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Equipment Q&A with Nike's Tom Stites: How the club goes through the dirt

July 08, 2011

The concept of game-improvement in irons now extends quite dramatically even into the area that we refer to as Players Irons in the Golf Digest Hot List. Few current designers have been involved with the development of the concept of game-improvement irons as long as Tom Stites, director of golf club creation for Nike Golf. Indeed, one of the first projects Stites worked on when he started with the Ben Hogan Company in the 1980s was the legendary Hogan Edge iron, the first truly game-improvement iron made by the company. It was launched with a memorable commercial that featured the 74-year-old, cardigan-wearing company namesake striping shots on the range at Riviera Country Club. The club was a hit and not just because of the commercial. It ushered in the idea that even the greatest ball-striker ever might one day seek a little assistance from his equipment. Stites believes that's true for every golfer today, and probably more than ever.

For this week's Equipment Q&A, we asked Stites to give us a better understanding of what "game improvement" means in irons for various types of players. Here, from our research for the NBC/Golf Digest Equipment Special, is some of his insight.

Golf Digest: Can you make "players irons" with "game improvement features? Tom Stites: For an elite player, someone that's really highly skilled, game improvement is a different thing, it's more about the trajectory of the golf ball, being able to control spin, being able to control the knock-downs, being able to score, and how the club goes through the dirt. That's one of the things Mr. Hogan talked about a lot, you know, how it engages the dirt. These players are usually at a little steeper angle than most of the amateur or less-skilled players and so those characteristics and specifications need to be understood. Like the centers of gravity are usually considerably higher in the blades themselves, so game improvement to these players is being able to make a specific kind of shot with the skill that they've been blessed with or trained themselves into.

GD: What levers can you pull to produce game-improvement for these players?Stites: Well to improve a better player's control on a blade=type golf club we can look at things like the specifications, like how the sole is ground, where the center of gravity is in terms of matching him in the right particular product, whether they play a slight game improvement, mini-cavity or a half-cavity or if they play a full blade. It's about giving them the ability to control trajectory. Being able to control that trajectory is a function of angle of attack, loft of the club, how it gets through the dirt and the center of gravity.

GD: How are the challenges different when you start designing for non-elite players?Stites: The magic of the game-improvement category for irons is the further I am away from the hole, the more I'm going to need help. I'm going to have to use some technology if i don't have a lot of skill to be able to control the trajectory and to get the ball solidly down range and land it soft. So the further I get from the hole, the more things like cavity back, high moments of inertia, low centers of gravity, all those kinds of things, become extremely important, especially in the long irons. They become less important the closer I get to the pitching wedge. Truth be known, most amateurs, well pretty much all amateurs, could play with a blade 8-iron because of the angle of attack. If they're hitting it anywhere close to properly, the angle of attack is so steep for the loft they're using and there's so much spin going on that the ball is relatively stable no matter where you hit it: toe, center, or heel. So there's very little efficiencies lost on short irons, very little need for a cavity and perimeter weighting. But the further you move toward the 5-iron, the 4-, the 3-, and the 2-irons, the more the game-improvement features of an iron can help average people that are missing it off-center. The cavity back game-improvement golf clubs will launch the ball higher, they'll also send it off with more speed when you miss out on the toe or the heel. Fat and thin. So game improvement's real important in the long irons, but it becomes less important as you get closer to the short irons.

GD: When you're talking about center of gravity, how can you move it to help improve launch conditions?Stites: The center of gravity is a three-dimensional function. It's not just up and down, it's toe and heel, and it's also front to back, so the further back we can put it, the more that golf club tries to naturally squat down at impact and launch the ball higher with a lower spin rate. The other is that by moving it back away from the face, the club becomes more stable so that when you hit off center, the toe and heel hits add more energy to the shot. It's a function of the club design itself, how wide's the sole, how tall the face is, how long the club is from toe to heel, and it's also where that center of gravity is. If the designer has positioned the center of gravity further back from the face, he's helped the fitter or the person selling the club help people get the ball up in the air in a way that they couldn't do with a blade or just a semi-improvement golf club. It's the same reason we made drivers real wide front to back a few years ago. That makes the clubs more stable. Everybody in the industry has adopted that kind of philosophy in their drivers, and the same thing can be applied to irons.

GD: It seems you're talking about some precise refinements.Stites: Golf clubs today are functionally more accurate because of the manufacturing techniques that are available to us today than were ten years ago and certainly 25 years ago when i started my career in club design. It's really become the golden age of golf clubs because of how we can control the process of manufacturing and limit variability. We're just not grinding off as much by hand, so everything's quite a bit better in terms of the game improvement aspects and how we're able to adjust things in three dimensions. The VR Pro Combo Forged iron that we just recently introduced. That was an idea that we actually wanted to put into the original Pro Combo.  If we could move the center of gravity back off the face, then we wouldn't have to make as large a profile. So with the new pro-combo, being able to put that pocket in it, we were able to move the center of gravity back so the club plays like it's larger and it's actually a smaller head and it matches the rest of the set much better. It's typical. Ideas kind of sit around and percolate for a few years until the technology comes along. You know, five years ago to be able to do this kind of forging technique and weld the faces on with lasers wasn't even something we could have imagined. So today is a better day to buy a golf club than it was 10 years ago.