It's easy to overthink a problem, but sometimes the simplest answer is also the most effective. So, if you struggle to hit your irons consistently, you could take lessons, read instructional books from the who's who of teachers, practice more, try a couple of different brands, or, you could remove a bunch of variables and play them all at the same length.
It's the kind of solution which almost seems too obvious, resigning one to mutter, "why didn't I think of that?”
The idea isn't new. Ben Hogan's set of MacGregor's circa 1953 was more or less a single-length concept. Over time variable length became the standard, but this is golf where eventually everything old is new again, and so single length irons are making a comeback of sorts.
The current market is more receptive, due in part to the recent success of Bryson DeChambeau, who used a set of Edel single length irons on his way to becoming the 5th player in history to win both an individual NCAA championship and US Amateur Championship in the same year. After signing with Cobra in spring of 2016, DeChambeau had the company’s single length irons in the bag when he claimed his first professional victory at the Web.com Tour’s, DAP Championship. That victory earned him his PGA Tour card.
A Rejuvenated Trend or Short-Lived Comeback?
Is the re-emergence of single length irons a fad or can we expect it to stick around and perhaps even grow in popularity? That depends in large part on whether or not real golfers see real benefits from the change. Even if traditionalists – and that includes a substantial chunk of the better player demographic - struggle to embrace a simpler approach to the game, the modern single length iron is probably more than a fad. That said, nobody, including the people designing the clubs, is certain how the technology will evolve, or even what’s going to happen next.
Many Problems, Many Solutions
Designing a set of single length irons is an engineering exercise that requires mitigating the numerous and varied issues associated with making the concept work. On paper, the positives are overwhelming. When every club is built to the same length (most built at a 7 or 8 iron length), the golfer needs only one setup, one ball position and only one swing for every club. In theory, this should make it easier for a player to make consistent contact.
Paper and reality don’t always align perfectly.
Because every club is the length of a typical 7 or 8 iron – the single length long irons (3, 4,5) are comparatively shorter than their variable length counterparts, while the short irons (9, PW, GW, SW) are longer. Using standard head weights, the pitching wedge would swing like a sledgehammer, and the 3 iron would feel like the driver from your kid’s junior set. And that’s before we even consider ball flight.
To get consistent yardage gaps between irons, every facet of the club needs to be considered and tweaked to optimize performance.
The challenges presented by single length irons are universally accepted, but surprise, surprise, there’s little agreement on the right answer. As with any organic process, it's just that – a process. Evolution, as it always is, is ongoing. There’s little reason to believe that the answers offered in the first-generation products will be final.
As single length irons slowly re-enter the consumer consciousness, there are three OEM's – Edel, Wishon, and Cobra - who are taking the lead and defining the current market. Let’s take a closer look at what each company brings to the market, and the unique approach each takes to single length.
David Edel believes so strongly in the single length concept that he's dedicated a significant amount of capital to the effort. Other OEM's are more or less using 7 or 8 iron shafts throughout the entire set, but because Edel pairs each club with a particular shaft, "you can't just buy a bunch of 7 iron shafts and go with it." For a small OEM that is in the process of stocking and distributing 150 fitting carts, there's an enormous financial burden associated with building the inventory of shafts, heads, and weights necessary to stock accounts. It’s a risky proposition given the uncertainty of the single length market. Orders may come in, or they may not.
It's a bit like sending out 500 invites to your wedding without an RSVP and waiting to see who shows up. That said, Edel is optimistic.
If I didn't believe in this 100%, I wouldn't be doing it, but if this doesn’t work out, it could crush us. - David Edel
Edel's confidence in single length irons is partially rooted in his experience with Bryson DeChambeau, which started during Bryson's time at SMU. Because Bryson has won at the highest levels of amateur and professional golf, hold the PGA Tour, it's understandable why Edel and others see this technology as offering tangible benefit for a wide-range of players.
More than a conventional set of irons, single-length requires an expert fitter. David feels the term tailor is more appropriate than fitting. Anyone can get fit for a suit at Men's Warehouse, but a truly bespoke experience comes at the hands of a skilled tailor, who not only understands all of the possible variables but can manipulate them in a way which gives the customer a quantifiably better end product.
Regarding construction, the SLS-01 starts with a forged hollow-body clubhead with a variable thickness face and progressive internal cavities. The CG (Center of Gravity) sits directly in the middle of the clubface and the sole width, grind and bounce angle are, according to Edel, optimal.
A soft thermoplastic polymer fills the hollow body which results in improved sound, feel and energy transfer. It also pushes some weight toward the perimeter of the head which increases forgiveness. Finally, Edel’s interchangeable head-weights make it easy to match MOI throughout the set.
Then there's the shaft. Edel has partnered with Paderson Kinetixx to create a series of proprietary shafts specific to the single length concept. My first thought was "Why Paderson?... Why not go with a more known brand like Aerotech or UST (Recoil)?"
Well, the reason Aerotech doesn't have patents on its shafts is because of Paderson, which has more patents than every other shaft company combined. That's a boatload of intellectual property that, frankly, other companies can't access. Paderson produces roughly 3 million shafts per year, and because the technology and raw materials are proprietary, it can better control cost and quality. The only other major shaft manufacturer who can make the same farm to table claim is Mitsubishi Rayon. Given Paderson’s capabilities and Edel’s deserved reputation as a premium fitter, the lack of shaft options is a bit curious.
Edel has more knobs and dials to play around with, but does it matter to the end user? For Edel the answer is unequivocally YES. "The other guys haven't addressed the issues the way we have," asserts Edel. Compared to Cobra and Wishon, Edel feels its platform has more credibility because they've been doing it longer and are willingly less bound by the final price point. At $245/club, they're nearly twice the cost of Cobra’s Forged offering, and some potential customers will be turned off by that.
Moreover, Edel believes those entering the single length market need to do a better job fitting players. The rub here is how you define better, and not everyone agrees Edel's approach is the best.
Kirk Oguri, a Golf Digest Top 100 Clubfitter with extensive single-length fitting experience that I spoke with, feels players are best served by relying on CG (center of gravity) location and COR to manipulate flight and distance. That’s where Edel misses the mark.
They designed a single length set with all matching CG locations, and with the same Paderson shaft,” he said. Their shafts have a progressive kick point to try to compensate for the lack of CG location and COR change in heads. - Kirk Oguri, Golf Digest Top 100 Fitter, Pete's Golf
As with most debates inside the equipment industry, bright minds disagree, and given Edel's past success with fitting-intensive products, it's hard to knock the approach.
Tom Wishon’s industry pedigree is well-documented. He's a respected source on nearly all equipment topics, and he recently partnered with professional golfer Jaacob Bowden to create the Sterling single-length irons.
Like their competitors, the goal for Bowden and Wishon was to create a functional set of irons which leveraged the benefits of single length, and "looked cool."
In contrast to the Edel SLS-01 irons, Sterling uses the same proprietary Wishon (steel or graphite) shaft in each iron while relying on changes in COR and offset to produce optimal flight in longer irons.
Specifically, the 5-7 irons use thinner-faced HS 300 steel to boost ball speeds. The top end of the set is cast from 8620 carbon steel. Wishon cautions against companies like Cobra who use 17-4 stainless to create hi-cor heads. Wishon believes the material isn’t strong enough to support faces thin enough to generate the ball speed necessary to overcome the distance challenges associated with single length long irons.
To protect against too low launch and spin, Wishon increased offset in the long irons to move the COG farther back, which helps players launch the ball higher and, all things equal, farther.
Another distinction in the Sterling approach is that the set is built to standard 8 iron length, not 7 iron like Edel and Cobra. While each set can be altered to the player’s preferred specs, starting with a shorter club, in Wishon's experience, makes the adjustment to longer short irons easier, while making the entire set easier to hit in general.
Admittedly, the Sterling irons are targeted at the middle 75% of golfers, most of whom struggle hitting their irons consistently and don't have the swing speed to create optimal launch conditions with anything with less loft than a 6 iron.
Wishon has long been a vocal proponent of custom club fitting and has authored a variety of books and columns on that topic. Even so, Wishon particularly emphasizes the importance of working with a fitter who can fit single length and understands the compensations necessary to optimize performance.
While not as expensive as the Edel set, the cost for Sterling irons ($117/club in steel and $143/club graphite) is on par with Cobra, and keeping prices in-line with the majority of iron sets on the market is part of the Sterling strategy.
Wishon has been around long enough that he doesn't get too excited about the hot product du jour, which is why he hasn’t piled all of his chips in the single length basket. That said, Wishon is convinced there's a real benefit in single length, particularly for golfers who have never been able to find a repeatable iron swing or are just taking up the game.
Cobra is currently the only large OEM in the single length conversation, and that means its dynamics are different. Cobra is the most visible of the three brands and, with Bryson DeChambeau, they have the only player on the PGA Tour currently using a single length set.
For what it's worth, at least one reputable fitter believes Cobra is also the closest to nailing the formula. According to Kirk Oguri, 2016 MET PGA Teacher of the Year and Golf Digest Top 100 Clubfitter, "Cobra has it (right) with the F7, but wrong with Forged One. The F7 uses the same designated shafts for the length regardless of the loft. Forged One uses different shafts based on the number on the sole. That changes the stepping of each shaft, which, in my opinion, adds a variable compared to utilizing the same exact shaft for each iron."
Regardless, if early sales figures are any indication, the proof is already showing up in the pudding. Tom Olsavsky, VP of R&D for Cobra, says that year over year the F7 is selling well. “Both the one length and variable length are great irons, and performance-wise, we'd put the F7 series up against anything."
Once Cobra signed DeChambeau, it was inevitable a single length set would come to market in short order. What we didn't know was that Cobra would create two sets; the F7 ONE and the Forged ONE.
The primary differences between the two sets is the standard ONE Length has more offset, a thicker overall profile and is available in both RH and LH. It’s your pretty standard game-improvement vs. player’s irons story, but for a more thorough comparison, see our introductory piece from the fall.
It's not like Olsavsky and his design team had years to ponder, test and refine numerous designs. Bryson signed with Cobra in April and by June decisions about the 2107 lineup had to be made. That's not a lot of lead time, especially considering the unknowns surrounding the market’s potential response. It’s the absolute definition of a crapshoot.
When you have some inkling where things are headed, R&D often runs several years ahead of retail. Olsavsky admits this product launched with a bit more uncertainty.
Cobra’s initial unease has subsided, and the company expects to sell 3-4 times more ONE Length irons (both models) than initially forecasted. Regardless of whether initial projections were cautiously conservative, 400% suggests the market is receptive to Cobra’s approach to single length.
Unlike Sterling and Edel, Cobra is readily available at your local big box store. For the time being, Cobra is the only large brand with a one length set, meaning that unless you specifically seek out Edel or Sterling, Cobra has a virtual monopoly on this segment of the market.
While that’s unquestionably positive from the standpoint of exposure and potential sales, it’s not without its caveats. There’s nearly universal agreement that fitting for single length requires a bit more precision and knowledge. This places a significant burden on what's generally a weakness in a volume sales operation. Poorly fit irons come with the risk of turning golfers off of the single length iron concept, and Cobra clubs in general.
While the long-term viability of the modern single length iron remains uncertain, the shaft industry insiders I spoke with told me that they are exploring in earnest both steel and graphite shafts specific to single length irons. To a degree, this validates the Edel approach, while suggesting others may be exploring the single length market.
It's also in-line with Olsavsky's thinking.
"Sometimes (changing) shafts helps. Sometimes it doesn’t... Bryson plays the same shafts throughout his set, and really, it's about getting optimal performance for the player. That may be graphite or it might not."
It’s reasonable to think 30%-40% of golfers could benefit from single length irons and even if only a fraction of those went on to purchase a set, that's a potentially significant number. DeChambeau’s signing accelerated Cobra’s entry into the market, but if more single length options materialize in the market, Cobra’s early entry has given it a pronounced head start.
On balance, this single length/one length concept is geared at higher handicap and beginning golfers who struggle with iron consistency. Sterling and Cobra ONE are better suited for those with less experience or less refined iron play, while Edel's SLS-01-01 and Cobra's ONE Forged are viable options for more established players.
There's also a group of players whom no one is talking about - the former decent player with a job, family, and kids who doesn't have enough time to practice contingent. I won't be surprised to see this segment embrace the single length concept, and do it quickly.
It’s simply a matter of finding the approach that works.
Edel has a fixed CG in each clubhead and manipulates ball flight primarily by adjustments in shaft (kickpoint) and head-weight. Sterling uses a progressive offset (more in longer irons) and CG to increase distance in long irons and maintain consistent yardage gaps throughout the set.
Cobra does a bit of both, with the Forged ONE more in line with the Edel SLS-01-01 and the F7 ONE more comparable to the Sterling.
That's where the market is today. Where it's headed is anyone's guess. In talking with several experienced fitters and others inside the industry, here's what my inner Nostradamus thinks will happen.
If single-length proves to be a viable product, mainstream shaft companies will find a way to develop a shaft (or series of shafts) specifically designed to meet the unique demands of single length. Single length performance will almost certainly advance because of it. When the next generation of single length launches, I expect shaft specific technology to be a key selling point.
It seems likely that another major OEM will jump into the fray. Whether that’s TaylorMade, PING, Callaway, or all of the above, remains to be seen.
If the science behind single length was good in 1953 and is good now - it will still be good ten years from now. The question is, will consumers get far enough out of their own way to give it a try?