. I’ve played a 5-wood in the past and loved it. Such an awesome combination of easy-to-launch loft and high MOI. But I replaced my 5-wood awhile back with a 2 hybrid, which I hit very straight, though not that high. If I’m trying to hit a green with it, I sometimes have to land the ball short and rely on the mercy of a favorable bounce. Not the best strategy.
“Let’s try an XR 5-wood first,” said Ross. Like the XR hybrid, the XR 5-wood, with its matte black crown and black face with white grooves, looked fantastic behind the ball, setting up sleekly and squarely and ready to launch. Plus there’s a subtle chevron on the crown to indicate the center of the face that’s really pleasing to the eye. My first two swings produced nearly identical high, straight shots that carried 215 and finished 220. The third flew a little lower with an eight-to-ten yard draw. Whoa, I thought, this stick will make a difference on long par-fours, and maybe even par-fives. Good bye 2 hybrid, hello XR 5-wood!
The XR 3-wood looked just as good as the 5-wood at address, only a little bigger, so right away I was a fan. On cue, I hit it long and straight (some slight fades, some slight draws), averaging about 230 yards. Which meant I was hitting the XR 3-wood off the deck about as far as I hit my current driver off a peg. Like most golfers, I’ll back down to a 3-wood off the tee of a particularly tight driving area. This XR 3-wood was going to make those kinds of holes a lot more fun, while bringing more par fives within reach.
I’m Longer Off the Tee than I Thought(!)
Next up, driver. Unlike a lot of golfers, I’m not delusional about how far I hit my driver. I’m a low ball hitter who gets it out there 235-240 if I hit it on the screws. Since I don’t hit it on the screws every time (who does?), my average drive is more like 225 to 230. Ross’s plan was for me to try both the new XR driver and the Big Bertha Alpha 815.
Looking down at the XR, I was again pleased to see that killer combination of matte black crown, black face with white lines and subtle chevron on the top edge. Unlike the fairway woods, the driver has a Speed Step crown, which features subtly raised ridges near the top line that improve aerodynamics. Loft was 10.5 degrees adjusted to 11.5, the shaft was the stock R-flex Project X LZ shaft. As expected, the results were great. I might have missed the fairway a couple of times, but most were in the short grass. The stats: Head speed of 99.5 mph and efficiency rate of 95% equaled 145.5 mph ball speed, a 9.9 degree launch angle, 2454 rpm spin and 141.8 average ball speed, producing an average distance of 242 yards — 12 to 17 yards longer than my current driver. Boom.
Next up, Big Bertha Alpha 815 with 10.5° loft adjusted to 11.5° and Gravity Core positioned at low CG, equipped with an MRC Diamana Blue S+ 62 shaft. The stats: Head speed of 98.2 mph and efficiency rate of 99% equaled 145.5 average ball speed, an 8.5 degree launch angle, 2572 spin rate and 145.5 mph ball speed, producing an average distance of 251 yards. Nice. Interesting to note that my head speed was 1.3 mph faster with XR (that new Speed Step Crown really works), and I launched it higher with less spin with the XR, but the extra 4.7 mph ball speed Bertha gave me was the kicker. BBA 815 it was.
The final step was to choose a grip, which was easy, since I’ve recently fallen in love with Lamkin’s I-Line. Ross closely inspected how my hands fell on club and noted that the fingertips of my left middle and ring fingers were touching the pad of my hand, and recommended adding a single additional wrap for an extra 1/64”. A minor change, but I appreciated how exacting he was.
That was the end of my fitting. It was fun and revelatory and I was ultra-excited about my new equipment. Back downstairs Ross printed my list: Apex 4-iron through PW, XR 3 hybrid, XR 5-wood and 3-wood, Big Bertha Alpha 815 driver. As I exited the Performance Center and entered the real world again, I already had my smartphone out, checking my calendar to figure out when I could get back through the front door for a wedge and putter fitting.
Other Tales From the Zoo Crew: