Enough already about Obama and Romney…it’s still 5 months away.  Let’s get down to voting on something about golf and something you can actually vote on right now!  This is a monumental day in the golf industry.  Ok…well not really…not like your vote today is going to be sent to Congress or anything.  But you never know…it might actually have an impact on the entire golf equipment business.  Why?  Because today you’re going to be voting on something consumers and industry insiders have been debating for a long time.  And that is “Golf Industry Standards”.  What do we mean by industry standards?  Read on…and be sure to VOTE!

Dude, what happened to my pitching wedge?

A foursome stands on the tee box of a par 3.  All four guys are about equal in terms of length and ability, so Jim, Chris, and Bill hit 6 iron onto the green.  Then Tom gets up with his brand new irons and hits the green with a 7 iron.  As Tom smirks and wipes the dirt off his club, the other three guys think to themselves, “Wow, those clubs must have some great new technology…Tom’s longer than ever!”

Sound familiar?  Whether you’re Jim or Tom, you’ve no doubt noticed that modern clubs are longer than their counterparts from days gone by.  The question is: why?  Some of you probably think that it must be all the new technology that companies are pouring into the clubs, right?  After all, that’s what we see in the ads: guys in white coats, fancy laboratories, computer models, scientists watching pros hit balls.  All that science is how they make the ball go farther…right?

WRONG!  You’re a club longer these days because the OEMs took your 6 iron and stamped a “7” on it.  I can hear your objections, “The OEMs wouldn’t do that!  There are standards!  A 7 iron is a 7 iron!”  WRONG AGAIN!  There are absolutely no standards in the golf industry…which, in this writer’s less-than-humble opinion, is a big problem.

The 4 Big Problems

Before I continue, let me show you just how far we are from having any standards.

Lie Angle – Depending on the manufacturer and the model, you could get a 6 iron that’s anywhere from 61 degrees to 62.5 degrees.  That means one iron’s “standard” is almost another iron’s “2 degrees up.”

Length – Variances of up to one inch in length.  Think this doesn’t matter?  Let me chop an inch off all your clubs and see what you think then.  Additionally, drivers have gotten significantly longer over the last few years.  If we go back to the late 70’s and early 80’s, the “standard” was 43”.  As recently as five years ago, one club fitter estimates that the average stock driver length was 45”.  In 2011, that same club fitter saw the average jump to 45.73”.  That’s 2.72″ inches longer than just 30 years ago.  And I know we are evolving as a species but I don’t think we have gotten 3″ taller as humans in just 30 years time.

Shaft Flex – This is the one that even informed consumers aren’t aware of, because, unlike loft, lie, and length, it’s very hard to measure.  There is NO STANDARD for what makes a shaft “stiff” or “regular.”  This has led to the OEMs making “stiff” shafts softer and softer to stroke the egos of the masses who want to play a stiff flex, but truly need something softer.  You can claim that this is helping the consumer, but I look at it as being no different than writing “32” on the waist of a fat man’s pants: a pleasant lie to make someone feel better instead of giving them the truth.

Loft – This is the real kicker.  Most OEMs have significant loft variances within their own lineup, and if we look industry-wide we can see pitching wedges as weak as 48 degrees and as strong as 42.5 degrees! This is almost a 6 degree difference.  So now going back to that 6 iron we were talking about, which is now stamped as a 7 iron, really should be stamped as a 4.5 iron. And this only looks at today; if we look at things from a historical perspective we see that even 48 degrees is stronger than pitching wedges used to be…you know, before the gap wedge was “invented.”  So be on the look out in the near future for a new club labeled GAP-GAP wedge, because golfers are going to need them.

How Did We Get Here?

So how did we get here?  Why are we seeing clubs with stronger lofts and longer shafts?  It all goes back to the two things that golfers want: distance and distance.  Imagine your average golfer going into the store to buy a new set of irons.  With apologies to the handful of outliers in the audience, EVERY GOLFER is going to walk out of that store with the irons that he hit the longest.  So what do you do if you’re an OEM whose job is to sell golf clubs?  You strengthen the loft and make the shaft longer, or, as I put it earlier, you stamp a “7” on a 6 iron.

Why Is This A Problem?

So why does this matter?  Why is this “a big problem”?  Primarily because it deceives the consumer and could convince them to buy new clubs under a false premise.  If a golfer was well fit for irons 5 years ago, assuming his swing hasn’t changed, those irons are still a good fit.  He is unlikely to see a major gain in distance with new irons…unless you jack up the loft and stretch the shaft.  You can see the same thing happening with the length of driver shafts as well: the old standard of 43″ has been replaced by 45” which has now been replaced by drivers 46” and longer.

Additionally, this lack of standards renders meaningless the language that most golfers use and understand, “I’m 2* upright,” “I’m +1/2 inch.”  2* upright based on what?  The 61* 6 iron or the one that’s 62.5*?  Do you want that extra half inch on top of the extra half inch the OEM already slapped on there for you?  Are you starting to see why this is a problem?

What Do The Golf Companies Have To Say About This?

So…why don’t we have any form of “Industry Standards” when it comes to lie, length, flex and loft?  That’s what we want to know as well.  That’s why in the interest of balance and fairness, I sent out requests to many of the major OEM’s (golf companies) to find out what they had to say on this topic.  Although, at the time of publication, only Wilson Golf responded.  The following responses come from Michael Vrska, Wilson Golf’s Global Director of R&D.

Q: Why is it that the OEMs can’t agree on standards:

A: “Golf OEM’s, and certainly Wilson Staff, care about our products and the players who use them, but we don’t care for or agree on a particular set of standards because each of us think we can do it better than the next guy.  The more standards and rules R&D is confined by, the less we can innovate for different player types.  The irons we make for Harrington, Barnes, Streelman and Lawrie require different specs than a guy or gal who has yet to break 100.”

Q: Do you think that the average consumer is helped or harmed by the lack of standards?

A: “I think they are helped greatly.  To look at it from an other-than-golf perspective…  Were consumers helped or harmed that Apple could look at portable music players with a general lack of standards they had to adhere to?  Were consumers helped or harmed that TV manufacturers were not locked into a standard 4:3 aspect ratio and standard resolution?  Competition and different options are great for the consumer.  Without that competition, innovation would slow or even stop.  I believe that would be true for golf clubs as well if R&D was more confined.  There are some smart engineers at Wilson, and other R&D groups as well, that live, breath, eat and sleep golf equipment and I want them turned loose to be as creative as possible.”

Q: Who benefits from the lack of uniformity?

A: “The consumer ultimately benefits.  I understand there can be some confusion when it comes to what may be the right loft or lie or shaft for a player, but launch monitors and custom fitting are wonderful tools that more players should take advantage of and can eliminate that confusion.  You can find out if your irons need to be bent 2o upright or are gapped properly for you.  There is a golf club head, shaft and set that will look, feel and perform best for every player; hit a few options and get fit to figure out what that is.”

My Response

Before I comment on his answers, I want to say that I have immense respect for Wilson Golf for actually responding to my questions.  They knew what they were getting into and they didn’t run from it.  That said: I don’t agree that changing specs is “innovating” or “creative,” nor am I suggesting that anyone be forced to play a tour pro’s clubs.  What I am suggesting is that every 6I be the same loft, length, and lie, so that I can compare apples to apples when I try different clubs, and that my fitting of “2 degrees up, +1/2 inch” translates from brand to brand.  And speaking of Apple, I take exception to his comparison between standard specs and Beta Max.  I’m not suggesting we force every OEM to use steel instead of titanium: simply that drivers be 45” so I know which one is the best, not which shaft is the longest.

What Does Golf Club Designer Tom Wishon Have To Say?

The next man we interviewed Tom Wishon, is not only one of the industries most highly respected members of the golf equipment industry he also dedicated his career to clubfitting research and development.  Wishon also headed up a panel some years ago made up of industry experts who tried to get the golf industry to commit to a standard of measurements.  His efforts were unfortunately unsuccessful.

Q: Why is it that the OEMs can’t agree on standards?

A: For one, they see no value to themselves to do so.  OEM’s only do things if they see benefit for themselves in it.  Hence the ONLY thing I have seen of this nature is when some of them pooled their resources to form a unified legal team to track down counterfeit clubs and factories that make them.   So far, no one has been able to impress upon them that there is any value to them in doing spec measurement standards.

There is nothing wrong with making the specs of your clubs to be whatever you think they should be – but there is something wrong with doing that and not saying anything about what those specs are.  If standards are nothing but an average for each specification, such as 45” is the standard for men’s driver length or 27* is the standard industry loft for a 5 iron, the OEM’s don’t want their specs to be labeled as being either over or under some standard.

Again, we do not need a STANDARD MEASUREMENT FOR ALL SPECIFICATIONS but it would be nice to have a STANDARD FORM OF MEASUREMENT for all the specifications of golf clubs – and then to have a repository of measurements of each company’s clubs all done using the standard form of measurement so that consumers could really compare specs of clubs to each other.  Some of this stuff we sort of already have – lofts, lies, face angles, lengths, offset, swingweights – they are mostly all listed for each club  in each model on each company’s website and really, these specs can be considered to be quite comparable.  Without a declared standard, we all pretty much measure loft, lie, face angle, offset, swingweight the same way.

But if you could add things like center of gravity location for the driver, 3 wood, 3 hybrid and 6 iron in each model, MOI of the driver, 3 wood, 3 hybrid and 6 iron in each model, actual shaft stiffness profile (like my measurements), grip diameter, and some others – well then you would have more helpful info.  And of course shafts is in a horrible condition now for any means to inform consumers how stiff this shaft is compared to that shaft.

Q: Do you think that the average consumer is helped or harmed by the lack of standards?

A: In some areas without a question consumers are hurt.  Shaft flex is one for sure.  I cannot imagine if I were a golfer without any real tech knowledge of clubs who was interested in one of these shafts that cost $200-300.  How can you possibly know if any shaft is going to match your swing without buying it?  Not many places have many of these high dollar shafts all in demo clubs for you to hit – and even if they do, the other specs on the club in which the expensive shaft is installed like the loft, lie, length, face angle, etc., probably don’t fit your swing so you can’t get a decent evaluation from hitting the shaft often times.

Then you have the OEM Drivers which are not really made to the loft that is printed or engraved on the head.  That’s a really unfortunate deal for consumers – to tell them one thing but knowingly not deliver that spec?

Q: Who benefits from the lack of uniformity?

A: I’d love to say no one does.  But the sheer fact the OEM’s refuse this tells you something loud and clear.  Keeping golfers in the dark also can keep the golfer searching to buy the next club and the next club after that in the HOPE that he’s going to find the right one that helps him really hit the ball better.  Imagine how bad it would be for an OEM to help a golfer find the perfect golf club for his swing the very first time.  They’d likely not see him as a customer for more clubs ever again or at the least, his buying frequency would be slowed down.

And I bet the farm that the number of “club ho’s” who buy new clubs every year because they love equipment, they love to have the latest thing, they love to keep searching is a big number, so big that if it were reduced by 1/3 the OEM’s would get measurably hurt in terms of annual revenue.  Not having any way to quantitatively compare clubs, shafts, clubheads certainly could be said to perpetuate club ho’ism and all the additional sales it brings to the OEMs.

What Does A Master Club Fitter Have To Say About This?

I also sought out the opinion of Nick Sherburne the Master Club Fitter/Builder at Club Champion, on those same questions.  As a club expert who is unaffiliated with any particular OEM, I thought he might have a unique perspective.

Q: Why don’t OEMs agree on a common set of standards?

A: “I guess there is no real reason to need a standard.  They most likely set their standards as individual companies for a few different reasons:

To differentiate themselves from each other.

To create their advantage.  Examples could be making lofts stronger or making clubs longer to hit the ball farther, or conversely shorter clubs to add control.”

Q: Do you think that consumers are helped or harmed by the lack of standards?

A: “It’s definitely hard for the average consumer to know what they are buying without lots of research or a helping hand from a premium club fitter.  As equipment evolves, what a golfer needs can change over time without them even knowing it.  For example, a golfer may be fit for clubs that are one degree upright and then two years later buy a new set and have them built to the same specifications.  However, if the standard has changed that golfer may need something flatter or something more upright, it depends on which clubs they wind up buying.

Standards could help the consumer, but they also may make golfers feel like they don’t need to be properly fit for clubs and we know that the benefits of proper fitting are apparent at this point.”

I think Nick raises an excellent point: this lack of standardization does put a lot of importance on the club fitter.  Seems like I can’t write a single article without beating that drum that tells you, “Go get fit!”  Oh well.  Back on point, though, it is the “average” golfer that I am concerned about, the guy who might get fit through a big box, but definitely doesn’t have the advantage of working with a place like Club Champion.  This is the guy who, in my opinion, is being taken advantage of by the games that are being played with modern golf clubs.

Conclusion

So where do we go from here?  How do we change this?  Well, if you agree with this article and the statements within, I highly suggest you cast your vote, asking for more “Golf Industry Standards”.  And if you don’t agree with this article, well you can cast your vote that you don’t think their needs to be more “Golf Industry Standards”.

Either way you should vote and have your voice be heard.  You can cast your vote below:

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