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Fitting to a Tee

It might be an imperfect science, but it should produce better results than buying off the rack

June 12, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

The man peered out from behind his glasses, looking up from a piece of paper, and spoke in English, but it didn't really make much sense.

"The lie and loft angles are OK," he said. "But the launch angle is a little high, the spin rate is high, the shafts are too stiff and the grip is too small."


It's called custom-fitting golf clubs, a once simple process that has evolved into a complex, high-tech science. Launch monitors and swing analyzers have replaced tape measures and swing-speed radar guns as the tools of the trade, helping fine-tune club specifications.

Professional golfers very familiar with their swings demand equipment specifically matched to their swings and benefit greatly. The question is, how much of a difference will custom clubs make to a 15-handicapper?

"It becomes almost more important," said Roger Gunn, director of instruction at Tierra Rejada Golf Club in Moorpark and the 2000 Southern California PGA club fitter of the year. "The key is to reward golfers when they make good swings, but if your clubs don't fit, you won't get rewarded. That will encourage swing manipulations and bad habits."

Proper club fitting can shave four or five shots from the average golfer's handicap, Dunn said, and it can add 20 to 30 yards on driver distance. But those searching for an instant cure to their swing woes might be in for a surprise.

"You have to recognize that you still have to swing the club," said Frank Thomas, former technical director for the U.S. Golf Assn. "Having the right tool is a great help, but a lesson or two would do a bit of good too. And there's no question the lesson is more important. The right tool is not going to make a good swing."

Custom club fitting used to involve a golfer standing with arms hanging to the sides and measuring the distance between palm and the ground to determine proper lie and loft angles, then clocking swing speed to determine proper shaft flex.

A tall player with a fast swing would need clubs upright and with stiff shafts, according to then-accepted industry standards. Dynamic fitting, during which the golfer hits balls, is quickly replacing those antiquated methods.

"It's like measuring somebody's height at 6 feet and telling them they need a 42 regular suit," said Jerry Elwell, a member of the high-tech fitting team at Max Out Golf in Woodland Hills. "You can't determine if it will fit by those measurements. You have to try on the suit. The same with golf clubs."

The key is getting a proper fitting. Chris Ciketic, 32, a 15-handicapper from North Hollywood, has been looking for new irons and has been to two fittings.

At a retail shop, they told him he needed clubs an inch longer than standard and four degrees upright. At a golf course pro shop, they said he needed standard-length shafts and two degrees upright.

"I wish there was a set way to do it," said Ciketic, who has yet to buy the clubs. "Plus, I don't know how much of a difference it's going to make anyway. My swing is never the same from round to round."

That's not an issue, says Gunn. He has fit beginning golfers, then watched as they practiced and improved their swings. After vast improvement, they want to be fitted again for their "new" swing.

"Their specs hardly change at all," he said. "They stay pretty consistent."

The bigger problem, Gunn said, is in the fitting process. In this era of technological advance, simply getting measured is not enough. Both of the fittings Ciketic went to were static fittings.

"You can't really do an effective static fitting," Gunn said. "It doesn't quite work that way."

Max Out Golf, with its collection of launch monitors, shaft flex monitors and video analysis, is revolutionizing the dynamic fitting process with its array of scientific equipment.

Players are put through a series of tests, all of which involve hitting balls. Golfers hit balls with different clubs, shafts, lie angles, grip sizes and launch angles, each change measured on machines similar to those used by pros. They also switch balls to determine the one best suited to their swings.

"People always see that the pros are using this driver and that ball and automatically think that must be the best stuff," Elwell said. "Well, it might be for one person, but not for another. In reality, most 15-handicappers don't have enough spin off their clubs to benefit from the Pro-V1. They're losing distance by using it."

The clubs sold in retail shops and pro shops are mass-produced without standards for lie angles or shaft flex.

For instance, the lie angle of a Ping five-iron might be two degrees different from a Cleveland five-iron. The stiff shaft on a Taylor Made driver could be an inch longer and equivalent to an extra-stiff on a Titleist.

"When you buy clubs off the rack, you don't know what you're getting," Elwell said. "We had one guy come in with a stiff shaft and we tested it. It measured out to the equivalent of a ladies' regular flex."

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