Golf equipment truths: Iron faces are nearly as fast as a driver’s. Here's why

Photo illustration by Mark Hooper

We are lucky to have two of the most knowledgable golf gearheads in our office. And they are sharing their golf equipment knowledge with you. Golf Digest's equipment editors, Mike Stachura and E. Michael Johnson, have covered the golf equipment business for decades, and there are few who know the equipment industry better. We've asked them to answer your questions in a weekly equipment round-up. Tweet them any equipment questions you have, and they might answer your questions next week. (Click here or here to ask them a question.)

Drivers are hit at most 14 times a round while irons are hit 40+ times a round. Plus the average golfer hits less than 20 percent of their greens in regulation. So why not a bigger effort to create more forgiving, longer irons? —@TedWilliams2017

Ahh, the Splendid Splinter, back from cryonics, good to hear from you. Perhaps the fact that you’ve been in the deep freeze for a couple decades might explain your mistaken understanding of the current golf club technology landscape. The good news is the technology in irons is vastly improved over the past 15 years, sort of like how baseball bats are better now that they’re not made of wood anymore. Of course, the primary reason for better iron designs is that much of the same technologies that have made drivers so awesome have found their ways into irons. Super thin faces? Check. Variable face thicknesses? Check. Multiple materials and dramatic weight savings that allow for a lower center of gravity and higher flight? Check and double check. Those technologies came to drivers first, because, well, as has been said, chicks dig the long ball. But secondly, it’s a lot easier to work within the structure of a hollow, 460-cubic-centimeter, pie-plate-faced driver than it is in the oddly asymmetrical shape of an iron. But that hasn’t stopped progress in irons.

We just finished at looking at more than 70 irons for the 2020 Hot List, and we’d guess that at least 95 percent of them have faster faces than they did as little as two years ago. Today, there are a whole bunch of irons with springlike effect very near or in some cases exceeding that of drivers. (OK, technically, no face can violate the springlike effect rules. But some irons are getting pretty spicy hot these days.) Here’s another key point, not only are irons hotter today, it’s easier to make them fly higher, too. In one of our recent tests, we found that not only did new 7-irons go farther than 6-irons from a decade ago, they flew as higher or higher than many of those old 7-irons, too. Even comparing 7-irons from just a handful of years ago, we saw sometimes as much as a 20-yard distance advantage and on average a three-yard gain in carry distance on mis-hits and two yards higher flight. In short, today's irons are longer with better stopping power. And we haven’t even begun to address the advancements in hybrids or even utility irons that make your old long irons not even worth saving, cryonically or any other way you might choose.

Someone explain to me why lofts have been evolving and getting stronger. Or as Brandel Chamblee calls it, "loft creep." I’m guessing guys can dial these clubs in and hit all sorts of trajectories high/low/mid even with the stronger lofts and the distance gained is coveted. —@WeekendHack_YT

Dear Hack: Some of this is about physics and some of this is about business. First, the latter: If you want to sell clubs these days, particularly irons, you have to have technology that generates ball speed that shows up on a launch monitor. More ball speed means more distance. Of course, the easiest and fastest way to generate ball speed is not some super thin, heat-treated magic steel alloy. It’s by making your 7-iron stronger lofted than someone else’s. We’ve even heard some manufacturers have taken to retool their demo clubs to a stronger loft than their standard just so they can better compete with other companies’ lower lofts. Messy, of course, when the 7-iron you got fit for in the shop is longer than the 7-iron that you actually buy, but that’s why you should ask an extra question or two about the lofts of the irons you’re testing. Not all 7-irons are, well, 7-irons.

Still, there also is some serious physics happening here. As club technologies have allowed for the center of gravity to get lower (leading in some cases to higher launch), an iron can then be designed with a stronger loft that takes advantage of that higher launch. Faster ball speed with the same or higher launch means more distance and a better landing trajectory. That’s why when you start seriously testing potential new irons, don’t just look at distance. Use the modern technology of a launch monitor to assess those landing angles. Ideally, you want your shots to have a landing angle of more than 45 degrees for best performance coming into a green. The one problem with these stronger lofts in your middle irons: Bad distance gaps in your short irons. If the set you’re eyeballing features a pitching wedge with less than 45 degrees of loft, our recommendation is to add another wedge every 4-5 degrees. The more full swings you can make at the short end of the set, the more scoring you’ll be doing with the scoring clubs.

If I’m measured at a D3 swingweight for a driver, should I apply that same weight to all clubs I buy? —@NBMH1

Although it certainly would seem logical that you would want all of your clubs to effectively feel the same as you swing them, fact is, from doing dozens of What’s In My Bags with tour pros for Golf Digest, we’ve seen it both ways. Some players like to keep all their swingweights the same (although sand and lob wedges tend to have a heavier swingweight), while some have numerous different swingweights with their clubs. Tony Finau, for instance, is D-6+ in his driver and D-4 in his fairway wood, although they rarely vary widely. So although consistency is generally a good thing, it’s not an absolute. If it feels good to you when you’re swinging it, there’s probably not much need to mess around with it.

Have the changes in wedge grooves in the last six years made a significant difference? —@cfkuon

Actually, the new regulations on grooves went into effect in 2010, so it has been almost 10 years that wedge designers have been working within the new framework. It’s interesting that back then the rule was viewed as spin Armageddon. Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington started using original Ping Eye2 lob wedges because its grooves were grandfathered in and Stewart Cink even went so far as to practice with duct tape on the face of his wedges, feeling that would be the equivalent of the new, less-aggressive grooves. But club designers are smart people and as many of them will tell you, while they don’t like to have design within a box, a new rule always provides an opportunity to best figure out how to design within it. That’s what has happened here. Today golfers still apply plenty of spin to the ball and can hit pretty much all the shots they need to. Designers have explored areas such as edge radius and surface roughness, making designs with more grooves closer together and ones that even employ a half-groove on the bottom of the face to squeeze out as many revolutions per minute of spin they can. A significant difference? That might actually be an understatement.