“Yeah, he ( Mike Taylor ) worked on all these irons. He worked on all my wedges. I talk to him probably every few weeks, giving updates on how I feel, things that I think could be better. He’ll bounce a few ideas off me, what I think, what direction we need to go down the road, how can we make them any better than what they are. And this is the same process I went through all those years when I was working with him at Nike. But now working with him at TaylorMade, it’s a lot more seamless.”
Thanks to the big win by Francesco Molinari at the Arnold Palmer Invitational recently, I think it’s important to evaluate a few things that are very interesting about his equipment, and the equipment used by other players on tour.
First off, even after a banner year, including a major victory at The Open Championship, Molinari made a full-scale equipment change to a full bag of Callaway clubs, including the Chrome Soft X Ball.
Certainly, this speaks to his confidence in the company’s equipment in general. Specifically, though, the most interesting part of this new full bag of Callaway gear are some interesting prototype blade irons, that when asked about were confirmed to Golf.com‘s Jonathan Wall “These [Apex MB] forged blades are made, I think, in Japan, so they’re slightly different from the standard muscle back.”
As you can see below they are similar but clearly are a different shape from the retail offering below.
I decided to point these prototype irons out on Twitter ( Twitter – Ryan Barath ) not realizing the amount of attention it would get. But none the less, it was intended to educate not to create confusion. The one thing that continues to be true with professional golf is that PGA Tour pros (especially ones with majors on their resumes) have access to essentially anything they want from their sponsors including “made for” prototypes. Let’s be real straight here, this kind of stuff has been going on for a long long time even back to persimmon woods, but thanks to social media and full-time equipment coverage, the consumer has the ability to see what’s really going on behind the curtain.
So what are some famous examples of “tour issue” clubs? Where do they come from? Who’s got them? What do they really offer? Let’s take a look back over the last couple decades and find the real gems.
Tiger Woods: multiple sets
Before amateur Tiger became professional Tiger, he was racking up wins with a combo set of Mizuno MP14 and 29 irons. After that, it was on to Titleist, then the BIG Swoosh. At Titleist, Tiger worked with the legendary builder Larry Bobka, and together they created sets just for him. (Full story on The Gear Dive Chats with Larry Bobka)
When Tiger moved to Nike Golf, he was introduced to Mike Taylor. There’s no need to really go too deep on MT’s impact on the game of golf, since so much has already been said, but a quick refresher: his roots run deep with shaping clubs to perfection, from Hogan, to Impact Golf Technologies (Tom Stites post-Hogan Company, which in essence became Nike Golf overnight), to now Artisan Golf. Together, they worked on a number if irons from the original forged blades to the MM Proto.
With Nike’s departure from the equipment space and now being a part of TaylorMade’s staff, Tiger has the ability to work with their entire R&D team, while also benefiting from Mike Taylor’s work at Artisan Golf in Ft Worth Texas, to create the original masters for what are now the P7TW irons.
There was always speculation about this relationship until recently when it was confirmed by PGA Tour.com’s Equipment Writer, Andrew Tursky, during an interview with Tiger
What makes Tiger’s irons unique is they are very square and have a high muscle, which leads to a higher COG. This is the most apparent with his new TaylorMade irons compared to the other P730 model. The other thing with Tiger is that he famously plays what we now consider weak lofted clubs with a 49 to 50-degree pitching wedge, compared to the modern standard of 45. As one of the best ball strikers the game has EVER seen, and someone that has notoriously been an extremely picky player from an equipment standpoint, it makes sense that Tiger wants to see the ball go through very precise windows and feel a very particular way.
Beyond the irons, there are also the many, many prototype fixed-hosel drivers that he played during his time with Nike golf including: Original Forged, Ignite, SQ Sumo, VR Proto, Vr Dymo Tour (also made famous Mr. Anthony Kim) and then finally the Covert. Only a few of these were ever made available at retail.
Mike Weir: Left-handed R7 forged protos
Canada’s favorite lefty. Before signing his agreement with Taylormade, Mike used to play Hogan irons — if you are familiar with the Hogan brand and some of its designs, there are a few classic telltale design traits, including a higher straight (very square) hosel transition to the top line, a good amount of offset, and an overall square look.
In the era of big money on tour, and with Weir’s status as one of the top-15 players in the world during the 2000s, he was able to work into his contract that he would only play irons if they 100 percent fit his eye. It was this little clause (confirmed and not confirmed) that throughout his best finishes (including his Masters win), Mike played a set of completely one-off TaylorMade prototypes.
Weir’s irons were always branded with the most modern line TaylorMade was producing, but the most famous of these were his original left-handed prototype R7 irons. A standard (and very different) retail version of these came out in limited numbers right-handed, but as far as “tour issue” gear goes, these are still considered one of the rarest sets ever produced.
Danny Lee: Luke Donald Personal Grind MP-32s
Although I did a full breakdown on these a few weeks ago (WRX article here), these irons deserve to be in this conversation, not because of their age and recent usage, but as an example of how some tour only gear is really just a small tweak to an already fantastic design. As a Mizuno fan and gear junkie, although they didn’t last a very long time in Danny’s bag, I’m seriously hoping they make a return sometime this year.
Francesco Molinari’s Callaway Apex MBs
I mentioned these off the top, but what I want to discuss is that, although these are clearly not the retail version of the Apex MB, we as consumers should understand that what we are playing is still 100-percent premium equipment. A set of irons like this is way more about looks than performance. Francesco is one of the premier iron players in the game, and like any player that has a crazy repeatable action (and by the way hits golf balls day in and day out FOR A LIVING), he wanted something that fit his eye with squarer lines compared to the standard Apex MB, and Callaway did its part as his sponsor to deliver an iron to his liking. Don’t forget it took a bag full of woods, hybrids, and wedges to help Francesco get another win under his belt.
Sure, not everyone can go out and fully customize the head shape of an Apex MB, but if you are looking to go that extra mile and get exactly what you are looking for there are options out there including Yoro Craft from Mizuno and National Custom Works irons by Don White. Are they pricey? Yep! BUT if you want something all yours, the option is there.
So what does this mean for the average golfer?
It’s extremely important to get custom fit for your irons and approach the process of getting a new set with an open mind. The reason these tour issue clubs exist in the first place is because OEMs want to make sure that their players under contract are using something that fits them to a tee, along with hoping to have these in the winning bag come Sunday afternoon. It’s way better to have your “guy” playing a prototype that he loves and plays well with, then having him feel like he is compromising and running the risk of not playing his best. We all know confidence in equipment means the same to a tour pro as (if not more than) it does to a 15 handicap.
In their own way, what these OEMs are doing is creating a “branded” brand-agnostic bags so that each player has exactly what they need. These designs are still coming from in-house company designers (in 99 percent of cases ), but as we already know, the difference is these clubs are either extremely small batch or one-off prototypes. Same can be said for metal woods, since we have seen examples of fixed hosel Callaway Epic Flash fairway woods, too. The other thing to consider is, thanks to these prototypes, designs are constantly being tweaked, and the next generation of retail clubs might take these preferences built right in — the Luke Donald grind is the perfect example.
GolfWRX was founded with the idea to share these unique clubs and help people see “behind the curtain” when it comes to equipment from every OEM. Whether it be a $4,000 Scotty Cameron 009 that might work just as well as a $150 putter with identical specs, it’s not really about that for “us.” It’s about having something different and unique. Within every group of hobbyists, there are those that seek out the different and rare. From sneakers, to cars, to golf clubs, I’d be completely dishonest if I said the “cool” factor wasn’t part of the what makes these things so interesting in the first place.
When talking to GolfWRX founder Easyyy recently about the history of the site and some of the crazy gear we have seen over the years, we both agreed that there is “something” about playing either tour issue gear, or a club built just for you. The driver you know the exact specs of, the irons with different bounce or grooves, the wedges with grinds you just can’t buy off the shelf — whether they really are better or not, as golfers we want EVERY single last advantage we can get out of our gear, and getting the chance to play these clubs and feeling like there is a positive impact might just be as good as intrinsically superior equipment.
At the end of the day, for us mortals who are buying our own equipment, it’s vital to get the most out any new clubs by keeping an open mind on everything from brand to shaft flex, and in some cases, seeking out a tour issue component. Regardless of brand, choose the 14 clubs that fit you best and the ones you like the look of. Like I said before, confidence in your gear is something you can’t put a price on.
What It’s Like: TaylorMade Golf’s “The Kingdom”
One of the best parts of this job, beyond the people we get to meet, is the facilities. All of the core OEMs have a “place” that is exclusive, away from anything normal, and you gotta know someone to get a ticket in.
That’s what the “What It’s Like” series is about. Those certain OEM places with no doors open to the public. Those places that if you happened to sneak in, there is no way you can Fletch your way around into two steak sandwiches and a bloody mary.
I never admit this, but I used to manage a night club in Los Angeles called Les Deux (it was cool for a minute). It was a fun although soul-sucking endeavor but the thing that made the experience stick out was the exclusivity of it. If you got in by knowing someone, greased the door guy (me), or got invited, it was four hours of awesome. Yes, it’s a lame example, but there is, unfortunately, something about getting to the other side of a closed door that is just awesome.
TaylorMade Golf’s Kingdom is location No. 1, and as you would expect, it’s nothing short of pure golf ecstasy.
I have been to TaylorMade HQ quite a number of times, and typically those visits involve time at what I call the gear junkie mecca (short of Tiger Woods’ garage or the Nike Oven graveyard now called Artisan) AKA The Kingdom.
The coolest thing about it is how subtle the location is. Located just steps away from the front door of TM HQ (and a very random corporate basketball hoop) sits a small-yet-elegant building that if you didn’t know was there, you would fly past it. Once you pull into the side parking lot, unload your sticks, and head to the door, there is still that feeling of “will they actually let me in?”
Here’s the thing. The best (all of them) have been in here. To test, practice, hang out, get fit, get wowed to potentially be on staff and everything in-between. A schmuck like me should get nervous, but then it happens, the door opens and you are not only let in but you are greeted by the master of ceremonies and a man I truly adore Tom “TK” Kroll.
With the passion to match not only yours but anyone else who walks in, he makes sure every nuance is seen and experienced. From the lobby with current TM athletes on the wall to the locker room with your custom locker that sits next to an exact replica of Tiger’s bag. There are snacks, extras shoes, gloves, swag, coffee, beer, and all your wildest dreams…and we are barely in the facility.
From a 35,000 foot view, The Kingdom has everything a golfer would ever want, need, or wish for. Starting with Duane Anderson’s putter studio that has tested thousands of strokes from players ranging from a 20 handicap to Rory McIlroy. The data compiled in this room is staggering. We did a video (link below) that gives you the full rundown.
There are three (one with an Iron Byron for testing) main inside hitting bays with all the bells and whistles you would assume. TrackMans, cameras, big screens, fresh gloves hanging on the wall, and a club fitting matrix with every TM combination you could think of.
The outside hitting area is heaven on earth. There is no other way to describe. Huge hitting area with multiple styles of grass, lies, pins, etc. Any shot you would need to hit can be recreated here on grass with a ball flying into the air and not into a screen. My favorite area is the Flick Tee. In honor of the great teacher and longtime TM staffer Jim Flick. Its tucked up high and privately in the corner of the range under a tree and this may sound ridiculous but you can almost feel Mr. Flick standing there with you as you look out onto the facility. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
As mentioned, the man who manages your experience is Tom Kroll. He’s about as respected and beloved as anyone in the industry and for good reason. You combine passion with service you get an awesome human to hang out with. Everyone that has been through these doors has a TK story, which includes a chuckle and a smile.
I chatted with him recently about The Kingdom, and this is what he had to say.
JW: Walk me through how The Kingdom came to be what it is now? Basically origin to current day…
TK: Back in 1994, I was in R&D, running player testing, and we needed to find our own testing range. We built our headquarters in Carlsbad in the 1990s and added the range in 1998. Only robot, cannon and player testing were done at the start. Once in a while, a tour or staff pro would come out and test, but it was all operated from one building. At the time, what’s currently the clubhouse at The Kingdom was actually a maintenance building. But in 2010, The Kingdom was reimagined to the layout we have now.
Over the last three years I’ve been at The Kingdom, we’ve added GEARS, Quintic high-speed cameras, and a Foresight simulator bay. We transformed the putting lab with a Perfection Platforms articulating floor and SAM technology. Last year we resurfaced the main tee, redesigned and dedicated the Flick Tee, underwent a complete renovation of the short game area with new bunker complexes, redesigned the targeting downrange, and developed a par-3 routing. We partnered with Kurt Bowman Design, a longtime designer under Jack Nicklaus.
Our superintendent Mark Warren and his crew have done incredible work with our current maintenance equipment, and I can’t wait to see the conditions after we deliver a brand new fleet of brand new Toro equipment. We structured a long-term partnership with Toro and Turf Star Western.
JW: What is the simple function of The Kingdom?
TK: We still have the robot bay and R&D does development work almost every day. We are mostly a resource for the entire company: Global Sports Marketing (Tour), developmental pros and ams, AJGA standouts, our Crusaders (club professionals), and commercial teams. We host pre-lines to introduce new product to our at-large teams and training events. We’re even a PR resource, hosting media, social influencers, celebrities, and professional athletes.
We also act as a hub for our Crusaders. They send their members to us, and we wholesale back to the staff account. I’ll do a significant amount of corporate events, charity events and have had “Flicks at The Kingdom” where we set up a giant projector and our employees bring their kids, beach chairs and blankets to watch a movie out on the range. Really a fun and cool event.
JW: Give me three awesome stories or experiences from your time there that you are cool sharing.
TK: It’s tough to only pick three! From Reggie Jackson stopping by to Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, President Bush. Those may be the most haughty name drops of all time! What can I say, it is beyond the coolest job I have ever had! It’s truly tough to pick, but here are my three…
Story 1: Tiger was preparing to make his first PGA Tour start after fusion surgery and he just spends the day grinding out here. He was testing an early proto of the TW irons and to see how much speed he still had. There’s a sound that only he and maybe two or three others make when they center it up. That sound is something that goes through your body, I can still hear it. It sticks with you.
He’s playing old school lofts, which are three degrees weaker than any other tour pro, but the carry distances were still there, the windows he hits it through, holding it against the wind, flighting a 6-iron even ripping a 5-wood 275 yards. His feedback and ability to discern the most minute details working with the advanced teams developing the irons was fantastic to witness.
To come full circle, I played with him in the Southern Cal Amateur when he was 16-years-old and had a front-row to his 62 at Hacienda, I was keeping his scorecard so he has my autograph. To again be standing three feet from him while he goes through the process is just special.
Story 2: I’m going to put two guys in the same bucket (because The Kingdom is so magical, I hope the golf gods are okay with it). Rory now spends a day out here the week of Farmers–he has for the last two years, and with the U.S. Open there 2021, I think he’s a lock for the next few. He went through two sets of irons in a wind quartering off the right at 20-25 mph. The consistency of launch, speed and spin were shockingly close! It was one of the greatest ball-striking exhibitions I’ve ever witnessed. We handpicked the range after his day, it took us 10 minutes He’s also the most gracious, down to earth person.
Jon Rahm stops by five or six times a year. To watch his sessions in the putting lab, to see Duane show him what’s changing and getting Jon back to baseline and see his confidence, to the 4-iron flop shots after we tell our Seve stories. Jon is part of the family. His brother and dad came out before Jon and Kelly’s wedding. He’s one of the two or three others where the sound goes through you.
Story 3: Has to be Operation Game On (OGO). We have partnered with Tony Perez for over 15 years, we are the cherry on top of a 6-10 week program where wounded veterans take lessons and the graduation is a fitting at The Kingdom. I had a dear friend, Joe Horowitz, who’s a golfer and a musician, here late one day and I mentioned the OGO guys were coming the next day. It’s Veteran’s Day and the Marine Corps Birthday. Not to mention Jon Rahm would be here for a last tweak before he left for Dubai. Joe shows me a video of him singing the national anthem at the Jaguars game a few weeks before, and we both say let’s do that for the OGO guys. I get in early and send an email to all employees to be on the tee at 9 a.m. sharp. We have the OGO guys arrive and Jon is hanging in the locker room. I’m stalling to get all the employees onto the tee through the side gate, I walk the boys into the bay and hit the roll up door. Outside are 250 employees cheering these guys on! Joe sings the anthem (goose bumps every time), then happy birthday to Jon and the marine corps. There’s fittings, a pizza truck, Jon Rahm signed U.S. Open staff bags for the OGO boys. Then, get this, Jon goes on and wins that week in Dubai!
JW: If you could change anything about the property or the experience what would it be?
TK: At TaylorMade, the relentless pursuit of improving is in our DNA. The Kingdom is no different. We’re constantly innovating and reimagining the downrange experience. From targeting, to conditions and turf types, we’re always nuancing and squeaking out ways to be better. One example, we’re designing each of our targets with a specific purpose. When players are testing at The Kingdom, we want them to feel that every shot has a consequence. So, we want to deliver a real-world experience in every testing situation. We went through a massive redesign last fall and are currently still working with the advanced research team on new ways to enhance our testing and fitting experiences to meet the way that players perform in competition.
When it comes to the overall experience, The Kingdom has transformed from a predominantly R&D and fitting facility to the most capable environment to test, measure and understand how equipment performs and how golfers interact with their equipment. I call it the ultimate truth machine. We help golfers at every level uncover the insights they need to improve. After each session, we’re going to know everything about the club, the player and the ball flight.
So we came from a place where we were mainly focused on research, fitting, and selling. Our goals have changed. Now we obsess over how to help golfers get better.
What would I change? If you’re curious and passionate about making change, the answers are out there. The first thing we do is listen. We’re going to change everything that needs to be changed in order to meet our goals. I have an incredible focus group to bounce ideas off of. To ask our tour pros, club professionals, and teachers for feedback on the design ideas and what they like and prefer is fortunate. We’re constantly learning, we’re constantly improving, and if there’s a better way do something, then we’re going to figure it out and do it.
JW: What does the kingdom look like in 10 years?
TK: We have a lot of incredible plans for new targeting, bunker complexes, and refining the purposeful design of the range and short game area. Beyond that, we have designs for new teeing areas, a new short game complex, adding another GEARS system and Foresight Simulator, along with other new technologies. I can’t disclose all we do, since the R&D guys get a bit jumpy when I start going on about all the cool stuff and high science! I don’t know exactly what The Kingdom looks like in 10 years as technologies and our understanding continue to improve, but I do know give me six months, and we’ll have done something new. Always grinding to get better!
JW: Tell me a little bit about your career at TaylorMade.
TK: 31 years is hard to do in a “little bit” but I’ll try to give you the Clif Notes! Bob Vokey ran our Tour department and had me running his repair shop in Vista after George Willett took a job driving the Tour truck for TaylorMade. I was refinishing wooden clubs and repairing clubs for the local country clubs. I told Bob I was going broke making $4.50 an hour and driving all over San Diego. I asked if he could get me a job at TaylorMade and I started on the custom line with Wade Liles! Get to work at 2 p.m., off at 1 a.m. and golf in the morning. It was the life! Not to mention, I was lucky enough to meet my wife who worked for the company.
I started our player testing and worked for the great Dr. Benoit Vincent–the smartest man I know. I was a pretty good player, and I played a bunch of USGA and national amateur events. But when I did a TV commercial, I lost my amateur status and made the decision to turn pro. I quit my job and started that journey. Our CEO wanted me to take a leavem and I said: “I need to be all-in on this.” I had two children, a mortgage, car payments and had to buy health insurance while getting through all three stages of Q School. I realized I was a better amateur than a tour pro. We had our third child, and then I got the sales rep job in San Diego. After 10 years of sales, I moved inside the building and the ran innovations department before taking over our metalwoods category when we hit our highest market share in history. I spent a few years in product creation, ran global experiential for a few years and then got the best gig in all of golf here at The Kingdom. Been here for three years, and we’re just getting started!
Puma Golf teams up with Ernie Els in support of Autism Awareness Month
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and Puma Golf has teamed up with ambassador Ernie Els in support of the Els for Autism Foundation.
Throughout April, Puma will donate a portion of every individual sale of the brand’s Ignite Pwradapt Caged shoes with the proceeds going towards the Els for Autism Foundation.
Every pair of Caged shoes sold this month will include a blue Els for Autism shoe bag and puzzle piece ribbon lapel pin – with the color blue and the puzzle pieces representing Autism Awareness.
The Els for Autism Foundation helps deliver and facilitate programs designed to serve individuals with autism spectrum disorder. You can purchase the shoes here.
What GolfWRXers are saying about “Boutique brands vs Major OEMs”
In our forums, our members have been discussing both boutique brands and major OEMs and why the former “trail the OEMs in drivers and woods”. WRXer ‘gr8 flopshot’, who plays a bag full of boutique clubs bar woods, poses the question and it’s got our members talking in our forum.
Here are a few posts from the thread, but make sure to check out the entire discussion and have your say at the link below.
- DaRiz: “Irons, wedges, and putters don’t change much, and for all the technology OEMs try to pack in there, it’s more about how they look and feel. So boutique can fit in nicely here. Drivers/FW, on the other hand, definitely benefit from the millions of dollars in R&D, and it is probably really hard to compete. You can argue that COR is maxed out, but the tiny changes in launch conditions, spin rates, and forgiveness add up.”
- MattM97: “One reason why I and most other lefties don’t go boutique is options. At least with OEM’s for drivers and most woods we get the most of what is released, some versions and loft we don’t get but better than nothing. I’m not against boutique; I love my putters, I love the look of a lot of wedges, I would absolutely love a set of Japanese forged CB irons one day. Just woods I’ll stick to OEM options.”
- sniper: “The Wishon 560’s I had built years ago were as good (or better) as anything I’ve had. My current set of MP-18SC’s and Wishon’s are the best feeling irons I’ve played. Both came from a club builder and not built by the OEM. Obviously on the Wishon’s.”
- RogerInNewZealand: “Genuinely good point. It’s like why we buy JDM, Yonex Ezone 420…and the famed J33 Bridgestone driver from long ago! T.E.E is another one..always a surprise there. With your wood/driver if your sorted that’s fine! You don’t have to bag an exotic club to hit fairways.”
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