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New golf club or a better swing? When it should and shouldn’t be a choice

A good clubfitter knows when to work with what you have, and when you need different help

Suppose you have a friend whose golf swing is less than perfect. The friend is working hard on his swing, but he’s also intrigued by some of the shiny new drivers that are rolling out around now. Should the friend work on getting better first? Or just get the new driver?

Now imagine the friend is me, because, well, this is actually about me. I should have been up front. But it could easily be you, too. Every year around this time golfers are thinking about upgrades. They might be intent on making improvements to their technique, but they also believe a simple answer could be found in new gear.

This is me. I’ve written recently that I’ve spent the last few months working on increasing my clubhead speed, yet I also can’t help wondering if a better club in my hands would make a difference as well. Later this month, the Golf Digest Hot List debuts with its ratings of the best new clubs on the market, and in a fit of excitement, I made an appointment with a clubfitter to test out a few new drivers.

But therein lies a new dilemma: If I’m still a work in progress, should I be getting fit for the swing I have, or the swing I want? It’s a loaded question, so I turned to Chris Marchini, director of golf experience at Golf Galaxy for an answer.

You probably don’t need to choose between new equipment and practice

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The first thing Marchini noted in our conversation is this is rarely a binary choice. As much as we’ve internally tried to fuel a rivalry at Golf Digest between our instruction editors and our equipment editors—rooted for years in who deserved more pages in the magazine—Marchini said a clubfitting process should ideally be done in tandem with whatever you’re working on.

“If someone comes in for a fitting, part of the interview is, ‘Are you in the middle of instruction right now? And if you are, what's the biggest thing you're working on?’” Marchini said. “If it's something bigger that the player is trying to accomplish, I have to know if I'm sending golf clubs that are going to work with that process versus counteracting that process.”

Most swing changes are on a continuum, and generally subtle. As Marchini noted, it is rare that someone who goes for a fitting with a 15-yard slice is going to progress to having a 15-yard draw. In my case, I’ve recognized that my attack angle with a driver is too steep, which means I’m hitting down on the ball too much, and that leads to too much spin costing me distance.

The worst-case scenario? My swing never gets any better, but I get fit for a driver and shaft that helps accommodate my worst tendencies. What I’m really hoping for, though, is my new-fitting driver helps me now, and will continue to work as my swing gets more efficient.

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“The cool thing is the equipment you have likely can be adjusted,” Marchini said, referring to the dozens of different setting options that come with most woods.

When it’s NOT time for a fitting

Granted, there are always exceptions. Marchini said any worthwhile fitter will know when a player is ready to be matched with the right gear, and when they need some work first. A red flag is when a player can’t make enough consistent face contact with the ball to give the fitter reliable feedback to work with.

“In my own head, if I feel in any way during a fitting that I am putting a band-aid on something that a professional can improve, I’m not going to do the fitting,” he said.

I’ve experienced how valuable this guidance can be, albeit with a different club. A few years ago my son Charlie had saved up enough money from caddying to see a fitter about a new putter, so we visited with Gabe Carr-Harris in Connecticut, to match Charlie with the right one. Within minutes, however, Gabe noted that Charlie’s eyes weren’t over the ball, which led to an erratic stroke. Rather than push forward with the best putter at the time, Gabe suggested Charlie first invest $35 in a putting mirror, and work on getting his eyes over the ball. Two months later, having worked to achieve a much more consistent setup, Charlie was really ready for the right flatstick.

A good fitter will tell you what you really need

There’s another consideration here, which is that even as the guy who lugs my 14 clubs around, I’m not necessarily qualified to determine what I really need. I think I want a new driver, but it’s also possible my current driver isn’t as glaring an issue as elsewhere. Marchini cited the recent story of Jon Rahm lamenting his putting, when a closer analysis revealed it was his wedges that were leaving him with putts he couldn’t consistently make. And that’s Jon Rahm. Most of us are on a tighter budget.

“I don't care what aspect of the bag I'm fitting you for, I want the entire bag in front of me,” Marchini said. “Because the dialogue gets opened up. There's a lot of golfers that think they know where their big opportunities are and it turns out it's another area of the bag.”

Back to me, it turned out my suspicions were confirmed. I went to Paul Ferrone at Downtown Golf in Stamford, Conn., one of Golf Digest’s Best Clubfitters, and we both saw how my current driver, while often keeping me in the fairway, was also not best at reducing my spin. I tested a bunch of the new drivers—spoiler alert: they’re all amazing—and some different shafts for my ball flight and ultimately arrived at what I feel any golfer can be happy with: my decent swings led to pretty good results, and my best swings were longer and straighter drives than I’ve ever known.

If I want more of the latter, I better keep working.