Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands

Hot List Extra

Should better players seek more forgiveness in their irons, too? A look at our Hot List data

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Should better players be looking at Game-Improvement irons like this Titleist T350 or are they getting enough forgiveness already with today's Players irons.

With the best tour players throwing a game-improvement iron in their bags, it got us thinking: Should everybody start opting for more forgiving irons, and specifically, is there any real reason for a regular golfer to game players irons?

First, let’s remember what players irons are for our purposes. In terms of how we produce the Hot List, players irons tend to be the most compact with little to no spring-like effect in the face. From a true forgiveness perspective, they generally don’t sport anywhere near the same degree of perimeter weighting as game-improvement irons so off-center hits likely aren’t going to fly as similar to center hits, certainly not compared to how off-center hits fly on game-improvement irons. From a retail marketplace perspective, game-improvement irons outsell players irons by a factor of five to one, based on Golf Datatech numbers. In reality, it’s probably even greater when you go down the range at any club or course in the country and look in people’s bags. Game-improvement irons just make the game easier.

Or so that’s what everybody would have you believe. What do our Hot List numbers say? It’s not that clear. Using our numbers from the Rapsodo MLM2 Pro launch monitor, which tracked every shot during testing for the 2024 Hot List, we compared the data on 7-iron shots from the two groups who hit both players irons and game-improvement irons, low-handicap and mid-handicap players. Our player testing results show that yes, as a whole, game-improvement irons carry farther than players irons. When we looked at the data, we saw an average distance gain for game-improvement irons over players irons of 6.1 yards, with some players seeing as much as a 16-yard edge in carry distance.

Case closed, game-improvement irons for the win, right? Not so fast, my friend. First, let’s remember that the average loft for a game-improvement 7-iron on this year’s Hot List was 28 degrees, five degrees stronger than the typical 7-iron loft for a players iron. Second, while game-improvement irons generally are designed with wider soles to help mitigate fat shots and provide a lower center of gravity for higher launch, we saw limited difference in how high these typical 7-irons were flying in either category. The average apex with a game-improvement 7-iron actually was a yard lower, even though the lofts were so much stronger. That’s a testament to the technology in game-improvement irons that pushes the center of gravity lower.

But surely the game-improvement irons reduced dispersion, no? Not really. Just as many of these better players in our test had tighter dispersion with the players irons as the game-improvement irons. Why would this be true? Well, if better players are used to a more compact players iron head, the larger heads of some game-improvement irons might actually be harder to square up at impact, leading to some offline misses.

Generally (and obviously), our players’ opinions were a little more one-sided. Game-improvement irons were as more forgiving, based on the typical vector ratings for Playability. That vector measures where a particular iron rates on a scale from “more workable” to “more forgiving.” It’s most likely because the larger size and wider soles on Game-Improvement irons exude confidence. You can hear that in some of the comments from our better players. For example, the word “forgiving” appears 121 times in our players comments for Game Improvement irons, or about twice as often as it appeared in the comments for Players irons. By contrast, the word “workable” appears half as often in Game Improvement irons as it does in Players irons.

It seems the difference in irons these days may have more to do with what the better golfer wants to see, both at address and with a particular ball flight. Frankly, it’s why elite professionals are adding game improvement irons to the long end of their bags. Like Brooks Koepka who has filled out his bag with an old Nike Vapor Fly Pro 3-iron or Will Zalatoris, who has added the Game-Improvement Titleist T350 as his 3-iron, prompting him to say, “It's like, ‘Yeah, I have a game-improvement iron in my bag.’ So what? I love that thing. It's my favorite club.”

Zalatoris’ set makeup is a lesson for better players. Certainly, one option, like he’s done, is to mix different kinds of irons in the set, adding more forgiving clubs in the 4-, 5- or even 6-iron slots. That means looking at Game-Improvement irons in those slots, as well as utility irons that are often hollow designs with thin faces for more ball speed and tunngsten weighting for increased launch.

The second option, is Players Distance irons, which has become the hottest category in the marketplace of the last decade. These irons combine the compact shape of Players irons with the extra spring and forgiveness of Game-Improvement irons. What our research ultimately should tell you is to keep an open mind when you head in for your next fitting. The right answer for your bag more often than not isn’t the one you expect.