In Golf Digest's April issue, we examined the single-length irons concept that is one of the many interesting aspects of Bryson DeChambeau's game:
Before we get overly excited about hot-shot amateur and can’t-miss pro prospect Bryson DeChambeau’s idea to make all his irons the same length, let’s remember this:
(a) The idea isn’t all that new.
(b) No, you can’t just take your current irons and install shafts that are the same length and be like Bryson.
(c) Though it has been tried before, the idea has not really achieved any commercial success. But with today’s hotter-face iron technology, we just might be a lot closer to the idea working for all golfers than we’ve ever been.
DeChambeau, the 2015 U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion, plays all his irons at sort of a 6-iron length (37.5 inches) and a constant weight (about 280 grams). It’s a custom Frankenstein-monster set with 124-gram Jumbo Max grips made for him by a small manufacturer more well known for its putters and wedges, Edel Golf. Traditionally, iron lengths change by about half an inch from one to the next, ranging from just under 36 inches on the wedges to about 39 inches or longer on the long irons. Head weights of the individual clubs also progressively increase from long irons to short irons, varying by as much as 60 grams from the heavier short irons to the lighter long irons (to better match the balance points with the changing shaft lengths). That’s why just converting all of your current irons to a 7-iron length would be a dog’s breakfast: Balance points, swing weights and lie angles would be all over the lot.
Originally patented in the 1970s, the single-length concept most recently failed in the retail market in the 1980s with the Tommy Armour E.Q.L. set. But DeChambeau’s success over the past year has rekindled interest in whether the clubs help to create a more consistent, efficient golf swing.
DeChambeau’s one-of-a-kind set isn’t for everyone (or frankly, anyone else on planet Earth), but Edel Golf founder and club savant David Edel is developing a fitting system for helping golfers find the proper single-length for your irons. (He even envisions simply 3-D printing each head once you finish with your fitting.) For now, though, the only single-length irons available are being offered by small clubmaking brands like Wishon Golf, Value Golf and 1 Iron Golf, which has been in the single-length game for nearly two decades.
The theory behind single length is consistency of motion: one ball position, one setup, one swing. The 1975 patent on the concept even states that single-length clubs “are advantageous in that the player can become skilled in a shorter time and to a greater degree in obtaining the control necessary to hit the golf ball squarely and with requisite impact.”
We all have the favorite iron in our set, and the belief of the single-length apostles is, why not have every club be built to that length? Wouldn’t we then have consistent contact with the center of the face for improved energy transfer? It might, but only if the iron heads are custom-weighted to a constant weight to go with their single length, something that in general is not done across the golf retail landscape.
“It’s going to take a revolution for this to fully take shape,” says Edel, DeChambeau’s equipment alchemist. “Basically it’s going to require fitting the ideal length and lie angle to every golfer.”
The question is whether the single-length set can produce the distance gaps that are seen in traditional, graduated-length iron sets. In traditional irons, the distance gapping from one iron to the next occurs through increasing swing speed (because of the iron’s longer arc), combined with the loft, as well as other hotter-face technologies. Also, in graduated-length sets, the irons get shorter the closer to the hole they’re going to be used, for enhanced precision.
In a single-length set the distance gaps occur through the change in loft and the changes in head weight. More mass in the long irons (relative to traditional iron sets) will transfer more energy to the ball; less mass in the short irons will reduce the force directed into the ball.
But single-length advocates say shaft length doesn’t have that effect. “Those half-inch gaps in traditional sets mean nothing to your distance,” says 1 Iron’s founder, David Lake, who believes single-length irons produce more repeatable distance gaps for all players. “When you start eliminating those variables of the stance, the timing, the ball position, the feel, the swing plane, that’s when golf actually starts to become a lot easier.”
Of course, across a range of lofts “easier” is a relative term. Though it seems likely that it might be somewhat easier to find the center of the face on a 4-iron built to a 7-iron length, it seems just as likely that a pitching wedge built to 7-iron length might produce the same kind of inconsistency you were hoping to eliminate in your long irons. In other words, there are compromises.
Theoretical modeling by independent golf-club scientist Dave Tutelman shows that single-length irons will produce consistent distance gaps, although at the lower lofts those distances do compress a little. Tutelman’s study notes that wider distance gaps (5 degrees between irons instead of the traditional 4) could yield more consistent gaps, especially between the lower lofts.
DeChambeau’s success and his budding career as a pro, which almost certainly will include an endorsement contract with a major equipment company, has made the idea of single-length irons a more viable concept among big equipment companies. Indeed, the idea is less far-fetched than it once was. (DeChambeau already has a set of single-length irons made exclusively for him by Cobra.) Because irons today can be easily designed in computers, getting the specs right for a heavier 4-iron or a lighter 9-iron is easier to achieve. More important, because there are more technologies available in iron design today that create more distance (thinner, more flexible faces, for example), designers could apportion out those features to create or temper distance in ways that don’t also require length changes.
“I can regulate the speed of the products to compensate for the constant length,” says TaylorMade’s chief technical officer, Benoit Vincent. “I don’t think you would have the optimum set with the optimum distance versus what we have today, but you can have the gaps.”
Vincent says as engineers have discovered how lower lofts can be designed to produce traditional iron trajectory heights with added distance, he suggests we’re closer to the middle of the bag being one length. Perhaps there will be only three to four different-length clubs from putter through driver. “You would of course have to design product specifically to make this idea work,” he says. “You would have to redo the set.”
Kirk Oguri, the Metropolitan Section PGA teacher of the year and a member of the staff at Pete’s Golf in Mineola, N.Y., a Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter, sees the benefits of single-length sets in limited ways. DeChambeau’s clubhead speed is well above PGA Tour average, and Oguri thinks high swing speed (north of 95 miles per hour with your 7-iron, for example) is a key to maintaining playable distance gaps in single-length irons.
Oguri likes single lengths for average and beginning golfers in certain sections of the bag, maybe two lengths of irons, a single length for the fairway woods and hybrids and another length for the driver. But even for beginners, if it could be made, a single-length set with fewer clubs might be a way to develop a repeating swing. “The reason it works is the head speed with every club is the same, and so the way the golfer delivers the golf club is very similar,” he says, eliminating some confusion that gets in the way of the simple act of hitting a ball with a club. “For example, you don’t end up having a lot of questions about ball position for a 7-iron versus an 8-iron.”
But for all the buzz DeChambeau has stirred up, no major manufacturer is making noise about introducing a single-length set just yet. Redesigning the set, in theory, is simple.
Its most recent proponent is the golf equipment business’s long-time resident mad scientist Tom Wishon. Wishon Golf’s Sterling set comes in several length options but is generally built to an 8-iron length spec.
The Sterling set, which includes either a 5-iron or 5-hybrid all the way through the pitching, gap and sand wedges, attacks the distance gapping issue on both ends of the set by giving the low-lofted irons a high spring-like effect design featuring a high-strength HS300 steel alloy face insert for increased distance. On the higher lofts, which are constructed from soft cast 8620 carbon steel, there are five degrees between each iron to produce more manageable distance gaps.
“The benefit is greater shot consistency, better performance and more on-center hit consistency, and especially better performance and consistency with your low loft clubs,” Wishon said, noting that a club length longer than 8-iron length can result in too much distance from the high-lofted irons.
“What we’ve done in the low-loft clubs is create a high-COR [spring-like effect] design to give you back some of the distance you might have lost. In the high loft clubs, we have soft cast carbon steel.”
But, especially for larger companies, creating models, shapes, face thicknesses, head weights and special shafts that enhance this effect is a commitment that is at least a little risky. Especially when its main motivation is a player whose career success thus far is not even equal to that of a young Ryan Moore.
Of course another decorated amateur had grand ideas about equipment back in his day, too. The first set of clubs designed by Bobby Jones for Spalding in 1930 featured irons with matched lengths in pairs within the set “so that one swing and one timing are correct for every club.” DeChambeau might see himself as an equipment visionary, but the fact is, his single-length set is a throwback, one that this time might just lead to a revolution.