By Chris Nickel
Archilochus said “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Sometimes you want a fox and sometimes you want a hedgehog. Sometimes you’re not sure, so you want them both!
Golfers of all levels have long struggled with what exactly to do with the long-iron conundrum. There is an inevitable transition from woods to irons, but for anyone not named Tiger, Rory or Jack, there has not been a consistent answer.
Even more limiting were the choices… It was basically a 2 iron or 5 wood; or the choice between looking like a “player” and looking like someone who couldn’t hit a 2 iron. Essentially, you did not bag a fairway wood beyond a 3 wood unless you did not have the ability to hit a long iron. If fact, during the Nicklaus and Palmer era, players carried 1 and 2 irons almost exclusively.
Tour pros of today, however, have the benefit of rotating multiple clubs in and out of their 14-club lineup depending on the set up of a particular course. You’ve seen Tiger and Rory win majors with 5-woods in the bag and you’ve also seen Tiger dissect a British Open course relying heavily on long irons. Pros don’t need a “do everything” tool like a spork, when they can simply choose a spoon or a fork depending on the situation. However, for the average golfer, this golf club roulette is a cost prohibitive tactic.
Even better for the touring professional is that all of the options cost exactly the same: nothing. Pros can add a club, drop a club, swap shafts, regrip and it’s all on the house. Some courses play firm and fast and place a premium of placing tee balls in the fairway (think Oakland Hills, Baltusrol and the Lake Course at Olympic Club). In this situation, a 2-iron makes it easier for a player to shape shots from right-to-left or left-to-right. But is very difficult to hit a long iron extremely high, and therefore hold firm greens. A tour player is more likely to find a long par-3 or a reachable par-5, both of which might call for a high, soft approach shot. In this instance, a 5-wood with a thinner face (higher ball speeds and longer carry distance), and lower CG (higher trajectory) fits the bill.
Trevino’s famous quip that “not even God can hit a 1 iron” reminds us that even golf’s greatest players can struggle to hit their long irons consistently. Enter 1975 and Cobra’s baffler. With a patented railed sole-plate design, this club broached a new category and set the stage for future hybrids.
In 2002, TaylorMade debuted its Rescue Series (with some guidance from TV analyst and former player Gary McCord), which offered both a hybrid and fairway model. Originally designed to replace the hard to hit long irons, these clubs offered a lower CG, higher MOI and more consistent ball speed than the irons they replaced. The lower CG (Center of Gravity) promoted a higher initial trajectory and a higher overall ball flight. For players who struggled to elevate the ball, it was a situation where physics was working in their favor!
Moment of Inertia (MOI) is a measure of a club’s resistance to directional change at impact. The higher the MOI, the less a club will twist on off-center strikes and the straighter the shot will be. Unfortunately, for the better player, older hybrids also tended to have closed faces and heel weighting. Translation: Das ist ein hook machine.
Again, the industry adapted and one company in particular, Sonartec, received publicity money simply could not purchase. Todd Hamilton used the company’s 17-degree Sonartec Md hybrid (bent to 14 degrees) in several crucial situations to defeat Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff in the 2004 British Open. Unfortunately for Sonartec, the company didn’t have the infrastructure to capitalize on this newfound and unexpected onslaught of demand. They had the figured out the most difficult part of the equation: knowing how to make hybrids that worked for the best players in the world. However, through missteps big and small, they never again got the question just right.
The real validation for hybrids came when many touring pros decided to drop their 2 and 3 irons in favor of some type of hybrid/long iron replacement. In 2004, Darrell Survey Company reported that 7 percent of consumer golfers used a hybrid. By 2007, over 65 percent of pros carried at least one hybrid during the season. In 2011 Mark Wilson routinely carried two hybrids (Ping i15 – 17-degree and 20-degree) and at the 2011 Transitions Championship there were 127 hybrids in play. Not bad for an event with 144 players.
Heck, even Tiger has played a more forgiving cavity back in 2012, a 3 iron that is bent to the loft of a 2 iron. In preparation for this year’s British Open, Tiger put a Nike VR_S Forged 3 iron in the bag to be his fairway-finding precision instrument at Royal Lytham.
It wasn’t long ago that Tiger was on the wrong side of hybrid history. The iconic shot of the 2009 PGA Championship victory was Y.E. Yang’s approach on the 18th hole of the final round. The club — 3-hybrid. Yang was 210 yards away in the left rough. An ominous cluster of trees sat before him, but Yang pulled off the shot of his life. He knocked a towering shot stiff (6 feet to be exact), buried the birdie putt and went on to become the first Asian born player to win a major. In doing so, he also ended Tiger’s perfect record in majors when leading after 54 holes.
If you could hit a hybrid like that, what else could you possibly want? Or more importantly, what else could you possibly need?
Between 2004 and 2011 this segment of the equipment market exploded and OEMs vied for market share. Hybrids had become the SUV of the golfing industry. Everyone and their mom had their version, and OEM’s continued to refine designs and aesthetics to attract different styles and types of players. And they were successful — wildly successful. In the end, they were perhaps too successful. As more and more players put hybrids in their bags it became increasingly clear what these clubs could do, but more importantly what they couldn’t do.
Since its inception, the hybrid has suffered from an identity crisis — not entirely a fairway wood and certainly not an iron. The hybrid, aptly named, was to fit somewhere along this continuum. It looks like a wood, but is supposed to be hit like an iron. Some hybrids were larger and more robust. Some were thinner and sleeker. Some were geared to higher handicap players (think Adams OS series) and some to competitive amateurs and pros (think Taylor Made Rescue TP and Titleist). Some performed a bit better if you hit down on it like an iron and some preferred a shallower sweeping impact. Regardless, a majority of offerings did exactly what they were designed to do: hit the ball higher, offer increased forgiveness and give players some better options out of the rough and awkward lies.
Now, they’re on their way out… or should I say, down. Better players and high-ball hitters have come to realize that while hybrids hit the ball higher and land softer, they don’t do a good job in windy conditions nor do they offer the ability to work the ball nearly as well as long-iron replacements.
An example of popular long-iron replacements that are finding their way into the bags of PGA Tour players are: the Callaway X Utility, the Bridgestone J33 Airmuscle, the Mizuno MP Fli-Hi (and the recently released MP-H4) and the “Tour Only” Titleist 712U.
Moreover, the “long-iron replacement” category is quickly becoming the cool kid on the block. Trends move and as evidenced by recent OEM offerings, and consumers are talking and OEM’s are listening. Advanced Computer-aided design or CAD coupled with a focus on increased ball speed (thin face technology which approaches the .830 COR barrier) make these clubs immediately relevant in the bags of competitive amateurs and pros. When you analyze clubs like the X Utility and MP-H4, the COG is comparatively lower (thus promoting higher launch) than irons in the same class (Mizuno MP series, Callaway X Forged, etc.). That is, an MP-H4 3 iron will have a lower COG (higher ball flight) than an MP-64 3 iron or similar players irons.
However the COG is higher than a standard hybrid, the result of which is a more penetrating trajectory and an increased ability to impart right-to-left or left-to-right curvature. For the same reasons a muscleback is easier to work than a game-improvement iron, these long-iron replacements offer more maneuverability than their hybrid counterparts. The COG location, in conjunction with minimal offset and optimal turf interaction, make these clubs an extremely viable option for the better player whom never got comfortable with the traditional hybrid.
Perhaps the starkest difference between the two is the look from address. Hybrids, for all intents and purposes, look like metal woods after being hit by the shrink ray. They are narrower from crown to rear and offer finishes which are in line metal woods. Graphite shafts have become standard on hybrids and many shaft companies now have hybrid specific shaft offerings in a variety of launch, spin and weight profiles.
The long iron replacements, on the other hand, tend to look like swollen irons. The toplines are generally thicker (although they continue to get thinner: see Titleist 712U, Callaway X Utility, Mizuno MP-H4), their soles are wider and cavities tend to be larger. Also, steel shafts come standard and finishes are largely polished chrome or satin (standard for irons).
If we really want to oversimplify the conversation, hybrids are metal-woods with a twist and long-iron replacements are irons with a twist. Hybrids are more forgiving, higher launching and on average, offer higher ball speeds and thus more distance. Long-iron replacements exhibit increased workability, more forgiveness than typical long irons and ball speeds that are now approaching those of standard hybrids.
As the game and equipment continue to evolve, we’ll see more and more long-iron replacements in the 3 and 4 iron slots rather than traditional hybrids, especially in the bags of competitive amateurs and professionals. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see better players return to a traditional 5 wood or 17-to-18 degree hybrid. Having a club, which consistently carries 230 to 245 yards is a must if you are going to hit short par-5s in two or navigate long par-3s. Moreover, if you are going to use a 3 wood with less than 15 degrees of loft, you’ll probably find yourself relying quite a bit on a club to fill this gap.
That being said, the days of hybrids replacing 3 and 4 irons are going the way of where tight jeans and boy bands should have already gone. In the end, the demise of the hybrid will not be because of what it does well; rather because of what it was never designed to do well. More wolf… less hedgehog.