All your clubs require the proper, subtle attention to detail of a session with a qualified fitter, but there’s probably no area that is more challenging to get right than the vast space of uncertainty between your driver and your longest iron. That space can be filled with any number and combination of fairway woods, hybrids and utility irons, and given that each of these clubs are at the top of the list for most difficult to hit consistently, patience and an attentive fitter are paramount.
First, our fitters agree that getting your long game right means being open to possibilities. The best first step is to understand your functional distance gaps, said Craig Zimmerman at Oregon’s RedTail Golf Center. That means being honest about your iron performance, something that a launch monitor will tell you about your current set.
“Launch and spin play a big part in determining the longest iron you should play, and what fairways and/or hybrids you need,” he said. “Too many golfers are purchasing hybrids that are too strong in terms of loft, and they can’t launch and spin these clubs high enough to hit them consistently. Moreover, a lot of players would benefit from fairway woods versus hybrids.”
A cookie-cutter approach isn’t the best way to get the precise distance and trajectory you need from the hardest-to-hit clubs in the bag. Your needs need not match the club choices of the others in your foursome.
“A lot depends on both your strength and comfort.” said Dan Sueltz of D’Lance Golf in Colorado. “Stronger players can easily hit a single fairway wood and then a long hybrid followed by long irons. Players with less swing speed will be helped by playing more fairway woods. For example, that might be a 3-, 5- and 7-wood, followed by a 5- and 6-hybrid. That being said, some golfers do not feel comfortable hitting hybrids, so more fairway woods is a better option. Golfers with “sweeping” swings will be better off with more fairway woods than hybrids.”
Of course, unlike say with a driver, the right clubs aren’t just what the numbers on a launch monitor say. Be honest with yourself, says Woody Lashen of Pete’s Golf in New York.
“We can do this scientifically by looking at the launch conditions, but then we must take into account the player’s emotional state of mind,” he said. “A 7-wood might be the best club for you, but if you tell me, ‘I hate that,’ it’s got no chance. Also, you need to take into account what course you play the most. Let’s say there are par 3s or tight par-4s where you feel more comfortable hitting an iron with the ball teed up. An iron might work, but it might not work from that same distance in the fairway or rough off the ground. That might be the case where a utility-type iron would be a good middle ground.
“That shows you that those kind of clubs aren’t just for fast-swinging tour players. You could be a high handicap who can benefit from them, especially if you are high speed.”
Complicating matters further is that switching between irons and hybrids and fairway woods isn’t as simple as swapping a 6-iron for a 6-hybrid. While an iron might have the same number or the same loft as a hybrid or fairway wood, metalwoods provide more technology than irons to help increase maximum distance and average distance.
“Typically, no, because the faces are usually hotter, and the club is longer so you will swing it faster and hit it farther,” said Nick Sherburne of Club Champion.
It could easily be a full club’s worth of distance difference, said John Ioris of The Complete Golfer in New York.
“In my experience, a 21-degree hybrid will go farther than a 21-degree iron by as much as 10 yards. In addition, remember that one company’s ‘3-hybrid may have 21 to 22 degrees of loft, while another company’s 3-hybrid may have 18 to 19 degrees.”
There are options, but options can lead to confusion. The key is to go back to the original question, says Ryan Johnson of Carl’s Golfland in Michigan.
“Generally, as club head speed decreases, a higher lofted fairway wood will give them better overall performance than a lower lofted hybrid,” he said. “Too many players get caught up with the loft or the number on the bottom of the club. All that matters is the distance that you are trying to achieve.”
Before you go to a fitter and seek your next club, spend some time deciding how far you hit each club on average (realistically)—and where your biggest gaps might be. Then you'll be ready to make an educated purchase.