April 14, 2009

Spring Equipment Preview

From adjustable drivers to 'flow sets' designed for slow swing speeds, the latest women's clubs incorporate technology like never before

TOUR EDGE MODA CHOCOLATE GOLD OTHERS TO CONSIDER: Adams Idea a3OS, Callaway Gems, Cleveland Bloom, Mizuno Sora, Nicklaus Lady Compri HL, Ping Rhapsody, TaylorMade Miscela

TOUR EDGE MODA CHOCOLATE GOLD

OTHERS TO CONSIDER: Adams Idea a3OS, Callaway Gems, Cleveland Bloom, Mizuno Sora, Nicklaus Lady Compri HL, Ping Rhapsody, TaylorMade Miscela

High-tech golf equipment used to be a man's world. Until a few years ago, manufacturers might have put a token L-flex shaft in the same clubhead they offered men and called it a "ladies" model, but that was the extent of the effort to serve female golfers. Fortunately, it's different now. To capitalize on the increasing number of women who play the game, clubmakers are finally introducing women's products designed for body types, swing styles and clubhead speeds that differ from the average male's. These new clubs will help female players of all abilities score better and enjoy the game more.

FLOW SETS

Forget the traditional set of three woods, eight irons, two wedges and a putter. After researching the way women play, clubmakers discovered that the average woman's swing speed is significantly slower than the average man's. This means she needs fewer clubs with bigger loft gaps to achieve a discernible difference in distance between each club. That's why most companies offer "flow sets," which consist of eight to 13 clubs that transition seamlessly from driver to fairway woods to hybrids to short irons. Examples include the Moda Chocolate Gold set from Tour Edge ($600 for 11 clubs and a bag; touredge.com). Many women need help launching the ball high to gain distance. Flow sets have shafts that are softer toward the tip and clubheads with wide soles and low centers of gravity. These advances in design add up to a significant improvement in performance, and you don't have to carry around a lot of clubs you never use.

TIP / CHOOSE THE RIGHT MAKEUP

Each flow set is different, so it's important to determine which set makeup works best for your game. Do you have a shallow swing? Then try a set with several low-profile fairway woods, such as the Ping Rhapsody. Do you hit down on the ball? A set with multiple deep-face hybrids, like the Adams Idea a3OS, might work best. In addition, the slower your clubhead speed, the fewer clubs you need. If you're a faster swinger (more than 60 miles per hour with the driver), go with 13-club versions of sets like the Adams Idea a3OS or Cleveland Bloom. If you're below 60 mph, stick to eight- or nine-piece sets, such as the Callaway Gems and Nicklaus Lady Compri HL. If you don't know your swing speed, visit a golf shop to find out.

DRIVERS

The latest women's drivers, like the TaylorMade Burner '09 ($300; taylormadegolf.com), have loft angles that typically reach 15 degrees (similar to those of traditional 3-woods) and large, lightweight heads with internal or external weights strategically placed to lower the center of gravity. These clubs are designed to let players with even the slowest swing speeds get the ball up faster and help it stay in the air longer. Highly flexible shafts add clubhead speed and distance, and geometrically driven head shapes--squares, pentagons, triangles--are designed to improve the club's moment of inertia (resistance to twisting on off-center hits). This increases stability, which will help make your mis-hits go almost as far as your center strikes. Plus, thanks to advances in adjustable heads and shafts, some models offer tinkerers the ability to change the characteristics of their drivers from round to round.

These clubs are designed to get the ball up quicker and help it stay in the air.'

TIP / GET FITTED

The most significant trend in drivers--for men and women--is getting fitted on a launch monitor. High-speed computers that measure clubhead speed, attack angle, ball spin, launch angle and distance used to be reserved for tour players. Now they're part of the regular fitting process at most golf shops. In a matter of seconds, a launch monitor can give you and your clubfitter specific information on every swing you make, taking the guesswork out of deciding which driver will work best for you. Some retailers charge as much as $50 for a high-tech fitting, but the cost could be worth it in the long run. Because most of today's drivers are available in a range of lofts, face angles, shaft flexes, lengths and grips, it's important to go through this diagnostic process. You'll improve your chances of finding a driver that'll allow you to play your best.

HYBRIDS

These one-time novelty clubsessentially iron/fairway wood combos have almost made long irons obsolete and are close to doing the same to middle irons among amateurs. For good reason. From any type of lie, hybrids are infinitely easier to hit than their equivalent irons, thanks to their wider, more rounded soles, low centers of gravity and offset faces that help minimize slicing. These utility clubs have been embraced by golfers of all skill levels (at least 150 hybrids are in play each week on the LPGA Tour), and some companies offer them throughout the bag, all the way down to the 8-iron. The latest models, such as the Adams Idea Tech a4OS ($170; adamsgolf.com), have thin clubhead walls to allow more weight to be moved low and deep inside the head. This helps you hit the ball high and stop it quickly, even from long distances.

From any type of lie, hybrids are infinitely easier to hit than their equivalent irons.'

TIP / SWITCH WITH CARE

There's no standard for what number hybrid replaces what number iron or fairway wood. Don't assume a 3-hybrid will take the place of your 3-iron, even if both clubs are the same brand. The key is to end up with consistent distance gaps throughout your set. So before you buy new hybrids, take your bag to the range and estimate the average carry distance of all your clubs. Determine where your distance gaps are and which clubs you'd like to replace. If you want to exchange your 9-wood and 4- and 5-irons for hybrids, note the carry distances of your 7-wood and 6-iron. When getting fitted for hybrids, make sure the carry distance of the clubs you purchase, no matter what number hybrid they are, fit evenly into the gap created between the 7-wood and the 6-iron.

IRONS

All golfers are not created equal, and although women with fast swing speeds are in the minority, they need different equipment than women with slow swing speeds. The good news is that the female versions of "men's irons" have improved significantly in recent years. And because each club can be purchased separately, you can mix and match the irons with hybrids and fairway woods. Design advances like wider clubheads, deeper cavities, thinner clubfaces and vibration-dampening back inserts allow you to blend height and forgiveness, even on off-center hits, with soft feel and the ability to shape shots, like with Callaway's X-22 iron ($113 per club; callawaygolf.com). And the sophisticated interchangeable-shaft fitting systems available to men and women allow each club to be tailored to your swing in a way it never could before.

Today's irons blend forgiveness with soft feel and the ability to shape shots.'

TIP / TAKE THE TEST

The proper way to buy a new set of irons is to test numerous demo clubs--preferably on the range and course--narrow your choices and pinpoint the model that performs the best for you. Most off-course retail shops will let you test demo clubs in indoor hitting bays. Begin the process by testing 6- or 7-irons of as many brands and models as possible. You can still get a sense of the feel and performance of a club indoors, and this will allow you to eliminate many brands. Once you have chosen two or three finalists, ask if you can take the clubs to a range or course. Many retailers will allow you to do this for a small fee. Hit the clubs one after another to get an idea of ball flight, shot shape and distance, then make your choice. As you'll notice when you go through this process, there are significant performance differences in today's clubs, and what works for your friends might not work for you.