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Confessions Of A Club Shaker

January 27, 2014

This issue marks the first time Golf World has produced its own version of an equipment Hot List, and because our readership is made up of a higher percentage of single-digit golfers than any other golf publication, the focus is on evaluating clubs for the better player. Which, more because of my beginnings than my playing ability, is right up my alley.

When I was young, for better or worse, everything was basically a "players club." Other than a reminder grip and/or a softer shaft, there weren't really any "game improvement" features in golf clubs. There was expensive and cheaper, but even cheaper -- like Wilson's popular "Sam Snead Blue Ridge" model or the "ProMaster" from bygone low-end market dominator Northwestern -- looked very much like a tour player's club.

So simpler, sleeker lines and a certain inviting look at address are what I respond to in a club. Knowing that such qualities are what the best in the world still prefer only reinforces my taste, and if that sounds like the fixation of a wannabe, I plead guilty. But I find the supposedly smaller margin for error that comes with such clubs worth suffering for the supposedly higher potential reward. Equipment for the best -- or most aspirational -- practitioners should be designed more toward enhancing good shots, not mitigating the effects of bad ones. To me it's a more fulfilling way to at least try to play, and a more effective way to improve.

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I've also never quite gotten over how much the first group of clubs I ever saw in an old-school pro shop so strongly conveyed sheer quality and the sense that using such wonderful implements required respecting the game and its techniques that much more. Even at my public course, where part of my work duties were to dust off the clubs, I'd lose myself amid the old racks of high-end sets, all the more if they contained a 2-wood and 1-iron. Our assistant pro, who had a sharp antenna for equipment fetishists (who invariably never actually bought anything), would call me "just another shaft shaker."

While it wasn't a term that eased my adolescence, I would soon enough see that my compulsion was founded in a passion for the game. One of Arnold Palmer's most endearing and revealing traits was his endless club curiosity, often reaching into the bags of playing partners to put a particular bat in the playing position. Before he practiced, watching him remove the plastic wrapping of clubs that had been sent to him by his club company was to see the child within reliving an old thrill.

Although it wasn't calculated, as a golf writer my affinity for their instruments has helped me seem less prying reporter to the players and more kindred spirit. One year in the early 1990s while covering the Hawaiian Open, I went to a downtown Honolulu shop that was a clearinghouse for vintage clubs and traded a set of Spalding irons coveted for their script lettering for a new set of Top-Flites embossed with a sombrero and "LT Grind" on the hosel. When I showed them to Lee Trevino, he waggled them with affection and commented on how few sets had been made. It marked a turning point in one of my most rewarding relationships in the game.

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As for my own game, I knew what Tom Kite meant when he advised, "Love your clubs." Over the years I've kept dozens of "players" sticks that probably have little monetary worth but are special to me for their beauty or what they make me think of: all manner of woods from revered but now fallen brands like Toney Penna, Wood Brothers and Orlimar; an inaugural set of Nicklaus N1 irons; an old AP 90 wedge with the best insignia ever; a putter from Ben Crenshaw; a 3-wood used by Laura Davies; and, of course, those Trevino irons.

I'm just as taken with contemporary clubs. At Golf World we have hundreds in the office that have been used in Hot List testing. I will pick out a couple that most intrigue me, shaft-shake the heck out of them, bug E. Michael Johnson to tell me their backstory, and maybe take them back to my desk.

It's surprising how seldom that I actually take them to the course or even the range. Mostly I just like putting them down in the playing position now and then, or just looking at them and imagining what they were built to do. Maybe even by me.

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