Good players tend to fear change, especially when it comes to their irons. They view the use of anything with forgiveness that looks different from a "traditional" blade as a sign of weakness, something that will limit their ability to hit all the shots. But increasingly, the best players in the world are opting for clubs with less-traditional looks and less-traditional technology. We call them the new player's irons. More than 75 percent of players on the PGA Tour use cavity-back irons, and only a handful of players on the LPGA Tour still carry blades. Club designers say the new player's irons really don't give up a thing.
"It's a misconception that just because something's small and thin it's more workable," says Dan Stone, vice president of research and development at Titleist. "Workability comes primarily from blade length, the distance from heel to toe."
Stone says that the shorter the blade length, the easier it is to manipulate the face to produce fades and draws, regardless of what kind of cavity it has or how thick it looks on top.
"Increasing perimeter weighting just increases stability on off-center hits, which is always good," says Stone. "There's nothing wrong with having more ball speed on less-than-center strikes."
In other words, as long as the heel-to-toe length of an iron sits fine in bad lies and is short enough to cut through rough, workability isn't affected by what you pack in the back of it. But because good players insist on a clean look, any ingenuity designers dream up must fit beneath a skinny topline.
"You want to expand the sweet area without expanding the head size," says David Llewellyn, research and development manager at Mizuno. He has attempted this in Mizuno's MP-58 iron by using lightweight titanium in the center of a forged head to essentially push weight outward and increase forgiveness. Why is this better than a regular cavity-back? Because a thick chunk of metal (in this case, titanium) directly behind the ball gives a more solid sound, says Llewellyn, who often spends workdays analyzing impact vibration modes.
So if designers are figuring out how to build more forgiving heads that feel, sound and play like blades, why would anyone continue to play blades?
Says Chuck Cook, No. 5 among Golf Digest's 50 Greatest Teachers: "At impact a tour player's hands are six inches farther ahead than an average player's. This means a tour player will strike the ball higher on the face, so it helps him to have a club with a higher center of gravity." Like a blade.
In researching this article we had a scratch golfer hit the irons profiled on these pages, using the TrackMan launch monitor at Performance ClubWorks in Bethel, Conn. One difference did emerge: The peak trajectory of the pure blades was 10 percent lower than the new player's irons. So if there's one upside to blades, it might be the ability to keep the ball down.
But not all great golfers are necessarily shotmakers. "I liken it to baseball," says Tom Lehman. "Some pitchers have four or five great pitches, and others need only one or two."
"Distance has probably become more important to today's better players," says Cook. They hit it farther and have shorter irons into greens. The next generation of player's irons can work the ball if needed, but like the next generation of players says, "Why bother?"