Today’s article comes to you from Jeff Sheets from Sheets Design Group. The members of the Sheets Design Group have participated in the design and development of hundreds of golf club models over the past two decades. From tournament player designs to game improvement models the Sheets Design Group has had a hand in shaping the direction of today’s high tech golf equipment industry.

Some of the companies they have designed for include: MacGregor, Ben Hogan, Wilson Staff, GolfSmith, Lynx, Founder’s Club, Top-Flite and many more.

And today you get to hear about how the great iron design of the 1999 Hogan Apex blades came to life.

A Look Back In Time & Inside The Design: {1999 Hogan Apex Blades}

By Jeff Sheets

If you have been around the golf industry for as long as I have there are few brands that resonate with purists like the Ben Hogan Company. Unfortunately Hogan is just a shell of the company it once was. Started in 1954 by the Hawk himself, the Hogan golf club company was always known for its innovation in forged irons. It never carried the moniker as the market leader in sales but those who understood the product were always impressed with the clubs Mr. Hogan produced. Today the Hogan brand is owned by Callaway Golf. It was a brand that was arbitrarily acquired when Callaway purchased Top-Flite Golf from Spalding Sports Worldwide.

Different From All Other OEM’s On Tour At The Time

Back in the late 1980’s and early 90’s Hogan had a really great tour staff. Most of their players were at the top of their games. They had the likes of Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Steve Pate, Chip Beck, and David Frost. In fact, one year around that time period I believe every staff member had a PGA Tour win during the same season. That’s a pretty impressive feat when you’ve got eight or nine staff members. I was working out on the PGA Tour at that time and got a chance to work with most of the Hogan staff members in my tour van since Hogan didn’t have their own. There was one thing about the Hogan equipment (we’re talking about irons for the most part) that separated them from all of the other OEMs. When a Hogan staff member came into my shop for any work the equipment specs were always right on. They were one of the few manufacturers that ensured their tour staff had precisely built clubs. And that was not the norm.

Hogan Made My Job Easy

Today you see better specs on off-the-shelf equipment sold in a Golfsmith than what the touring pros were receiving back then. It was my job to get the specs right and Hogan was one of the few manufacturers that made my job easy. Even those hosel pins weren’t an issue when re-shafting their irons. Just pretend like they aren’t there. Because the Hogan Company had a really cool touring staff and outstanding equipment I cherished the thought of working for them one day.

Fast forward to about seven years later and I can be found up in Chicopee, Massachusetts working as Director of R&D for Spalding Sports’ Top-Flite Golf division. A couple of years earlier the Hogan Company had been sold to a party in Richmond, Virginia who uprooted the organization from its Fort Worth, Texas home to break free from the workers’ union. Few of the employees were offered to relocate in Virginia as the company began sourcing its components from inferior suppliers to reduce manufacturing costs. The Hogan brand was in danger of losing its heritage as the premium forged iron company it had always been.

The Re-Launch Of The Hogan Brand

Late in 1997 Spalding purchased the dwindling Hogan brand with the intent of making it their flagship golf club company. The job I had always dreamed about landed in my lap. With this I took part in the re-launch of the Hogan golf club company.

Immediately rumors ran through the industry that any new Hogan product would only be a Spalding club with “Hogan” stamped into it. Being responsible for the new designs I swore that no one would ever be able to make such a damning remark. The last forged blade that Hogan had introduced was a slightly oversize design in 1994 that Mr. Hogan himself had modeled many years earlier. It had a channel running from heel-to-toe behind the face with a distinctive arched muscle to it. Justin Leonard was playing that Apex blade since its introduction and would continue to do so through his British Open victory in 1997. Instead of focusing on a subsequent generation of the ’94 Apex I took a step back and I engulfed myself into everything Hogan.

The Process Of Resurrecting A Brand

My design journey began in Ft. Worth, Texas by interviewing long time Hogan club professionals, ex-employees along with some of the re-hires made by Spalding after the purchase. One of the key individuals providing me with my education was long time tour rep Ronnie MacGraw who I had known from my days working the tour. We were able to put together a collection of nearly every forged iron that Hogan had sold since that first set in 1954. I spent hours pondering over the models, inquiring about the unique characteristics found in many. Fortunately it was not all new information to me because I had worked with so many of the blades in the past.

For example, Mr. Hogan (he was never referred to as “Ben” by work associates) liked utilizing an under-slung hosel on many of his earlier irons. An under-slung hosel is where the heel of the club projects away from the face in order to get the shaft axis closer to the irons’ center of gravity. According to Mr. Hogan this helped make working the ball a bit easier. Today all we look for is a lower hosel MOI (moment of inertia) rating which depicts the same type of performance trait.

The Birth of the Hogan Apex Blades

Another Hogan design attribute is the blade-on-blade geometry. I honestly don’t know if this was Hogan’s name for the design but it became an element I clued in on when studying his work. This feature provided a thicker mass behind the face while keeping the center of gravity more heel-ward for easier workability. It also enabled a longer blade length without forcing the center of gravity further away from the shaft axis.

There were more than twenty iron models that I pondered during my design phase of what would eventually become the 1999 Apex irons. In my quest to interview the Hogan die-hards I found that the 1988 Apex was a favorite to many. It featured a slightly broader sole and a muscle shelf along with a blade-on-blade backside. The ’88 Apex’s sweet spot wasn’t so small that many golfers couldn’t hit it easily. Unfortunately that was the case with some of the previous blades.

The Famous Hogan Iron Poster

As a byproduct of my research I photographed each forged iron and laid them out in sequence by their date of introduction to the market. I did this using a 1-megapixel camera (it was now 1998 and 1-megapixel was it!). I laid each head on a black towel on my credenza and snapped the shots, doing my best to avoid the mirrored reflection of me or the camera in each shot (try this, it isn’t easy to accomplish). Eventually I had put together a photographic chart of every Hogan forged blade starting with the ’54 Precision. This became such a common reference for us at Spalding that we eventually had a professional photographer recreate my compilation using premium equipment in a studio. Thousands of these prints went out as posters to the industry yet I never grabbed a final copy for myself. The poster has become a collectable to Hogan aficionados.

The Prototype Stages of the 1999 Hogan Apex

My internal development staff at Spalding included only myself and my CAD operator, Charles Lovett. We had hired Charles away from Mizuno a year earlier and the finesse in which he modeled irons on a computer was unmatched. We initiated some early blade designs but were challenged by marketing to pursue a cavity back forged design instead. The thinking there was that there would be far greater sales in a game improvement product than a forged blade. So we developed a cavity back forged iron to appease marketing while still pursuing the ultimate blade design.

The cavity back iron turned out fine – if it was going to be branded anything else but Hogan. My first challenge with the design was to fight against my greatest fear: labeling a club as “Hogan” that didn’t retain the appropriate qualities of the lineage. Callaway made the same mistake when they launched the 17-4 investment cast Hogan BH5 irons in 2004. With enough cajoling I was able to convince our marketing group that Spalding needed to re-launch the Hogan brand with a blade, not a game improvement club. I was challenged to present a prototype for consideration so they could make their decision.

Lanny Wadkins Inspired – An eye for “The Look”

There were a number of design attributes I could have pursued in the design of the ’99 Apex. I ultimately settled on a contemporary looking face profile with medium-thick topline that Lanny Wadkins had inspired. I had done a number of custom grinds for Lanny when he was on my Founders Club staff. He shared much with me about shaping Hogan irons which ultimately influenced the Apex face and hosel transition characteristics in this new model. When Lanny was a Hogan staff member his personal grind became a favorite of the rest of the tour staff. He had the eye for ‘the look’ and I took advantage by learning from him.

The rear side of the ’99 Apex became a blend of the ’88 blade-on-blade design and the ’94 lower muscle. While there were plenty of Apex models with the blade-on-blade design it was the ’88 that had the finest balance in terms of appearance and performance. I studied multiple face thickness points across the blade, various dimensions and the center of gravity (CG) of the ’88 model to establish a foundation in which to build the ’99 design. The blade-on-blade geometry was shifted and tweaked to duplicate the ’88 Apex’s horizontal center of gravity but I wanted to pursue a slightly lower CG compared to the ’88 and 94’ models because wound balata balls were quickly being replaced by lower spinning 2-piece balls during the design phase (birth of the Pro V1). Applying the Hogan signature script and BH medallion to the back were not necessary to identify the design as an Apex. The geometry, styling, blade shape and performance cried out “Hogan” better than any engraving ever would.

Partnered Up With Tom Stites

With a CAD model completed I partnered up with Tom Stites at Impact Engineering. Tom had started his company when he and his R&D staff at Hogan remained behind in Ft. Worth following the company’s relocation to Virginia. We discussed the merits of the blade design I presented to him along with the marketing team’s choice of the cavity back iron. As a group of ex-Hogan employees, Tom and his staff were vehemently against Spalding re-launching Hogan using a game improvement club.

Impact Engineering (Stites Company at the time) was able to quickly produce our first set of Hogan blade prototypes for testing. Tom Kite and Justin Leonard were brought in for the initial evaluation. With some minor tweaks to the topline and some radii changes we had ourselves a final design ready for tooling. Clear heads prevailed back in Chicopee, Massachusetts and the commitment was made to re-launch the brand with the Apex blade.

Final Set of Prototypes Grinded by: Mike Taylor

Impact Engineering’s virtuoso grinder Mike Taylor incorporated the Kite/Leonard changes into a final set of prototypes. After reviewing the set in Ft. Worth I hand carried the final prototypes to Endo Manufacturing in Nigata, Japan for tooling. The set was so perfectly shaped that Endo was able to laser scan each head and cut the forging dies without creating any masters. This is seldom done with hand ground clubs.

Spalding successfully re-launched the Hogan brand at the 1999 PGA Show. In addition to the irons we also introduced a family of Hogan Special forged wedges, followed later that year with a more compact version of a forged cavity back iron called the Apex Plus. More than a decade later the ’99 Apex looks as contemporary as any new blade design. The billet forged 1030 carbon steel feels solid yet soft and the specifications remain relevant to today’s standards. For the treasure hunters out there a set of ’99 Hogan Apex blades can be found for a song. Hit a set and you too will be singing.


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