By: Matt Saternus
The most significant equipment trend of 2013 is the re-emergence of the driving iron. Though a decade ago these irons-on-steroids were commonplace, they have been nearly absent from the marketplace for many years. This year, however, you can find new models from Titleist, Callaway, Adams, and Mizuno with more rumored to be on the way. Today, I'm going to tell you where the driving iron went, why it came back, whether or not it's here to stay, and which one might be best for you.
The Hackers' Savior
My primary connection to the original driving irons is my dad's cousin. An admittedly mediocre golfer, he struggled terribly with his tee shots until he got a driving iron. From that day forth, regardless of the ribbing he took, he brought it to every tee and banged out shots that went roughly 200 yards and straight nearly every time. If you wanted that club, you would have had to pry it from his cold, dead hands, and the same was true of many other golfers at the time. So where did this club go?
A Victim of Progress
The driving iron was ultimately a victim of evolution. While it was great off the tee, the original driving irons lacked the versatility to be played from the fairway or the rough. Thus was born the hybrid: still good off the tee and with added playability from a variety of lies. As the hybrid grew in popularity, the driving iron was left behind to die a quiet death.
With apologies to Mizuno, the driving iron was reborn this year by Callaway and Roger Cleveland in the shape of the X Utility Prototype. The minute the pictures of this club hit the internet, golfers were drooling. Here was a club that screamed. "Get rid of those bulky hybrids. Your bag will look better with me in it." The forums were abuzz with demand, so, not wanting to be left behind, other OEMs quickly shifted into gear to release driving irons of their own.
But the rebirth of the driving iron is not just about looks, it's about performance. These new clubs are designed to perform everywhere: the tee box, the fairway, and the rough. That probably means we need to stop calling them driving irons, but until a better name is coined, driving irons it is.
Should You Care? Should You Bag One...or Two?
So these clubs are sexy and they perform well in all situations. But everything I read on the internet says that they're for better players...right? Not so fast. One of the major talking points from the OEMs is that these new clubs can work for a wide variety of players.
Now, if I believed everything the OEMs told me...well, I'd be writing for a different website. So instead of taking them at their word, I took 5 of the hottest driving irons to the range with my Flightscope to let you know which one, if any, should be in your arsenal this season.
Callaway X Utility Prototype
This is the club that simultaneously launched the driving iron trend and the “new” Callaway. From the instant the pictures hit the internet, golfers were drooling over it. They were not only thinking about Callaway for the first time in years, but they were also questioning their long irons and bulky hybrids.
Roger Cleveland, the club’s designer, said that he was motivated to create a club that was “shallower, had a deeper CG, and that created a higher launch angle which is difficult to achieve in longer irons.” The most noticeable thing that sets the X Utility Prototype apart from its peers is the sole: Roger Cleveland said it was “inspired by Phil Mickelson” in terms of the heel and toe relief that allow it to go through the grass more easily.
One of the big surprises about the X Utility is the look at address: there’s a ton of metal visible behind the top line, similar to a Ping G-series iron. What’s different here is that the metal isn’t really part of the sole: it’s raised up a bit so that the club has the turf interaction of a blade with the easy launch of an SGI iron.
While the looks may be debatable, the performance is not: the X Utility is easy to hit, launches high, and offers the golfer plenty of control over the shot. For me, the X Utility offers the best combination of all the things I would look for in a long-iron replacement: more forgiveness and higher trajectory than a long iron, but more shot control than a hybrid.
Callaway offers the X Utility Prototype in 18, 21, and 24 (all RH only) with both graphite and steel shafts, the Graphite Designs G Series 95 and Project X PXi. The X Utility Prototype retails for $199.
VERDICT: Best All-Around Performer
Adams original mission in designing the DHy was to fill a void they saw in their current lineup: the players hybrid. But, as the process went on, they came up with a new question: “How can we get even more long irons out of people’s bags to make the game easier?” From these twin goals, the DHy was born.
Despite being billed on their website as having a low, fade-biased ball flight, Adams sees the DHy as being appropriate for any handicap from scratch to 20. Adams believes that part of the reason that so many people are still carrying 3, 4, and 5 irons is that they are unwilling to give up the workability and control of an iron. With the DHy, Adams believes they have retained the best qualities of an iron while offering the forgiveness of a bigger hybrid. The key technologies that make this club accessible to more players, and set it apart from its competitors, are the Velocity Slot and the bulge and roll on the face. While it remains to be seen whether or not higher handicaps will adopt the DHy, there is no question that tour players love it: at a recent tour stop there were 12 DHys in play, making it the #1 model on tour.
The #1 thing that stood out to me with the DHy was the consistency/forgiveness. Hit it flush, hit it on the toe, hit it on the heel, hit it thin: the ball goes almost exactly the same distance no matter what (now if they could only solve the fat shots…). In addition to wanting to go the same distance, the DHy primarily wants to go straight: hitting a little cut or draw was challenging, for me.
If there is anywhere that the DHy falls a little short, it’s in the subjective categories. The shape of the DHy at address is a little bulky, though Adams uses color (lighter and darker greys) to hide that. Additionally, the feel on off-center hits is a bit harsh (simple solution: don’t miss the sweet spot).
Adams made a very interesting decision with the Matrix hX3 as the stock shaft. While it’s inarguably a high-end choice, I suspect that players looking to replace their 4 and 5 irons might prefer steel.
Adams offers the DHy in lofts of 18, 21, 24, and 27 degrees (lefties are limited to 18 and 21). The stock shaft on the Dhy is the Matrix Ozik hX3 White Tie in regular, stiff, and X flex. The DHy sells for $199.
Verdict: Most Forgiving & Consistent
As is so often the case, Titleist’s entry into this segment is the belle of the ball. From the back, the 712U looks like a muscle back, hiding its hollow-body construction. At address, it’s the only one of these clubs that doesn’t have any “extra” sticking out beyond the topline (the Mizuno H4 is close, but it also has a markedly thicker top line).
In speaking with Titleist about the 712U, it’s clear that the tour was the major driver behind its development. Marni Ines, Titleist’s Director of Iron Development, said that this club is tailored towards higher speed players who want trajectory and spin control that they can’t get from “regular” hybrids. Additionally, the sole of the 712U was completely redesigned to offer additional trajectory control.
The focus on tour players’ needs and feedback has yielded inarguable results: it’s the only club in this group that can boast of being a major winner, having been used by Adam Scott in his Masters triumph.
The 712U was the biggest surprise in the field. I was expecting to find a club that was thoroughly unforgiving, but instead I found a club that was remarkably easy to hit. The ball speed off of the 712U was extremely consistent, even on off-center hits.
As I mentioned above, Titleist absolutely aced the look on this club, and the feel is similarly excellent. There’s nice feedback on off-center hits, but nothing too harsh. Centered contact feels fantastic.
The one caveat I would offer is that this is not a club for the slower swingers or the low-ball hitters. The ball flight off the 712U was decidedly lower than anything else in this test. Players with anything less than 100MPH+ driver swing speeds should probably look elsewhere. For players who hit moon balls, however, the 712U could be a godsend.
The 712U is available to replace the 2, 3, and 4 iron (18, 21, and 24 degrees, respectively) for both righties and lefties. They come stock with a True Temper Dynamic Golf S300 shaft. The 712U carries a suggested retail price of $235.
VERDICT: Best for high swing speed & high ball flight players
I have no doubt that the people at Mizuno are scratching their heads wondering how this trend can be labeled “new:” they’ve been making high quality iron-like hybrids almost non-stop since 2001. From the original TZOID to the various FLI-HI clubs, better players have been replacing their long irons with Mizuno’s DLR (direct long iron replacements) for years.
The major change that came with the MP-H4 is that these DLRs are integrated directly into a set of forged irons. Through Mizuno’s custom fitting program, you can order a full set of MP-H4’s (suitable for a mid-handicap) or combo some H4’s with another set, the way Luke Donald does with his MP-64’s. Thanks to Mizuno’s proprietary technologies like Grain Flow Forging and Harmonic Impact Technology, players can expect the MP-H4 to feel every bit as good as other Mizuno offerings.
Anyone who has played a FLI-HI over the years should be comfortable with the MP-H4 in their hands. The look at address is a little bulky, but not extreme. The feedback is precise, just as you’d expect from a Mizuno. Stocked with a Dynamic Gold shaft, the MP-H4 could blend easily into the top end of any iron set.
In terms of forgiveness, the MP-H4 was very similar to the FLI-HI that I currently play: small misses towards the toe and heel were forgiven, and thin shots were helped onto a more playable trajectory. With regard to direction, the MP-H4 was similar to the Adams DHy: it really wants to go straight. One area where the MP-H4 really excelled was trajectory control: I found it to be the easiest club to hit high and low shots with.
The MP-H4 is available not only in 18, 21, and 24 degrees; you can play the H4 as a complete set all the way through the PW. It comes stock with True Temper Dynamic Gold shafts. Sadly, the H4 is not available for lefties. The 8-piece set (3-PW) retails for $1,099, but individual clubs can be ordered for about $140 each.
VERDICT: A solid performer, but not a standout in any one category.
Fourteen HI-610h T.S.
While not a household name in the US, Fourteen is one of the best-known Japanese equipment manufacturers. Much like Mizuno, Fourteen has been creating these “utility irons” as a compliment to their iron sets for many years. The HI-610h T.S. is the latest evolution, packed with more forgiveness than previous iterations. Fourteen believes that these utility irons are for all golfers, which is why they offer several different models.
Being that it is the “thickest” club in the group, and the one with the lightest shaft, it is no surprise that the HI-610h T.S. was the easiest to launch way up into the sky. For players with lower swing speeds, or players who just hit the ball low, this would be one of the first driving irons I would recommend.
What was surprising is how well the HI-610h T.S. performed out of the rough. Given how thick the sole is, I expected to have trouble getting the ball out of bad, thick lies, but that was not the case. Just as it did with shots from the fairway, the HI-610h T.S. launched the ball high and straight.
For me, the HI-610h T.S. gets a split decision in the subjective categories. While the bulky look is not my favorite, it does offer excellent sound and feel.
The HI-610h T.S. is available in lofts of 19, 21, and 24 degrees. It comes stock with a proprietary graphite MD-370gi shaft in stiff (65 grams) or regular (60 grams). This club retails for $229.
VERDICT: Best for low-ball hitters and slower swingers
Emerging Trend or Overnight Fad?
The rebirth of the driving iron is an emerging trend that is going to continue to grow over the next few years. The driving iron will become a necessity for every OEM just as the hybrid has.
So what does this mean for your bag? More options. How many irons do you want? Will you replace your 3 iron with a hybrid or a driving iron? Do you want hybrids or fairway woods? With all these choices, golfers will have to consider even more carefully how to use each of the 14 slots in their bag.
One other thing is for certain: traditional long irons, on the decline for years because of hybrids, are about to become a thing of the past. With more PGA Tour players switching to hybrids and driving irons, your kids may well look at your old 3 and 4 iron that way you look at a 1 iron.