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SPORTS EXTRA / SPECIAL SECTION: British Open

Bag Of Tricks

Newfangled Clubs Keep Popping Up, Promising (but Rarely Delivering) a Magical Cure for Your Game

July 15, 1999|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's see, there was the Adams Tight Lies.

Cha-ching.

"And there were some other three- and five-woods," Chuck Magnuson says.

Cha-ching.

"And some fairway irons, or one for the tee and one for the fairway."

Cha-ching.

And the Killer Bee.

Cha-ching.

"And the Big Bertha Callaway," Magnuson says.

"And a real whippy driver, because I hit every wood 200 yards and I wanted to hit it farther."

Cha-ching.

"And three putters."

Cha-ching.

Total: About $2,500, including a new set of irons that have Magnuson, a teacher at Esperanza High in Anaheim and a former football coach, playing in the 70s on his weekend, par-63, 112-degree-temperature course in Palm Desert.

Money spent on lessons: $0.

"I'm like a lot of people," he says. "Instead of paying for a lesson to correct what I do wrong, I see an infomercial and it's some kind of new club and I think it's the answer."

Sometimes it is.

Usually, it's simply another question.

It's money going out for the legion of Magnusons who play golf, and their situation isn't completely unlike the Payne Stewarts, Corey Pavins and Lee Janzens of the PGA Tour who play the game for a living. It's not that the professionals are sitting up late at night watching infomercials--more likely they're sitting up brooding over expensive missed putts--but that they switched clubs and didn't get the results they wanted.

In the case of Stewart, Pavin and Janzen and some others on the PGA Tour, they were paid to make the switch. They had won a major championship, which brought club endorsement opportunities. But they had won with one club, then were paid to play another and found they couldn't. Their games went in the general direction of Buenos Aires until they were able to resurrect them, either by going back to their old weapons or enduring until they could play the new ones.

Some never resurrect their games at all.

The answer, writes Johnny Miller in Golf Digest, is, "if you've got a set of clubs you hit well, hit them until they fall apart."

But what if you're still looking for that set?

Magnuson hasn't won anything bigger than an occasional $5 Nassau, and seldom that; and he hasn't really had clubs that worked for him and, so he's always on the lookout for something new.

He's the reason golf club companies are run by executives with their own planes.

With the constant, ongoing evolution of technology, club generations are beginning to approximate those of computers, and last year's clubs are as passe as plus-fours.

It's why people who are playing as well as they can with last year's clubs, or last decade's clubs, envision 91 turning into 81 when (insert golf club company name here) comes out with a bigger-better-and-a-yard-longer (insert catchy club name here) made out of space-shuttle metal, named for a high-soaring fowl and played by the guy who just won the XYZ Open on ABC.

Cha-ching.

And the 91 turns into 101.

"Sometimes you can hit it longer," said Roger Barber, a PGA professional at Griffith Park. "Sometimes you can hit it farther out of bounds."

Barber is an expert at club fitting, which is a science when you buy clubs in a golf shop but is usually a hit-and-miss proposition when you buy a weapon off the Golf Channel.

"I watch infomercials, and sometimes I just have to laugh," he said. "They all have spokespersons from the Senior Tour, the PGA Tour and now the LPGA Tour. What you see on the infomercial isn't what you see a lot on golf courses."

The pro swings the space-aged club and shots soar and you know that if you buy the stick, yours will soar too.

They will . . . if you hit them the way the pro does.

Most golfers don't.

They also don't return the clubs they've bought on the infomercial. Industry estimates show only about 4%-6% of respondents send back clubs that don't work for them, and it's a safe bet that 94%-96% of those who buy the sticks aren't getting lower scores using them.

And, lest anyone get the idea that club companies should switch to manufacturing razor blades, sometimes new sticks are just the ticket.

"Some people try everything," Barber said. "And I know some people who are traditionalists, who hang on to their clubs too long."

For all of his investment in woods, Magnuson continued to play irons of another age. Coincidentally, "they were Jerry Barber models," said Magnuson, who recently replaced them with some updated sticks.

The late Jerry Barber, who won the PGA Championship in 1961, is Roger Barber's father.

"I quit playing with steel shafts and started playing with graphite," Magnuson reports, adding that strokes have melted from his game as a result.

Or maybe for another reason.

"What I often see on the golf course is a lack of confidence," Barber says. "A player says, 'I can't hit that shot,' and then he can't."

And so new clubs can offer that confidence, for as long as it lasts. And when it wanes, more clubs for more money can offer more confidence.

But eventually, you have to hit the ball off the first tee.

Golf pros are in the business of teaching the game, but they're also in the business of selling equipment. Occasionally, Barber has told a player he didn't need the new clubs, that he needed new lessons.

But not often.

"A lot of people take that as a put-down," he said. "I'm not that coarse. You have to deal with the individual. . . . And I'm not going to argue with a customer."

If asked, though, he's going to advise lessons and practice.

"You know, I don't see a lot of people practicing any more," he said.

No, they're at home watching infomercials on the Golf Channel.

"You know, they were saying the other day that 46% of your shots are on the green," said Magnuson, pondering a new putter.

Cha-ching.

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