Categorized | 2013, Featured, September 2013

The Evolution of the Wedges

By: John Russell

The Evolution of the Wedges

After winning his first British Open this year with a final round of 5 under par 66 at Muirfield, Phil Mickelson said that he had played the best round of his life.

If only the average golfer knew that he achieved this feat with no driver in his bag, but instead with 5 wedges.  This strategic choice of clubs for Phil was the clincher to come out on top on the hard, fast and tricky course where scoring was as much about trajectory and distance control as it was for accuracy.

Delegating his 13 degree fairway metal to take over the work of his driver off the tee, his weapons of choice from inside 140 metres from the pin were a 47 degree pitching wedge, 52 degree gap wedge, 56 degree sand wedge, 60 degree lob wedge, and 64 degree ultra wedge. Not only were the lofts different on these wedges, but each had a unique combination of shaping, shaft, lie angle, bounce angle and grooving to finesse shots from all types of surfaces such as wiry grass, hard and f lat earth, and soft sand.  Applying these finely tuned instruments with the skill of a surgeon, he was the only player in the field who finished under par in the tournament.

This seemingly extravagant use of wedges highlights their value for scoring and the importance of strategic club mix in a player’s bag.

Before 1930, the highest lofted commonly used golf club was the niblick. This was a sharp bladed iron with a loft similar to that of a pitching wedge of today. It had a thin sole and was very difficult to use from spongy lies and sand bunkers around the green as it tended to gouge into the ground and lose momentum.  There had been various attempts to create clubs to cope with bunkers but none were effective or compliant with R&A and USGA regulations.

The story of what happened from there is romantic. While being given a f lying lesson by his good friend Howard Hughes in his private aircraft, champion golfer Gene Sarazen noticed that the downward attitude of the wing f laps on take-off gave the aircraft lift.  He applied this principle to the niblick by soldering a piece of lead from its leading edge along its sole, created a thicker sole with a 10 degree bounce angle (the angle that the sole dips down from the leading edge if viewed in profile).  This angled surface created lift, allowing the club head to skim through the sand below the ball and send it off softly with backspin—with much more control than a stabbing action behind the ball with a conventional niblick which tended to send the ball off with a thick wad of sand and unpredictable roll. Sarazen used this new club with great success and sent his prototype to Wilson Company, which increased the loft from 50 to 55 degrees in its manufactured product. The modern sand wedge was born.

Evolution of wedges gradually accelerated over the years.  Ex NASA physicist and short game expert Dave Pelz, experimenting on shots around the green with young golf pro Tom Kite, he found Kite could get consistently closer to the pin with the softer ball flight and better stopping power of a 60 degree wedge than with the standard 51 degree wedge or 55 degree sand wedge.  For tight hard lies the bounce angle of this prototype was reduced to 6 degrees for cleaner contact and less chance of skulling the ball if perfect contact was not made.

Using this club, Kite was the biggest money earner on the PGA tour in 1981. To be competitive others quickly followed, and Ping introduced the 60 degree “L” wedge. Enter the Lob wedge.In the quest to lure golfers with the promise of more distance, manufacturers have been continually de-lofting their golf clubs. The loft of a 9 iron of today is similar to the loft of a 7 iron of 40 years ago. However there is no consistent standard, as every manufacturer has its own scale of lofts which continually seems to reduce to keep up with the competition. Selling distance is sexy, even if you have to fake it.

Following this trend, pitching wedge lofts have progressively reduced from 51 degrees to anything between 43 and 48 degrees.  The resulting 10 degree average difference in loft between the pitching wedge and 55–56 degree sand wedge left a massive gap in the distance each could be hit from the fairway. Enter the gap wedge with lofts in the range 51–53 degrees.

Instead of looking at the number on a golf club, more educated golfers are now looking at their lofts. Leading manufacturers now stamp the lofts on the heads of wedges   A player makes a choice of  irons and wedges with loft intervals in the range 4–5 degrees, so a choice of  wedge lofts may be 47, 52, 56, and 60. However the lofts, bounce angles and other specifications does depend on a player’s angle of attack and the courses he typically plays on. Touring professionals travel with as many as 20 clubs and choose their set make up based on the local conditions.

There are champions of specialist wedges. Roger Cleveland manufactured his own brand of clubs before selling Cleveland Golf in 1990. Cleveland wedges are well known in the market but what is less known is that in 1996 Roger Cleveland joined Callaway as chief club designer, developing new lines of wedges with players such as Phil Mickelson in his testing ground. It seems now to get the latest Cleveland wedge you buy Callaway. And just to show how small the short game world is, Mickelson’s short game coach is none other than Dave Pelz.

The most popular specialist wedge on tour is the Titleist Vokey range, used by over 40 percent of USGA professionals. Bob Vokey has spent a lifetime in metals and machining of golf equipment, from his youthful days assisting his father tinker with clubs, to his own club fitting business, and on to work with golf manufacturers before finally settling at Titleist in 1996. With the ample resources of the Titleist facility and the US tour as his R&D department, Vokey developed a comprehensive range of wedges to suit every circumstance.

Although technical development is a never ending process with leading manufacturers, there is now already a rich inheritance in the choice of wedges on offer.  Golfers are advised to take advantage.  For better scoring, it may be more beneficial to be fitted for wedges than for your driver.

About John Russell

Once a zero handicapper, John Russell is a business strategist with a deep understanding of golf. Previously advisor to KADIN Indonesia, HIPMI, and an executive in Bechtel Corporation, John has always used golf as a tool for business. In 1999 John entered the golf world full time, becoming Indonesia’s pre-eminent golf personality with golf schools, television appearances, articles in golf media, and now weekly articles in Jakarta Globe. Understanding how golf can be applied for better business, John became a pioneer of corporate golf in Asia. His innovations are now common practice. John can be contacted at john@johnrussellgolf.com.

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