OCEANSIDE, Calif. — "If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” I’ve heard people say that before, but I’ve never quite believed it when they do. That is, until I met Bob Vokey.
On this particular day, the legendary club maker has spent more than three hours with me, much of which involved him being forced to watch my golf swing, and yet he’s beaming just as much after as he was when I first showed up to the Titleist Performance Institute for the eponymous Bob Vokey Tour Experience. It should be noted that I’m beaming too. Time flies when you’re having fun—and being fitted by a master craftsman. The same hands that have helped create short-game magic for everyone from Trevino to Tiger and Phil in between would now be working on a set of wedges for this weekend hacker.
For years, I’ve played off-the-rack Vokey wedges, but now, I’ll play actual VOKEY wedges. I tried to explain to my wife that this would be like wearing a dress hand sewn by Gianni Versace. Only much more useful. After all, how many times can you wear a dress?
Wedges, on the other hand, are essential tools for golfers. Tools that Vokey argues are undervalued and underutilized by the average player.
"Think about how many greens are you going to miss in a round,” he reasons. "You’ve got a lot of opportunities to get up and down. A lot of players don’t have the physical ability to hit it 300 yards, but they have the physical ability to hit any shot from inside 120 yards. They’ve got the bat speed, they can do it.”
Vokey gives this pep talk/lecture in a room off to the side of one of his workstations. I learn more about bounce—the angle between the leading and trailing edge—and grind, which is how the sole is shaped to interact with the turf. I’m also introduced to camber, which is the amount of curve in the sole, as Vokey goes through a display of different options represented by a dozen wedges lying on a table.
"I make what the players want,” Vokey says flatly. "It’s not rocket science.” But it seems that way as he riffs through different grinds he’s developed through the years, who and when they were put in play. He notes that technology changes in wedges as fast as it does in drivers. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, Vokey quickly reassures me.
“You don’t find the grind,” he says. “The grind finds you.”
And tour pros find him. When Vokey attends tournaments, he is the undisputed most popular man on the driving range. Justin Thomas even had Vokey’s signature stamped onto his wedges as a tribute to the wedge wizard ahead of this year’s Masters.
“It’s nice,” Vokey says with a laugh when asked about his reputation. “I’ve got the best job. I give things away!” Well, to tour pros, that is. A private audience with the man who has literally had a hand in countless major championships isn’t cheap. The price of the Vokey Experience is an eye-opening $2,400. But that includes your time with the affable “Voke” as he’s called as well as a set of four wedges built specifically for you that can be customized down to color of label and stamping.
As the name of this process conveys, you are also paying for the experience—and it’s a unique one at that. After all, these sessions are essentially what Vokey goes through with the best players in the world, and because of his high demand, they’re tough to come by. As of late June, the next available time slot is in mid-August.
Of course, Vokey hasn’t always been the go-to guy on the range even if it’s seemed that way the past four decades. After developing a passion for club making from his father, Walter, a tool and die maker, Bob worked his way up by developing the trust of guys like Lee Trevino and Lanny Wadkins. He remembers taking long drives to Palms Springs in a beat-up Datsun that racked up nearly 300,000 miles to hand deliver Trevino clubs.
“Trevino would say, 'That piece of shit made it over the mountains?!’” Vokey says. "Never forget your beginnings. I ate franks and beans and slept in a sleeping bag in my shop.”
His shop has grown considerably since then. Vokey began his club making career in nearby Fallbrook then made stops at TaylorMade and Adams before landing at Titleist in 1996. It was there where he started specializing in wedges, an area of equipment he felt wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.
“This is low-hanging fruit,” Vokey reasons. “It’s the easiest way to shave a couple of strokes off someone else’s game.”
After our initial show-and-tell lesson, it’s time to go outside to the real classroom, a beautiful grass range that is an oasis in an industrial park. I hit wedge after wedge as Vokey and Titleist senior club fitting analyst Lucas Bro watch where the shots go, but more importantly, they're looking at things like my swing path and how I’m digging into the turf on a monitor.
Every few swings I’m handed a new or tweaked club as we test different grinds, shafts, and bounces. The process isn’t dissimilar to the couple of club fittings I’ve had in the past except for the tranquil surroundings. And, of course, the fact I'm being observed by one of the most famous club makers in history. Actually, I thought it would be more nerve-wracking to hit shots in front of a man who has made 40 percent of the wedges in play on the PGA Tour, but he quickly puts you at ease.
“I’m the highest-paid club washer around!” he exclaims while wiping a wedge down in between shots. His energy remains endearing and infectious as he nears his 80th birthday in July.
After helping me to dial in full-shot distances ("We're in charge of North-South, you're in charge of East-West," they continuously tell me), we move to different locations to try a variety of short-game shots to practice greens. For someone who sometimes wishes all golf courses were pitch-and-putts, this is a dream.
I’m most excited to fine-tune the specs on a 60-degree, my favorite and best club to the point I (half) jokingly refer to myself as “Mr. 60” around the Golf Digest office. I don't share that nickname with Vokey because if anyone deserves to be called that, it's Bob. Or should I refer to him as Sr. 60? In any event, I’m flattered that he is impressed with how I wield the club. OK, so he's probably just being his usual nice-guy self, however, I did become the first person to hole a 40-yard pitch shot from a certain location. For any “hole-in-one,” Voke gives you a signed golf ball commemorating the shot, and as someone still searching for a real ace, you can bet I display that proudly in the office. Mr. 60, indeed.
Vokey is also proud of his work, but he says he’s never made a product he didn’t think he could improve, and that includes the wedges Tiger Woods used to win the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. When Vokey saw him the following month at St. Andrews, where Woods would win by eight, he asked how the clubs had worked out. “Did you see how I played at Pebble?!” Woods retorted.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out so well. And Vokey lives and breathes with the short-game performances of his big-named clients.
“I’ve seen some shots pulled off and I’ve seen some shots missed,” says Vokey who remembers nice notes from Jimmy Walker following a holed bunker shot that led to his 2016 PGA Championship title and Bill Haas after that miracle recovery shot from East Lake at the 2011 Tour Championship. "That’s why I don’t like watching. If a guy leaves one in a bunker I know I might be getting a call on Monday morning.”
But usually, he receives nice calls—or requests. During our time together Scott Hoch is peppering him about making him a new set of wedges. Get in line, Scott. It’s my turn. And this turn doesn’t just involve a little bounce and grind. Both Bob and Lucas are giving me tips on how to play certain shots—especially after I tell them I exclusively use my 60-degree around the greens.
"You’ve got three or four wedges in your bag,” reasons Vokey, who also notes that 18-handicappers (I'm a 6) shouldn't even own a lob wedge. “Use them all. Don’t get hung up on using one all the time.”
The two have me experimenting with different ball positions, opening up the face more, and trying to control my trajectory. “It’s not a golf lesson,” insists Lucas, ”it’s an engineering lesson.” Whatever you want to call it, I’m enjoying it. I’m also enjoying Vokey’s tour stories, which aren’t all fit to print, but collectively are worth the price of that $2,400 admission alone.
I can report that Tiger used to always switch all his wedges out before each major because “he wanted fresh teeth.” Fitting. Vokey relays that all tour pros have their idiosyncrasies, but Bernhard Langer is the most finicky tour pro with which Vokey has ever worked. And he also shares that things really took off for his brand as a wedge guru after making his first Spinmill model for Phil Mickelson for the Battle of the Bridges in 2003. Voke had intended the club that had been specially cut with a little saw by a toolmaker he knew in San Marcos to be a one-off, but then Phil blabbed about it. "That opened up a can of worms," Vokey recalls. "I was surrounded at the PGA two weeks later."
Vokey doesn't have to worry about my short game creating the same type of buzz, but after getting my new set of SM7 wedges—the latest incarnation of Vokey's ever-evolving line—sent to me a couple months later, I couldn’t wait to give them a whirl. Well, after I got over the feeling that by using them I’d be defacing works of art. I took advantage of the stamping option with a silly hashtags like “TMT” for “Too much talent,” something my friends say when a ball spins too much and, of course, "Mr. 60" on my 60-degree. But I pretty much left the rest up to Vokey. After all, this is a man who has been making wands for short-game magicians like Seve Ballesteros since before I was born. In Bob I trust.
The results in my first round were just as pleasing as opening that box. On my sixth hole, a flop shot to tap-in range even prompted a few shouts of “Vokey!” from my buddies. Like when performing any activity, confidence helps, and that’s exactly what I’ve been given with high bounces that let me dig into the turf better after a particularly wet spring in the northeast. I feel like I've unlocked a video game cheat code thanks to this
I’m also taking Voke’s advice and diversifying my portfolio of shots around the green. I’m using the high bounce on my 60 more instead of trying to pick shots cleanly. I’ve switched to using the 56 exclusively out of bunkers and opening it up when needed. I’m also using my TMT club on chips and pitches that require more roll, while finding my range for full shots with the 48 and 52 that I used to try to manufacture with my pitching wedge. The experimenting is fun, but most importantly, it’s effective.
In just the second round with my new favorite toys, I slide my 60 under a shot from a downhill lie in the rough. The ball pops softly into the air and onto the green, rolling out just the right amount to hit the center of the flagstick and drop into the cup. The shot provides a thrilling finish to an otherwise forgettable day and as I grin from ear to ear, I can’t help but think that I wish Voke could have seen it. The real Mr. 60 would have been even happier.