Is putter MOI dead?

Well, if Cleveland is right about the tech behind its new Frontline Putter series, MOI may not be dead, but it sure as hell isn’t healthy.

Cleveland is very much an under-the-radar purveyor of putters, featuring useful technology at attractive price points. While the company lacks the artistic eye-candy chops of Bettinardi/Cameron or the Tour appeal and mass marketing of PING/Odyssey/TaylorMade, it does have a deep lineup of flatsticks serving a wide swath of golfers. If your goal is to get the ball in the damn hole and not spend an arm, leg or sell a vital organ to do it, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value.

With Frontline, Cleveland is making a statement: all that stuff you know about putter MOI? Fuggedaboudit.

It’s what’s up front that counts.

Frontloading Frontline

What would you think if, the next time you’re looking at a 15-footer for birdie, someone yells timeout and moves your ball five feet closer to the hole, so it’s now a 10-footer?

Personally, I’d be thinking what’s this going to cost me…

“Obviously, a putter can’t move your ball 33% closer to the hole,” says Cleveland Golf Marketing Director Brian Schielke. “But the forward CG technology in Frontline, once you understand it, can help golfers make a 15-foot putt at the same rate as they can make a 10-foot putt.”

Statements like that tend to make you reach for your torch and pitchfork and storm the nearest castle, and rightfully so. But there is something to forward CG in putters, which actually lowers MOI. The tech isn’t easily explained, and the obvious question is how can a lower MOI be a good thing for a putter?

The benefits of a high MOI putter are the same as a high MOI driver. Even though putters don’t travel anywhere near as fast as drivers, off-center hits will still reduce ball speed and change the side angle at which the ball leaves the putter face. That means you’ll leave putts short and off-line. Higher MOI can help.

However, to increase MOI, putter heads have to get big, sometimes really big. And the higher the MOI, the deeper the putter head’s CG has to be, and this can cause the face to move laterally on off-center hits, which, ironically, moves putts offline.

“Naturally the club is going to rotate around its CG,” says Dustin Brekke, Cleveland’s Director of Engineering, Research and Development. “The deeper the CG, a very large force is telling the ball to go forward, but since the CG is deep, there’s also a small amount of force telling the ball to go sideways.”

“If you bring all that CG right up to the exact face, there’d be no sideways force at all. But that’s impossible to do.”

We all know center strikes go where we want them to and at the speed we want them too, but we also know that even the best putters miss-hit putts more often than they’d care to admit. While designing the Frontline series, Cleveland used computer simulations to model CG location and its relationship to sideways force on off-center strikes.

Comparing a forward CG blade to a deep CG mallet, Cleveland found that on a 20-millimeter mishit (about an inch off-center), the blade will be about a half-degree offline, while the mallet will be about two-degrees offline.

Depending on the length of the putt, that difference could put the ball outside of the realm of the cup.

“The trigonometry of it all, a half a degree doesn’t move the ball outside of the hole until you reach a 20-foot putt,” says Schielke. “Two degrees moves the ball outside of the hold on a five-foot putt.”

Even with a 10-millimeter mishit, you’d be a degree off with a deep CG putter, and only a quarter-degree off with a frontloaded putter.

“In that most extreme case, you could do everything right. Your speed’s right, your aim is right, you’re square at impact, but if the only thing you did was miss just a touch off-center – still with a square face – you could miss a five-foot putt off to the right.” – Brian Schielke, Cleveland Golf

Cleveland isn’t saying everyone should run out and buy the thinnest blade they can find, but they are saying moving the CG farther forward can take a big chunk out of that unwanted sideways force on those occasions when you don’t hit it in the middle.

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Front & Center, Heel & Toe

How is Cleveland moving the CG forward in the Frontlines? With Tungsten Forward Weighting: two Metal Injection Molded tungsten weights in the face – one in the heel, the other in the toe – that move 47.3 grams of weight about as far forward as it can go. And Cleveland is doing that while keeping, for the most part, the same putter head shapes used in its most recent TFi 2135 lineup, which the Frontline series is replacing.

“If you compare the last generation Elevado and the new Frontline Elevado, we’ve moved the CG forward by about 30%,” says Brekke. “All while keeping it roughly the same overall shape, appearance, and so on. By taking weight out of everywhere we could and bringing it forward, as well as placing it heel-toe, we don’t sacrifice MOI, but the forward CG gives us this azimuth correction.”

The other benefit of a high MOI/deep CG putter is minimizing ball speed loss on off-center hits. Cleveland mitigates that with face grooves it calls Speed Optimized Face Technology – or SOFT. It’s a variable face groove pattern designed to equalize ball speed across a wider area of the face.

It’s not unique – other OEMs have variations – but simply put, the face groove pattern features more groove and less actual contact surface in the center and less groove and more actual contact surface as you move away from the center. If you miss off-center, there’s more face to contact the ball, which mitigates ball speed loss and ultimately get the ball to the hole. According to Brekke, SOFT technology is what makes the forward CG work.

“If you just had forward weighting, you might still lose speed and come up short,” he says. “If you just had Speed Optimized Face Technology, you might have the right distance, but you might miss by a few degrees. We’ve done both – we have the line, and we have the speed, which is what you need to make putts.”

Cleveland has used variations of SOFT going back to the original Huntington Beach putter line, and it uses a specific face pattern for each particular putter, as a higher MOI mallet needs a different face pattern than a lower MOI blade. The Frontline putters use similar technology, but instead of face milling a stainless-steel putter head, Cleveland is forging the groove pattern into an aluminum insert.

“Every previous generation was a milling – meaning you have a large tool spinning and cutting this pattern,” says Brekke. “Every one of those arcs has a radius that can’t be changed because of the tool. With a forging process, you can have this S-type milling pattern. If you tried to mill it, you’d need a small engraving bit and cut over single groove individually. That’s what PING and Evnroll do, and it makes their products more expensive.”

Whither 2135?

While the Frontline series is replacing the phased-out, two-year-old TFi 2135 Satin putter lineup, the 2135 alignment technology isn’t going away.

In the world of alignment lines, dots and other doo-dads, you do have to give Cleveland innovation props for 2135. The name comes from the height, in millimeters, of the equator of a golf ball. The idea is to help you position the sightline on the exact center of the ball – which is 21.35 millimeters from the ground – regardless of whether your eyes are behind, over or in front of the ball.

In previous 2135 models, the actual sightline was behind – and below – the actual topline of the putter, which gave the putter a unique appearance at address. With Frontline, the sightline is right on the topline of the putter, but it’s still at 21.35 millimeters. It’s a cleaner, more traditional look that should satisfy the putter purist. On the other hand, Cleveland has actually slimmed the face down on the three mallets so that the topline lines up directly with the ball’s equator. The lone blade in the lineup has a taller, more traditional face and does not offer the 2135 alignment.

“2135 is an alignment positioning technology to get you started, and then your distance control and direction control gets you going,” says Schielke. “But if you hit it with a 10-degree open face, then all the technologies in the world aren’t going to help you much.”

Final Thoughts, Price, and Availability

So, is putter MOI dead?

“In many ways, yes,” says Brekke. “Because the weighting on Frontline is so heel-toe, we have essentially the same MOI as our previous models, despite moving the CG so far forward.”

“It’s not a trade-off for us. The dual technology (forward CG, SOFT face grooves) gets us the best of both worlds. We get distance control and direction.”

As always, MyGolfSpy’s Most Wanted testing will root out how well Frontline technology works, but a few practice sessions and actual rounds can start to tell the story. First off, the extreme front CG gives Frontline putters a unique feel – if you use a mallet with a deeper CG or even a mid-mallet, you can feel the difference when you pick it up.

We found distance control to be spot-on with Frontline – not surprising given Speed Optimized Face Technology and similar tech from other OEMs – and each model is different enough in appearance to suit the stroke and eye of most golfers. However, the lineup could most certainly use a mid-mallet at some point for those of us in between a blade and full mallet.

As stated earlier, Frontline’s three mallets and one blade are distinct enough to fit a large chunk of golfers. The 4.0 blade is a traditional Anser-style, with a 350-gram head weight, a moderate toe hang and plumber’s neck for a slight arc stroke. The mallets are all 370-gram heads and include the fang-toothed Elevado, the rounded Cero and the square, open-backed ISO. Each mallet is available in two options: face-balanced with a single bend hosel for a straight back-straight through stroke or a moderate toe hang with a slant neck hosel for a slight arc stroke.

Frontline putters will be available in 33, 34 and 35-inch models, with a standard 3-degree loft and 70-degree lie. Initially, only the face-balanced Elevado will be available for lefties.

The stock grip is a Frontline-branded Lamkin SINKFit pistol which, when paired with the blacked-out shaft and black head, gives Frontline a Captain Midnight look. “Market surveys say the grip is important – it makes you want to grab the club and try it at retail,” says Schielke. ‘We put so much into our putter head technologies, and someone says ‘eh, I really don’t like that grip,’ and they never even try it.”

Overall, the Frontlines aren’t as sexy as a Bettinardi or a Scotty, and the finish isn’t as refined as a PING or an Odyssey, but they are a nice enough looking putter, especially considering their price points.

The Frontline 4.0 blade will retail for $179, while the three mallets will retail for $199. They’ll be in stores Friday, September 13th.

Cleveland has carved out a nice niche for itself in the sub-$200 putter market without a dedicated fitting program. Since the company builds all its clubs at its Huntington Beach HQ, its custom department can build to any spec you want, so perhaps a fitting program isn’t necessary, or even possible at that price point. But it is the difference between “we’re a putter company” and “we’re a golf company that also sells putters.”

Cleveland offers plenty of putter tech at a price that won’t make you grab your torches and pitchforks, but we want to know is it enough for you to take it seriously as a putter company?