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Tour issue irons: A look behind the curtain

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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)

Larry Bobka Ground Titleist Blades

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.TigerWoodsBladeIronsTW

Tiger Woods' VR Pro Irons.

On of my top favourite irons of all time PERIODTigerVaporIrons

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

“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.”

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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.

 

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Ryan Barath is a writer & the Digital Content Creation Lead for GolfWRX. He also hosts the "On Spec" Podcast on GolfWRX Radio discussing everything golf, including gear, technology, fitting, and course architecture. He is a club fitter & master club builder who has more than 16 years experience working with golfers of all skill levels, including PGA Tour professionals. He studied business and marketing at the Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and is the former Build Shop Manager & Social Media Coordinator for Modern Golf. He now works independently from his home shop in Hamilton and is a member of advisory panels to a select number of golf equipment manufacturers, including True Temper. You can find Ryan on Twitter and Instagram where he's always willing to chat golf, from course architecture to physics, and share his passion for club building, and wedge grinding.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. youraway

    Apr 14, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    All USGA Conforming

  2. DAVID LAUF

    Apr 9, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    I read above about the Miura comment but was told by a Lynx Tour rep. that the Lynx Irons Fred Couples used were actually forged by Miura and stamped Lynx.

  3. Rich Douglas

    Apr 7, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    I “Liked” the article, but I never, ever read WITB pieces. They don’t matter for two important reasons.

    First, WITB should be re-named “WITC” (What’s in the Contract). There are almost no choices being made by these players; they play what they’re being paid to play. Why should the reader care about that? The only time the concept is at all interesting is when a player signs a deal and has to play clubs that mess up his game. Payne Stewart comes to mind.

    Second, it doesn’t matter WITB because it doesn’t apply to “WIYB” (What’s in YOUR Bag). As this article demonstrates, you can’t get what your favorite pro plays because his/her gear is custom-made, fitted, and ground. Even if it is marked the same, the clubs usually aren’t. Also, you can’t play that club anyway. You can’t play ANY of the clubs in the player’s bag–even the driver is different (and probably has a lot more swing weight and a much lower CG).

    That’s why people go nuts over putters. They’re the one club Joe Average can wield just like his favorite pro. Remember when Nicklaus won the Master’s in ’86 using that giant brick on a fishing rod? They sold a huge number of those in the ensuing weeks!

    WITB? Who cares? I don’t care what kind of shocks are on Kyle Busch’s car and I don’t care what irons Tiger Woods is gaming. I can’t use either one.

  4. chip75

    Mar 29, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    “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.”

    I think this has always been up for debate. In their heyday tour issue clubs weren’t just more desirable for their uniqueness, they were desirable because of their quality, look and feel. Our store bought equipment just wasn’t the same, the difference between the place of manufacturer was noticeable.

  5. jl

    Mar 29, 2019 at 4:43 pm

    In my time with Adams Golf, we had dozens of “tour issue” hybrids that you couldn’t buy on the shelves that were in the bags of tour players. From the 9031sf and 9031df hybrids to the highly sought after “PNT” hybrids, each hybrid was basically an “in betweener” that made it easier for us as reps to get a hybrid into a particular players bag because it gave us more shots for the players to be able to hit. The stock offerings were great, but Tour players often needed the flight to be a little higher or lower to fit their eye, or a face angle or paint line to be a little lower on the crown to have a certain look. We even had every loft from 14* to 28* in some models of the hybrids available to the players so we could hit a certain yardage gap, and we bent every hybrid we made to loft, and lie spec.

    Every player was different and had a different idea of how they needed that club to perform, and we were able to deliver because we had the ability to fill gaps. As far as the “tour issue” clubs being hotter, or more or less forgiving, etc….. not true. Faces on tour were more closely monitored to ensure that they were conforming to USGA specs and were often “slower” off the face than retail models to ensure that there was no chance of structural failure during play. The last thing you wanted as a rep was to have a “gamer” crack. You lost your chance to get a second one in play.

  6. Kade Patterson

    Mar 29, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Weirs irons are absolutely hideous!

  7. Mario

    Mar 29, 2019 at 10:30 am

    Most of these are Muiras

    • Bob

      Mar 30, 2019 at 10:14 pm

      Please…..stop……with the “they’re all Muiras” bullshit line….

  8. J

    Mar 29, 2019 at 10:26 am

    234 negative reactions in the first hour? Why?

  9. Shallowface

    Mar 29, 2019 at 7:31 am

    An interesting read. I’d like to see something similar on the golf balls currently used on Tour, as we’ve heard in the past that a lot of custom designs and even past models are in play.

    • Q

      Mar 29, 2019 at 10:54 am

      I’ve heard their is 6 models of Pro V1/V1x in play on tour not including older models. Most are lower or high spin versions.

      • Simms

        Mar 29, 2019 at 7:23 pm

        For sure you can bet Ricky has special balls from Taylormade… grew up with an uncle in the golf ball business…(past in 2010) he told me many players have special little needs that could be taken care of in their supply of golf balls..but he said they were not major differences from the standard and some just got balls that were considered the best of a bunch….

        • MCoz

          Mar 30, 2019 at 11:37 am

          No Ricky played the commercial ball. Years ago Sergio played a ball with a different dimple pattern, (bigger and fewer). Rose went to it also. That went on for 2-3 years but it worked as a prototype that helped development of later commercial models. Tiger at Nike usually played a special ball for himself. Most of the tour ballspice today are either the commercial ball or a prototype for the next model. Titleist has typically been the one to have the most different balls. But they have tried to stem the tide in recent years. They stopped shipping every model to each tour stop and forced those who wanted the oldest models to receive like 100 dozen at a time and bring their own balls to each event.

      • Benny

        Mar 30, 2019 at 4:04 pm

        Not only is Titliest a customer of mine but I know a couple who works at Titliest – ProV line. So while they have Prototype runs they Pros are playing the cream of the crop production balls. Ones that meet a much deeper check list than what hits the shelves. Ones that don’t hit the shelves sell as defects or range Premium balls. Pros can certainly request more of the prototype balls but if they aren’t production models that Pro will not have them very long.
        The changes made in release is so small and there is no way Titliest could cater to each swing.

        • Simms

          Apr 15, 2019 at 12:01 am

          That sounds just what a Taylormade rep told me….tour players get the ones with fastest cores and get the best of of the best of any lot.

    • Benjamin

      May 5, 2019 at 6:48 am

      …that…would be on eye opener…

  10. B

    Mar 29, 2019 at 3:08 am

    Yeah that Apex MB is actually a Mizuno lol
    What a load of bull

    • Mower

      Mar 29, 2019 at 10:21 am

      Strange, it looks exactly like the MP-33!
      Mizuno ftw!

    • Ed

      Mar 29, 2019 at 4:28 pm

      Not hardly ????

    • The dude

      Mar 30, 2019 at 9:49 pm

      It’s closer to a Miz than it is to a Cally….

      …what?….WHAT!?!?!

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Equipment

Callaway Epic Forged irons: Premium speed in a forged body

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With the release of the original Epic irons, Callaway did something they had never done before—build an iron that oozed ball speed and hid a lot of tech in a mid-sized package. Now imagine all that technology and greater speed in a more refined shape with a forged body…that is the all-new Epic Forged.

Built with the idea of offering speed and shotmaking in one package, the Epic Forged achieves all of that thanks to tech that is being used for the first time in a forged iron. The most notable being the Suspended Tungsten Core—which is comprised of the densest form of this heavy element. The issue with using this almost pure form of Tungsten is that it’s extremely hard to work with when using conventional construction methods. But Callaway defies convention and is using the patented Urethane Microspheres in the Suspended Tungsten core of the Epic Forged to precisely position mass creating the ideal center of gravity. This promotes controlled launch and spin, while allowing the face to flex as needed to create maximum ball speeds.

So what good is all this speed if you can’t control it?

Variable Face Thickness: Sure this tech isn’t new, it dates back to the above Hawkeye VFT driver (that was a great driver in its day), but if the Epic Flash driver has taught us anything, it’s that by looking beyond convention you can find new ways to utilize known technology. Built into the 360 Cup Face, the newly designed VFT pattern helps players achieve even more consistent ball speed and spin rates club to club. The reason this is so important: Callaway knows even average golfers want a club they can hit controlled shots with. A 7-iron isn’t any good if you’re not confident in the hitting the shot you want to.

Don’t think that we’re done talking about what these have under the hood just yet…

Since the Epic Forged irons go all the way into a sand wedge, there were some design decisions to be made to on how to make sure the scoring and recovery clubs still offer forgiveness but with even greater consistency and feel, Starting at the approach wedge and going to the sand wedge (the set goes PW, AW, GW, SW), instead of using the 17-4 SS cup face, Callaway engineers are using a forged faceplate to compliment the forged body. Inside of these still-hollow wedges, they are using a resistance welding technique to precisely locate a MIM (metal injection molded) Tungsten weight to achieve superior trajectory control.

The last piece to the puzzle.

A club will always be the sum of its parts and Callaway is pulling out all the stops with the Epic Star Forged set and the components that will accompany this technology package. The stock options will include Aerotech Steelfiber FC (flight control) and Mitsubishi Chemical’s  Tensei AV Silver shaft to optimize feel and control.  The other upgrade is the Golf Pride Tour Velvet Align Silver Grips (Align grips offer a textured raised rib on the bottom of the grip to help the golfer place their hands in the same position over and over again). All of these pieces come together to create a premium iron from Callaway.

The Epic Forged will be available at retail starting August 2nd. 4-SW. Retail price of $300 per iron.

 

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Equipment

Callaway Epic Flash Star line: Light and launchable

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Imagine being given one job as a design team…

Make it light, use all available technology, make it look really good, and make it fast.

This is the Callaway Epic Flash Star.

This new Callaway Epic Flash Star line includes a driver, fairway woods, hybrids, and a set of forged irons—because forged can be fast too, like really fast. This lineup, which is an update to the original Callaway Epic Star line, is introducing improvements across the board and sets a new level of performance in the premium lightweight equipment category.

When it comes to designing ultra lightweight clubs, there are some serious design challenges because you are limited by the amount of mass you can use move around based on the final target total weight. Even with these challenges Callaway engineers along with component partners have produced a set of clubs that incorporate every available piece of technology, including Flash Face and Jailbreak, to help slower swing speed golfers get back more distance from everywhere. I know it often sounds silly but stats prove that for every club less a player hits into a green, the likelihood of making a lower number goes up. This is why golfers in need of more speed will benefit from a set that allows them to hit those shorter clubs more often.

Epic Flash Star Driver

50 grams.

Thats the difference in total weight between the new Star and the standard Epic Flash Driver. Thats MASSIVE! 50 grams is 22-25 percent the mass of a traditional driver head on its own and when talking about the whole package thats a mass reduction of just under 16 percent ( 15.8 percent to be precise ). Engineers work tirelessly to shave three grams here and four grams there when it comes to club design being able to get 50g out of what is already the lightest club in the bag is astonishing. A lot of that weight reduction comes from the removal of the adjustable hosel making the Epic Flash Star the only driver in the Callaway lineup with a non adjustable hosel. No hosel adjustability means offering more loft options, which include a 10.5, 12, and now a 13.5 degrees (perfect for those golfers who have a difficulty getting the ball into the air).

As I have said before, a club is only as good as the sum of its parts, and there is no ignoring the fact that thanks to UST Mamiya, the Epic Flash Star is equipped with a 30-gram shaft: the Attas Speed—yeah you read that right 30 grams! The Attus Speed, until now, has been a product available exclusively in Japan (a golf market know for not turning an eye to premium performing products when they offer a tangible benefit), and is now available in North America.

Don’t think for a second that they are stopping at the shaft either: The club will also feature a Golf Pride 30g JLoo grip. All of this combines together to help slower swing speed players deliver the head back to the ball as fast as they can, with more consistency. All this adds up to a driver that has the potential to deliver some major gains.

Retail price will be $699.99

Epic Flash Star Fairway Woods and Hybrids

Much like the Star driver, the fairway woods incorporate proven technologies, including Jailbreak, Flash Face, and Face Cup—the same tech that has been making Callaway fairways woods some of the longest available dating back to the XR (remember how fast those were compared to everything else?). To give you a refresher on what the Face Cup does, it uses variable face thickness built into the forged 455 Carpenter steel face to promote fast ball speed on all shots especially mishits.  It does this by having the thinnest parts act like a hinge that’s activated the face and gives you all the “spring” you need (within the legal limit).

More weight is repositioned to create greater forgiveness and lower the COG thanks to a new T2C triaxial carbon crown and fixed hosel.

Since this is a full line launch the other similarities include a 40-gram ATTAS Speed shaft and choice of JL00 or J200 (42g) grip. Availability includes  3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 models which is a big expansion versus the original Start line which only went up the the 21-degree 7-wood. Considering the player demographic for these clubs, the 9 and 11s are going to be very popular.

Retail price is $399.99

Epic Flash Star Forged Irons

Meant to be launched!

The Epic Star irons are an ultra-premium forged iron designed for pure acoustics, feel, and explosive distance. Using what Callaway is calling an infinite black finish, every detail was carefully thought out in an effort to help golfers in need of distance get every technological advantage they can.

Just like with the standard Epic Flash, Callaway is using a suspended tungsten core for greater control over launch and spin while High-COR Faces with 360 Face Cup Technology maximize distance off the center and off of mishits. To also help with distance the lofts of the Flash irons are stronger BUT…thanks to the optimized CG locations (ala suspended tungsten ), and super hot faces, the peak heights are less affected.

Just like with the rest of the Star Line, the greatest design advantage they offer beyond the clubhead is the incredibly lightweight total club weight to help players in need of speed maximum their ability and in the end create great swing speed. Thanks to the UST ATTUS Speed ultra-premium iron shaft coming in at only 40 and 50 grams respectively (depending on set configuration and fitting), along with the same Golf Pride 30g JLoo grip used in the rest of the set—players should expect to see at least a whole club gained in distance.

The Epic Star Forged irons are available from 5-iron to sand wedge with a retail price of $325 per club.

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Equipment

Callaway launches technology-packed Epic Flash hybrids

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With Epic Flash drivers and fairway woods firmly in the marketplace, Callaway is following up last year’s Rogue hybrid with the launch of the Callaway Epic Flash hybrid.

Like the Rogue, the Epic Flash Hybrid features Jailbreak Technology for maximum energy transfer. Of course, like with the Epic Flash driver relative to the Rogue, the technology is improved upon in this iteration, according to the company.

Also returning in a new-and-improved form: Callaway’s forged Carpenter 455 steel Face Cup technology-infused clubface.

From the new technology standpoint: Callaway incorporates a MIM’ed (Metal-Injected Molding) Tungsten weight into the sole of the clubhead for “enhanced launch and trajectory,” as well as overall forgiveness.

Additionally, Callaway incorporates its proprietary triaxial carbon fabric (T2C—first used in Epic Flash driver) in a hybrid for the first time. The T2C crown’s weave allows Callaway engineers to allocate more weight lower and deeper in the clubhead.

Product at retail: 8/2. Pricing: $300 each

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