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OUR JOB IS YOUR GAME
What characteristics define the best performing super game-improvement iron?
While traditionally the category has been all about forgiveness, in recent years it has expanded to include what can best be classified as more forgiving distance irons. Typically, irons in this category feature large heads, wide soles, thick toplines, and generous offset. They’re designed for the golfer who needs help and who feels more confident standing over a bigger iron. Forgiveness remains a significant part of the Super Game-Improvement formula, but there can massive distance gains found here as well. Keeping in mind that while the category is most commonly associated with slower swing speed golfers, some of the offerings are well-suited for higher swing speed golfers looking for more help on mis-hits.
Once again, we’ve leveraged our testing facility in Virginia to deliver the most comprehensive, unbiased Super Game-Improvement Iron Test in the world.
If you’re in the market for new irons in 2019, this is for you.
Most Wanted: Cobra F-MAX Superlite
Below is a breakdown of performance grades by iron length. The percentages displayed for each iron represent the frequency at which each was among the best performing irons for each tester across the test pool. For more information about how we arrive at these results, see our How We Test page.
Iron Buying Considerations
Performance should be your primary concern when buying new irons, but there are some additional considerations you may want to think about before you make your purchasing decision.
You’ll likely hit iron shots on the majority of holes you play, so it’s essential to pay attention to set make-up. As with most things in the golf equipment industry, there is no universal standard for set composition. That’s not a bad thing as it allows for almost endless combinations and the ability to mix and match between models when appropriate. In the Super Game Improvement Iron category, 4-irons are usually not included, but some sets offer a gap wedge. As lofts have gotten stronger, even with the low and back centers of gravity promised by Super Game Improvement designs, many golfers are no longer able to generate enough height with their long irons. Golfers who struggle to obtain the desired trajectory should consider replacing 4,5, and even 6-irons with equivalent hybrids. Your ego shouldn’t contribute to higher scores.
The number of shaft options offered for irons is growing. It can be challenging to navigate the different models, weights, and flexes to find the shaft that’s right for you. The answer to the best performing shaft question stretches well beyond graphite vs. steel.
The Super Game Improvement category features the lightest stock shaft offerings of any category we test. For this reason, graphite shafts are nearly as common as steel. In addition to adding a bit of speed, graphite shafts reduce vibrations at impact, which can benefit golfers with arthritis and other hand issues that cause steel to feel unpleasant. It should be noted that graphite iron shaft offerings continue to improve, so if you’ve written them off in the past, it might be time to take a second look.
We always recommend taking the time to go through a professional fitting, but if you don’t have the resources, the Mizuno Shaft Optimizer isn’t a bad place to start. This advanced technology utilizes gyroscopes and strain gauges to measure things like club speed, tempo, and how much the shaft is flexing at impact. It then recommends a list of shafts for your swing. It even makes a lie angle recommendation.
DISTANCE VS. FORGIVENESS VS. WORKABILITY
In a perfect world, we would get all three in one iron that everyone could play. Unfortunately, distance, forgiveness, and workability are like gauges – when you add to one, you invariably take from another. Evaluate your game and decide what you need to maximize performance. If you’re looking to maximize distance, the Callaway Rogue X and the Bridgestone Tour B JGR HF1 are excellent options. It’s important to note that loft and distance are correlated, and in most cases, more distance comes with stronger lofts and diminished ability to hold greens. If you’re looking for forgiveness – the Tour Edge HL3 Iron-Woods impressed us with its consistency across several key metrics. Other top picks for forgiveness are the PXG 0311 SGI Gen2 and the Most Wanted Winner Cobra F MAX Superlite.
While Super Game Improvement irons are among the least expensive iron category, don’t overlook price as a buying consideration when getting fitted. More expensive isn’t always better – make sure you participate in a proper professional fitting to make sure you’re getting the right irons for your game that won’t clean out your wallet.
PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT - A Legitimate Contender
In every 2019 iron test thus far, PXG's 0311 GEN 2 irons have showed-up to play. With strong performances in the Player's Distance, Game Improvement, and now Super game Improvement iron tests, PXG has solidified its position as a legitimate contender in the iron market.
Featuring a vibration dampening COR2 technology, longer blade lengths, and extra offset, the 0311 SGI Gen 2 from PXG are designed for maximum distance and forgiveness. It's best suited for golfers who don't mind a bigger club, but if cost isn't a significant concern, don't hesitate to include these irons in your consideration set.
During each test, we look for trends that provide us insight into where the market as a whole is moving, as well as what noteworthy changes manufacturers have made to improve year-over-year performance. We also solicit feedback from our testers. We want to understand what they liked, what they didn’t like, and why. We want to reemphasize that, while we do collect and share noteworthy portions of this subjective feedback, it does not factor in our rankings.
Trends and Tweaks
- The typical Super Game improvement iron is often thought of as a clunky and large-bodied club that is designed to help the least proficient of ball strikers. We found, however, that the category is slowly splitting into two sub-categories. On one side we have wide-soled, almost hybrid-like irons with deep centers of gravity. The design objective is to help slower swing speed golfers elevate the ball (in spite of the stronger lofts). On the other, we have irons that more closely resemble game improvement irons. They feature more traditional (but still wider) soles and more compact head profiles, and are often better for higher speed golfers. If you struggle to get the ball in the air, gravitate towards the iron-wood like models like the Tour Edge HL3; if you’re looking for more distance and a little added forgiveness, the XXIO X is a good option.
- A question we often field (and one that you may have) is whether or not to play graphite shafted irons. Eight of the nine irons tested in our 2019 Most Wanted Super Game Improvement Iron Test feature graphite shafts as a stock or no up-charge option. If you’re a golfer who may have lost some club speed over time, there’s no shortage of lightweight graphite options to chose from in the SGI category. Make sure you complete a proper professional fitting to determine which iron-shaft combination is best for your swing.
- Much like the game improvement iron category, lofts in the Super Game Improvement category continue to get stronger. In nearly every category, distance sells, and manufacturers are willing to sacrifice a bit of playability to give golfers more of what they crave. Decreasing loft, despite promises of higher launch, typically lowers launch angles. This is especially true for slower swing speed players who don’t move the club fast enough to generate the necessary dynamic loft to hit the ball high. Ironically, faster players who are often dismissive of the category can generate the speed necessary to benefit from stronger lofts in a way that the traditionally SGI audience can’t. When you’re getting fit for your next set of irons, make sure you don’t sacrifice ball flight and the ability to hold a green for distance – iron play is about precision, and distance means little if you can’t keep the ball on the green.
PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT - Super-Light and Forgiving
One of the strongest performers at the long-iron test distance, the XXIO X is the embodiment of the super-light and forgiving SGI iron. While the profile is slightly larger than a game improvement iron, the XXIO X still offers a relatively thin top-line and thin(ish) sole. Designed for max speed, the XXIO X irons save weight in every aspect of the club; grip, shaft, and head. Less weight often translates to more speed.
If you're looking for added distance without sacrificing too much forgiveness, make sure to try the XXIO X in your next fitting.
Notes from the Testing Pool
The following section details subjective feedback from our pool of 20 testers. While it is meant to highlight some of the feedback obtained during the test, it’s important to note that none of it is directly related to the actual performance of the club, and as such, does not factor in the overall rankings.
- Among the top rated irons for feel in this year’s game improvement test were the 2019 Most Wanted Winner – the Cobra F-MAX Superlite; and a newcomer – the Tommy Armour Atomic MAX. Testers noted their preference for the larger grip size and ultra-light feel of the Cobra F Max irons. Much like the Game Improvement Iron Test where the Tommy Armour Atomic scored well for feel, testers in this group also gave high marks to the Atomic MAX irons.
- Testers in the slower swing speed category tended to favor clubs that helped the ball get up in the air. Clubs like the Tour Edge HL3 Iron-Woods were among the top-rated for slower swing speed golfers.
- Another iron that captured the attention of the test group was the XXIO Xt. These irons are uniquely designed to head to save weight and maximize club and ball speed. We typically see higher swing speeds for all XXIO products tested in our Lab. If you are a golfer looking to regain some of what you’ve lost, the XXIO X might be a good fit.
- The Cobra F-MAX Superlite was a favorite among testers for looks, feel and alignment. Testers cited the F-MAX for a soft yet powerful feel at impact. While the Cobra F-MAX irons didn’t produce the highest ball speed, they performed exceptionally well at all three test distances with respect to accuracy and forgiveness.
- On the opposite end, the subjectively (looks/feel) worst ranked club was the Callaway Big Bertha. Testers said the irons felt clunky and difficult to hit.
2019 Most Wanted Super Game Improvement Iron Data
To filter and compare by club, use the drop-down list and checkboxes to select the only the drivers you wish to compare.
EXPERT TIP - GRIP SIZE
Within the last couple of years, some manufacturers have started using midsized grips as the stock offering on the Super Game Improvement sets. Once upon a time, the mythology was that grips size was closely correlated with ball flight. The thinking was that a grip that was too small would cause hooks, while a grip that was too large would lead to fades and slices. Those theories have largely been debunked, and there's some evidence to suggest that the best performing grip may very well be the one that feels best.
In recent years, manufacturers have found that many golfers prefer the feel of a larger grip. Many feel like they don't squeeze larger grips as hard, which leads to greater comfort - especially among older golfers who struggle with arthritis.
We're not suggesting that midsized is right for you, but it may be worth trying, especially if the only thing holding you back is outdated mythology.
How We Test
Our Mission is to help you find the best super game improvement irons for your game.
We are 100% independent and unbiased, and we always put the #ConsumerFirst.
About Our Testers
Our pool of testers consists of 20 golfers with handicaps ranging from 10 to the high-teens. As a group, they span a broad range of swing characteristics (head speed, attack angle, etc.).
Over the course of several sessions, each golfer is required to hit 10-12 "good" shots with each club. Club order is randomized on a per tester basis.
Limiting Variables and Gathering Data Reliably
Crunching the Numbers
Before determining our rankings, we identify and remove outliers using a proprietary detection methodology.
To arrive at our final results, we calculate the averages of key metrics (ball speed, distance, dispersion, etc.), while also considering the standard deviation and the statistical reliability of those values.
Most Wanted Super Game Improvement Iron Specs
|Club||PW Loft||PW Length||7 iron loft||7 iron length||5 iron loft||5 iron length|
|Tommy Armour Atomic MAX|
|Cobra F MAX|
|Callaway Rogue X|
|Bridgestone Tour B JGR HF1|
|Callaway Big Bertha|
|Tour Edge HL3|
* denotes measured value vs. manufacturer’s stated spec.
BUYING NEW IRONS
Q: How often should I buy new irons?
A: While on rare occasions there are quantifiable year-over-year breakthroughs, typically it takes 3-5 years for manufacturers to make any significant performance gains. With the USGA further tightening restrictions on manufacturers, it’s possible, even likely, that it will take longer still moving forward. Our recommendation is to buy new irons only when they appreciably outperform what is already in your bag. Of course, if you want new irons because you want new irons, that’s fine too.
Q: How do I determine the right category of irons for me?
A: The four categories of irons we test are: players (cavitybacks), players distance, game improvement, and super game improvement. While there is some overlap between categories, your search should begin with an honest assessment of your skill level (handicap), as well as what you need in your game. If your handicap is above 10 and ball-striking is not a legitimate strength, consider game improvement or super game improvement. For more skilled players who hit the ball more consistently, a set of players irons or players distance irons may benefit your game the most. For those on the bubble, especially for those seeking a few more yards, the Players Distance category could be ideal.
Q: Does the shaft matter?
A: Absolutely. While changes to spin and launch differences are rarely massive, shaft changes frequently lead to improved accuracy, tighter dispersion, and greater overall consistency.
Q: What should I look for when testing irons?
A: While golfers have been conditioned to consider distance to the exclusion of nearly everything else, even within the Super Game Improvement category, we recommended looking at the little numbers and looking for small circles. When comparing metrics like distance and ball speed, be sure to look at your standard deviations (the small numbers usually found under the big ones on the data screen). Smaller numbers mean better consistency, which will usually mean more than an extra yard or two on the golf course. Similarly, look for tighter dispersion ellipses (small circles). We can’t overstate the importance of consistency with irons.
Bucking the Loft-Jacking Trend?
Every year, golf companies promise more yards, and sometimes they deliver. But at what cost? One of the easiest (and frequently employed) methods to increase distance is to decrease loft; essentially turning yesterday's 6-iron into today's 7-iron. While we all understand that accuracy and consistency are the most essential elements of competent iron play, almost inexplicably, distance is still what moves the needle in the iron category.
Players irons typically buck the trend. While it's perhaps not entirely accurate to say manufacturers use traditional lofts, irons within the category are among the weakest lofted (relative to the number stamped on the sole) on the market. While distance is always important to some degree, golfers of elite skill benefit from higher spinning shots that offer the stopping power necessary to attack pins on the small shelves. That being said, consistency always matter. You won't likely hit players irons as far as a game-improvement iron; but if you have the skill to flight your irons to whatever degree the shot calls for, the category is likely right for you.
Q: How are the irons in the test fit to each golfer?
A: We use a fitting process that we call fit from stock. Irons are fitted to each tester using the stock, no up-charge options from each manufacturer. We test one short iron, one mid-iron, and one long iron from each set. While there are no irons in our testing that feature adjustability, we fit to flex for each tester in the pool. Occasionally manufacturers will send multiple sets with different stock shafts that we can utilize to improve launch conditions.
Q: How do you determine in which category to test a given set of irons?
A: To ensure that we’re testing irons as alike as designers allow for, in addition to the design of the head itself (profile, sole width, etc.), we sort by length and loft. Our goal is to keep differences as minimal as possible within any test cohort. When an iron reasonably fits in more than one category, we defer to the manufacturer’s category choice.
Q: How is the Most Wanted Super Game Improvement Iron Determined
A: To determine our rankings, we collect key performance metrics with Foresight GCQuad Launch Monitors. After eliminating outliers, we use a utilize a proprietary methodology to calculate Strokes Gained values for each combination of tester and golf club. Next, we calculate confidence intervals and determine the statistical reliability of our Strokes Gained values. The iron that is reliably better for the highest percentage of testers is the Most Wanted. For more detailed information on our test process, visit our How We Test Page.
Q: How is the “Longest” Iron determined?
A: The process to determine the Longest Super Game Improvement Iron is similar to how we arrive at our overall rankings. For distance, our critical metric is Total Yards. We identify the iron that is most reliably among the longest at middle and long iron lengths for the highest percentage of our testing pool.
Q: How is the “Most Forgiving” Iron determined?
A: To determine the Most Forgiving Super Game Improvement Iron, we focus on a narrower set of metrics that includes: Shot Area (dispersion, measured in yards2), and the standard deviations of several key parameters: ball speed, carry yards, pin proximity, and strokes gained.
Q: You discuss subjective feedback for things like looks, sound, and feel. How much do those ratings factor into your rankings?
A: ZERO. Our rankings are based purely on launch monitor data and quantifiable performance metrics.