In the world of debates, it’s the golf version of less filling/tastes great or Stars Wars/Stars Trek.  A sizable portion of us fit into the I don’t care what an iron looks like as long as it performs category, and another sizable portion is ardent, card-carrying members of the numbers don’t matter if I don’t love the looks of it brigade. Not for nothing, but we’ve always said play the most game improvement technology you can stand to look at.

There’s a boatload of wiggle room in that, amiright?

Cobra’s Game Improvement irons traditionally flirt with the edges of that wiggle. Performance-wise, last year’s F9 Speedback irons – both the single and variable-length models – were top-shelf performers in MyGolfSpy’s 2019 Most Wanted testing. Lookswise? Well, F9’s distinctive, boxy look was definitely different. Unique applies, as does bold – but let’s stick with different.

And we all know golfers just love themselves some different.

Cobra’s new Speedzone irons – the 2020 update to the F9 Speedback – features upgrades to the triumvirate of a mid- to high-handicappers hierarchy of needs: forgiveness, feel and distance. Lookswise, it’s almost identical.

Almost.

Wants vs. Needs

What do 10- to 25-handicappers want most? According to Cobra, its players surveys say feel and accuracy rank 1-2, followed by forgiveness third, distance 4th and workability 5th.

Say what?

“Part of that is they think they’re going to get distance anyway, so they want feel,” says Cobra VP of R&D Tom Olsavsky. “Or they’re lying. It’s hard to tell.”

Every OEM knows in their bones you have to win the launch monitor battle. It’s not feel, accuracy or workability; it’s which 7-iron flies to the moon and back. But combining distance with forgiveness, accuracy, and feel in a GI package is like hunting the Loch Ness Monster. Cobra thinks it has Nessie in its sights with SpeedZone’s core technologies.

“We know we can make CG lower, that’s about discretionary weight,” says Olsavsky. “We know a golfer wants more consistency, so how do you make long irons easier to hit? And the challenge with high COR irons is always sound and feel. Golfers want it to feel like a solid forging, but they want all the other game improvement forgiveness.”

Zone Defense

Cobra says the F9 Speedback irons broke new ground with its combination of distance and forgiveness while keeping the overall blade length and topline reasonable by basically squaring off the toe and heel to hold more mass – upwards of 33 grams of tungsten. Cobra also added a unique two-tiered SPEEDBACK Sole to improve turf interaction and drop the CG to new lows. Based on this year’s Most Wanted testing, they succeeded on all counts, producing one of the year’s top-performing irons. Speedzone brings a handful of tech upgrades to the table; one of which might take a little getting used to.

Cobra’s marketing department says five distinct zones comprise Speedzone. For the record, they’re the LIGHT zone, the STABILITY zone, the POWER zone, the FEEL zone and the SPIN zone. The LIGHT zone is the one that may be a wee polarizing.

GI toplines are what they are, but at least when you look down at one it’s the same basic topline golfers have been looking at since Old Tom and Young Tom had their first father-son match. Look down on a Speedzone, however, and you’re looking at something completely different: two strips of carbon fiber: one on the topline and one underneath the topline. Carbon fiber is 40% lighter than steel, giving Cobra three grams to push downward.

“If you think about the topline, it’s essentially the structure of an I-beam,” says Olsavsky. “It’s relatively stiff for the amount of weight you have. By adding carbon fiber, you can maintain the stiffness, so you don’t get a lot of flex or other weird stuff going on.”

You’ll see the carbon fiber toplines in the 4- through 7-irons. It’s a different look alright, and Cobra says it’s the first time anyone’s used a carbon fiber topline.

As we said earlier, we all know how much golfers love themselves some different.

Speedzone keeps the same boxy heel and toe look as F9 to further drop the CG and enhance forgiveness (that’s the STABILITY zone), and Cobra has added an updated forged PWRSHELL face. It’s variable thickness, meaning the upper portion of the face has been thinned by 35% compared to the lower face, where most of the hitting is done. The flange is a wee bit bigger than the F9, but that allows for a larger Speed Channel.

“When you think about it, you can say ‘awww, it looks like a slot,’” says Olsavsky. “Well, technically, it functions like a slot. You’re trying to make it more flexible to get more speed. If we can widen that, we’re going to be better off.”

In F9, Cobra made it known the boxed ends of the iron provided a comfortable home for upwards of 33 grams of tungsten. In Speedzone, all that tungsten is gone in the name of lowering CG.

“We’ve learned from research if you can get your CG lower than 16 mm (from the ground), it’s kind of the holy grail in irons,” says Olsavsky. “There are hardly any irons like that in traditional blade sizes. F9, it was pretty good – right around 17mm and 2600 (MOI).”

The heel and toe tungsten weighting in the F9 helped MOI, but Olsavsky says the carbon fiber topline and getting rid of the tungsten gets CG even lower while having little negative impact on MOI.

“Remember, the tungsten on F9 was on the extremes (heel and toe), and the extremes have curvature, so the tungsten was higher than you actually want for best CG. If you take that tungsten out and move mass to the middle, what do you give up? About 100 MOI points.”

Olsavsky says in terms of MOI, Speedzone is right in the same ballpark as 2019 competitive sets (Rogue, Rogue X, Big Bertha and M6), but with a CG that’s anywhere from 1 to 2.5mm lower. How important is that? If you think of the centerline of the ball at 16mm above the ground, having a CG in the 15mm range should pack some punch for those who need it.

“Speed – part of it is face and part of it is CG. We’re seeing a huge benefit from a lower CG. The battle is who goes the farthest in the hitting bay – that’s where we want to shine.”

Good Vibrations

Remember how GI buyers said feel was most important?  Yeah, well, even if they were lying, Cobra took steps to improve feel beyond the forged 17-4 stainless steel face with what it’s calling a Co-Mold Medallion. It dampens vibrations in the 4- through 7-irons which, for the target golfer, are the ones that can get clanky on mishits. There’s a TPE foam insert low behind the face and aluminum foam tape high behind the face, backed with a TPU insert.

As with the F9, the Speedzone heads are CNC milled with progressive spin technology. The 4- through 6-irons feature V-grooves to reduce spin, while the 7-iron through PW feature U-grooves for stopping power on approach shots. The set matching Gap and Sand wedges feature more traditional wedge grooves.

Another F9 holdover is Cobra’s progressive hosel lengths – shorter hosels in the long irons and longer hosels in the short irons to control trajectory and get the CG right.

Lofts? Well, yeah, the lofts are strong, but given the target golfer is the 10 to 25 handicapper, it is what it is, and they’re in the same ballpark as the competition.

“We’re not going to lie about strong,” says Olsavsky. “But we do have the lowest CG in the industry compared to what we see in other game improvement irons.”

Cobra supplied us with test data comparing the Speedzone 6-iron with the similarly lofted Rogue X, so it should come as no surprise Speedzone was 5 yards longer with slightly lower spin but virtually the same peak height and descent angle.

“To compete and sell irons, you gotta win the battle somewhere,” says Olsavsky. “And the battle in the hitting bay is the one you gotta win. All the other battles are hard to prove that anyone’s going to win anything. Everyone’s going to these lofts. Our technology is how are we going to get the lowest CG to make them very playable, so they fly high and land soft, but be competitive in distance.”

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The ONE Length Angle

It’s been three years since Cobra jumped in with both feet – and Bryson – into the ONE Length game, and they’re still the only ones playing. That says something, but it’s unclear just what.

“(The competition) is all watching the market share and saying Cobra’s market share is 8% or whatever, and ONE Length is a portion of that, so they’re not seeing a huge flood to it,” says Olsavksy. “That’s good. We’re kind of the only game in town, so if we’re one of the top six iron companies in the industry and we’re the only ones talking about it, you’re going to see other guys saying oh, it doesn’t work, or we don’t need to make those. Which is fine.”

ONE Length makes up half of Cobra’s iron sales, and the company shared some interesting customer satisfaction results with us. For example, just in the past year, Cobra found ONE Length buyers trending younger. In 2018 fewer than 11% of the One Length buyers were 18- to 34-years old; a year later that number doubled to 22%. Overall, when asked why they bought ONE Length, 23% said because it was new and interesting (compared to 16% in 2018), while another 19% specifically said it was due to Bryon (only 8% in 2018). Clearly Bryson’s tear at the end of ’18 and into early ’19 moved the needle.

In addition, 2019 buyers rated satisfaction compared to their previous set at 87 (on a scale of 100), while 2018 buyers rated satisfaction at 73.6 (50 would be the same as their old irons). Cobra found the greatest satisfaction coming from former TaylorMade and Callaway users, while former PING and Titleist users still preferred ONE Length, but with slightly lower favorable ratings.

While not forgetting the data was provided by Cobra, it does tell us a few things. First, Cobra is getting better at ONE Length, as satisfaction ratings have increased each year since the F7 ONE Length’s debuted. Second, the notion that ONE Length is helpful for beginners has validity, as confirmed by the fact ONE Length buyers are getting younger.  In 2018, 55- to 74-year old golfers made up 48% of ONE Length buyers. One year later that dropped to 38%.

So while ONE Length remains a niche, it’s a niche Cobra has pretty much to itself.

“The debate,” says Olsavsky, “is if the competition does come in, is it good or bad? Maybe it helps validate the concept and maybe creates more of a trend, or it eats into our share.”

The barrier, of course, is none of the other OEMs have a Bryson to potentially put ONE Length into play on Tour.

Specs, Price & Availability

The standard Speedzone irons come stock with the KBS Tour 90 steel shaft. It’s a lightweight, high trajectory shaft that fits in well with the target golfer, and is available in S and R flexes. The graphite option is the UST Recoil ESX 460, available is S, R and A flexes. The black Lamkin Connect – with the ARCCOS sensor built-in – is the stock grip.

The ONE Length option features progressive shaft weighting – shafts with similar bend profiles but are lighter in long irons, standard weight in short irons and heavy in wedges. To that end, Cobra us using the KBS Tour 80 in the 4- through 6-irons; the Tour 90 in the 7- through 9-irons, and the heavier KBS wedge shaft in the PW and GW. The graphite offering features a Recoil ESX 460 shaft in the 4- through 9-iron and a heavier Recoil ESX 480 in the PW and GW.

A blue Lamkin Crossline Connect grip is standard.

As mentioned, Speedzone lofts are strong, but typical for the category. The 5-iron is 21-degrees (22-degrees for the ONE Length), the 7-irons for both are 27.5-degrees and the pitching wedges for both are at 42.5-degrees.

A 7-piece Speedzone set (either 4-PW or 5-GW) will run you $799 in steel, $899 in graphite.

Cobra is also offering combo sets for both Men and Women. The Men’s Combo set features a 5 Hybrid and a 6-iron through Gap Wedge in graphite for $899, and is available in both variable and ONE Length. The Women’s Combo set features 2 hybrids and 5-irons and sells for $999.

They’ll be available online and at retail January 17th, 2020.