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Hole 1: The day I met Ben Hogan

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This story was selected as one of the 15 best GolfWRX stories of 2015!

It was 1986, and The Ben Hogan Company needed a new engineer. I was a R&D engineer at the time, and working in Wisconsin for the Kohler plumbing products company. It was a great job and company, but I was already golf crazy at that time and I had some good reasons to move to Texas. My very young son Jake lived in Dallas with his mother — plus they play golf year round in Texas.

This was before Herb Kohler built the incredible courses at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. Years later I told him that I was glad he had not built these tracks earlier, as that would have made leaving the beautiful, deer-filled Wisconsin even harder.

Getting near my boy was the real reason I wanted to get to Texas, but the golf was a sweet attraction, too. With a perfect touch and timing, the Good Lord prompted the Hogan Company to advertise for a new product development engineer. On just the right day, I was changing flights at DFW and bought a copy of the Fort Worth paper. In the want ads I saw something like, ”Ben Hogan will pay you cash money to engineer and work on golf clubs.” So I applied.

My product development experience at Kohler got me the interview, but the Good Lord got me the job. It was truly a real miracle, because in 1986 I knew zero about club design and manufacturing. I was quickly made the boss of the model shop, and was to manage the master club maker Gene Sheeley and his incredible team of long-time club artisans.

Me as their boss? That was a joke.

I knew a few things about physics at that time, but these guys were the real deal in club design. I knew immediately that I was in over my head, so I went to Gene and professed my ignorance. I pleaded with him to teach me how to do the job right. At that, I guess he considered me harmless and over the next number of years he became my Yoda. His voice was even a bit like Yoda.

Gene was a patriot and the very best example of pure golf craftsmanship. He fought in World War II and Korea, and had a shoulder and arm full of bullet scars from a Chinese machine gun to prove it. He later told me he should have died many times in the wars. The only jobs he ever had in life were fighting for America and crafting clubs for Kenneth Smith and Ben Hogan. Early in the days of his company, Mr. Hogan had hired Gene away from Smith.

Gene later helped me blend my engineer stuff with the true old ways of the club. He also (a bit later) opened a very rare door for me with Mr. Hogan. It was a special few years for me as I learned from the two of them and I took my place inside Gene’s very guarded and close circle.

I never met the man Ben Hogan during my interview period or my first few weeks with the company. About one month after I reported for work, I was invited to play with a member at Shady Oaks. I was thrilled to play at the famous home of Hogan. After the round (and a few quick-moving 19th hole beverages), I headed for the men’s locker room and facilities. While I was standing in front of a single use Kohler product, engaged in my own private personal plumbing business, I noticed a figure pulling up to a nearby fixture. When I realized who it was I nervously looked over my shoulder, but I should have waited until I had completed the task in hand.

The turn to gawk re-directed the stream of my spent beverages. He was ignoring me, thankfully, and didn’t see the errant hosing I gave the wall and the floor. I’m especially relieved (pun intended) that he did not notice the back splash evidence on the leg of my khaki pants. I secretly apologized to the Shady Oaks janitor that would have to clean it up the next morning, cinched up and hurried to the sink to wash. I wanted that man to see me washing my hands, vigorously. I wanted him to have no doubt that my soon-to-be-outstretched hand was clean.

After the wash, I almost reached out to him there at the sink, but then remembered my southern daddy’s advice: “Never introduced yourself to a stranger in the men’s room.” So I went outside the plumbing area and set up for an introduction ambush. At this point of my life no one had ever coached me as to the safest way to approach or interact with this very special man. I stupidly thought he would actually be excited to know he had a new employee and engineer working for his company. That assumption would soon be proven wrong. So I went out to the locker room like a well-positioned ambush hunter and waited for him. After a long couple of minutes that seemed like hours, Mr. Ben Hogan walked out.

Because I didn’t know better, I stood directly in his path to the locker room. There was no way for him to walk around me. I knew this was the golf giant of the world, but I was surprised to see that he was only about my height. Any comfort that gave me soon evaporated. As he got closer I noticed his eyes. Wow, they were so brightly blue! His eyes reminded me of a brilliant blue-eyed Australian cow dog I once loved. These eyes, however, were not happy. A really intense glare started to come over his face. Was he mad I was in his path? Today I’m sure of that, but with the ignorance and bravo of youth I foolishly squared up and stuck out my right hand.

[quote_box_center]“Mr. Hogan my name is Tom Stites,” I said. “I just went to work as a new engineer for your company. I am very proud, honored and excited to be working for you.” [/quote_box_center]

Hogan stopped dead still and stared at me. It was a melting stare. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. At the focal point of that gaze, I started to quickly lose my ambush objective. I suddenly wished I was somewhere else. Part of me said I should use my military trained “about face” footwork and run. I had already put myself in the head lights, however, and like a doomed deer that would soon be introduced to a speeding car’s bumper I completely froze. I continued to hold out my empty (and now nervous) hand.

After what seemed an eternity, and just before I was almost able to bolt, Mr. Ben Hogan reached up with his right hand and grabbed mine. He gripped it hard. I grew up with real rodeo cowboys so I can say this: Hogan had one of those right hands like a bull rider — nothing but muscle — and a hand strength that was completely out of proportion to the rest of his body. It was one of those “I win” handshake grips.

Still no words yet, just more stare and grip. He didn’t even give it a single pump up or down. A few more seconds…just grip…more stare.

I was losing this encounter and would soon be unhinged. Finally, with his left hand he reached up to cover and grab both or our right hands. When he had added this to achieve complete two-handed control of the connection between us, he gave me a firm body jerk toward him. This was not a normal hand shake. I had to shuffle and find my footing. If he didn’t have my complete attention before, he did now. After I had recovered what was left of my balance, he gruffly uttered the words I will remember to my dying day:

“Well, sonny… don’t you SCREW anything up.”

Actually he used another word for “screw,” but I clearly understood what he meant. “Don’t worry Mr. Hogan, sir. I won’t.” That was all I could say, and it was barely audible. I did my 180-degree about face and got out of there. It would be months before I would be near him again, but his specific verbal directive was with me for the rest of my days at The Ben Hogan Company.

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Tom Stites has spent more than 30 years working in the golf industry. In that time, he has been awarded more than 200 golf-related patents, and has designed and engineered more than 300 golf products that have been sold worldwide. As part of his job, he had the opportunity to work with hundreds of touring professionals and developed clubs that have been used to win all four of golf's major championships (several times), as well as 200+ PGA Tour events. Stites got his golf industry start at the Ben Hogan Company in 1986, where Ben Hogan and his personal master club builder Gene Sheeley trained the young engineer in club design. Tom went on to start his own golf club equipment engineering company in 1993 in Fort Worth, Texas, which he sold to Nike Inc. in 2000. The facility grew and became known as "The Oven," and Stites led the design and engineering teams there for 12 years as the Director of Product Development. Stites, 59, is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force. He is now semi-retired, but continues his work as an innovation, business, engineering and design consultant. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Ben Hogan Foundation, a 501C foundation that works to preserve the legacy and memory of the late, great Ben Hogan.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. bob

    Jul 31, 2015 at 1:12 am

    we judge people today on how they act in front of a camera. outgoing, friendly-good people. surly, not talkative-a jerk. mr. Hogan was simply a man that had no outgoing personality, he really didn’t care what you thought about him. he was who he was. some people just cannot open up to the public. generally they are deeper thinkers than normal people. lee Trevino was great when they turned the camera on, but when it went off, all that disappeared. I think mr. Hogan had a “engineers mind” that never allowed him to see things that a “normal person” saw. he was different-so we criticize him.

  2. Perry

    Jun 16, 2015 at 9:24 am

    This is awesome. How does anyone rate this a shank?

  3. JHM

    Jun 13, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Great read – looking forward to more

  4. Matty D

    Jun 12, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Hey Tom Stites

    Will there be a season 2 by chance?

    “Tiger and Nike”

    Nice Drive down the middle on 1.
    Great Read looking forward to the next 17 holes!

  5. RG

    Jun 11, 2015 at 7:20 am

    Hogan was famously rude. When Arnold Palmer first went on tour, Hogan would insult him and say he had no business playing professionally with a swing like his. Hogan would never call Palmer by his name, always called him “fella.” Great golfer, rude man.

  6. Johnny

    Jun 10, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Tom,

    Would love to hear your thoughts about the book that Kris Tschetter wrote, Mr. Hogan, The Man I Knew.

  7. Jeez Utz

    Jun 9, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Too bad Deke couldn’t teach Ben that it costs nothing to be nice.

  8. Ricky Redline

    Jun 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

    So which is it? Gene Sheeley or Gene Sully?

  9. Joe

    Jun 9, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Not impressed by Hogan. No story ice ever heard makes me give two cents about the guy. Nor his lack of understanding of his own swing…

  10. other paul

    Jun 9, 2015 at 8:17 am

    I feel much less silly now about my own meeting of a great local celebrity and hockey player now. I just fell over my tongue and sounded stupid.

  11. Monte Scheinblumh

    Jun 9, 2015 at 12:32 am

    Reminded me of the time i met Jack Nicklaus. All he said was “Monte, just lick my sack”

    Just sat back and laughed

  12. Sean

    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing that story…and being so honest about it too. 🙂

  13. Christosterone

    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Great story….I am mixed on my thoughts regarding Mr. Hogan.
    2 stories come to mind every time someone mentions his name(and I wish these thoughts did not as I would love to love him)
    Anyhow, the first is when an amateur Johnny Miller approached him at a U.S. Open during lunch to introduce himself to his hero and tell Mr. Hogan he was the low amateur…Mr. Hogan’s response was terse(to put it kindly)
    Johnny was a kid seeking to meet his idol and Mr. Hogan was a fellow competitor and his behavior was unnecessary.
    The second is the litany of behaviors he exhibited towards Arnold Palmer. I won’t go into details but Mr. Palmer has alluded to these “incidents” numerous times with Arnie’s patented kindness….in short, Arnold is a better man than most considering his treatment.

    • Jack

      Jun 11, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      Why do you keep calling him “Mr. Palmer?”

      • RG

        Jun 12, 2015 at 8:02 am

        Why wouldn’t you call him “Mr. Palmer?”

      • Christosterone

        Jun 12, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        I called him Arnie and Arnold as well.
        “Mister” is typically used as a courtesy in America for addressing elders.
        If someone is your elder by a decade or more(general rule of thumb) it is a show of respect…
        As a contemporary of Johnny Miller, I am less instinctually predisposed to use “mister” in reference to him…

  14. Nevin

    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Excellent story.

  15. Philip

    Jun 8, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Just a priceless story and experience.

  16. JBH

    Jun 8, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Great story Tom, what a fantastic experience!

    • MHendon

      Jun 8, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      +1 You took the words right out of my mouth.

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News

The Wedge Guy: A defense of blades

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One of the longest-running and most active conversations in all of golf equipment is the subject of blades versus game improvement irons. Over the nearly 20 years I’ve been writing this blog as “The Wedge Guy,” I’ve addressed this in various ways and always stimulated a lively discussion with my readers.

I hope this angle on the conversation will do the same, so all of you please share your thoughts and observations.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have always played some kind of blade-style irons, with only a few detours along the way. But I always come back to my blades, so let me explain why.

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when blades were all we had. As a teenager with a developing skill set, I became a devotee to those models from the old Ben Hogan Company, and played the “Bounce Sole” model, then several iterations of the Apex line after it was introduced. Those few sets served me well into my 30s, when I became involved in the golf equipment industry. Having Joe Powell Golf as a client, I switched to his pure muscle back model called the “PGI.” They were certainly sweet.

In the late 1980s, I was handling the marketing for Merit Golf, who offered a cavity back forging called the Fusion, which was inspired by the Ben Hogan Edge irons, but offered a more traditional face profile. So, I switched to them.
Playing to a low single digit handicap at the time, I really didn’t see my scores change, but I just wasn’t making as many birdies as I had before. Openly pondering why my golf felt different, a regular golf buddy noted, “You’re not knocking down pins as often as you used to,” and I realized he was right. I was hitting just as many greens as before, maybe one or two more, but I wasn’t getting those kick-in birdies nearly as often. So, I went to the closet and broke out the old Joe Powell PGI irons and had an epic day with three birdies inside five feet and a couple more in the 5-10 range.
Those blades stayed in the bag until I developed my first iron design, the “RL blades” by my first company, Reid Lockhart. By this time, I had seen enough robotic testing prove that the most penalizing mishit with a blade was a toe impact, which mirrored my own experience. So, I sculpted a pure muscle back blade, but added a bit of mass toward the toe to compensate for that deficiency of all such designs.

I played those irons for 20 years, until I created the “FT. WORTH 15” irons for the re-launch of the Ben Hogan brand in 2015. In that design, I further evolved my work to very slightly add a bit of modified perimeter weighting to a pure forged blade, taking inspiration from many of Mr. Hogan’s earlier personal designs in the Apex line of the “old” Ben Hogan Company. Those are still in my bag, going on eight years now.

So, why do I think I can make a solid defense for playing blade irons? Because of their pinpoint distance control, particularly in the short irons — those with lofts of 35 degrees or higher.

I’ll certainly acknowledge that some modern perimeter weighting is very helpful in the lower lofts . . .the mid- and long irons. In those clubs, somewhere on or near the green is totally acceptable, whether you are playing to break 90 or trying to win on the PGA Tour. [Did you know those guys are actually over par as a group outside 9-iron range?] That’s why you see an increasing number of them playing a conservative game-improvement design in those lofts. But also remember that we in the golf club design business deal with poor “hits” only . . . we have no control over the quality of your swing, so the vast majority of bad golf shots are far beyond our influence.

But what I’ve seen in repeated robotic testing and in my own play, when you get to the prime scoring clubs – short irons and wedges – having a solid thickness of mass directly behind the impact point on the face consistently delivers better distance control and spin. In my own designs of the SCOR wedges in 2010, and the Ben Hogan FT.WORTH 15 irons and TK15 wedges, I created a distribution of mass that actually placed a bit more face thickness behind the slight mishit than even in the center, and the distance consistency was remarkable.

I’ve carried that thinking to the Edison Forged wedges by positioning much more mass behind the high face and toe miss than any other wedges on the market. And in robotic testing, they deliver better transfer of energy on those mishits than any other wedge we tested.

So, back to that experience when I switched back to my Joe Powell blades from the Merit cavity back forging, I can sum it up this way.

If your pleasure from your golf is derived more from how good your worst shots turn out, then a game improvement iron is probably the way to go. But if your golf pleasure is more about how good your best shots are, I think there is a very strong case to be made for playing some kind of blade iron design, at least in your scoring clubs.

Alright, fans: sound off!

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Opinion & Analysis

2022 Open De France: Betting Picks & Selections

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After an enthralling Italian Open at next year’s Ryder Cup venue, the DP World Tour moves on to Le Golf National, scene of one of Europe’s finest hours, a 17.5-10.5 victory at the 2018 running of the bi-annual festival.

With Valderrama on the schedule in three weeks’ time, the tour showcases a trio of its best courses within a month, and whilst deserving of a better field than present in France this week, the tournament should again provide viewers with a treat.

With the lowest winning total since 2000 being 16-under, and an average of 11-under, the focus is very much on a strong tee-to-green
game. The rough is up, the greens are tricky, and scrambling difficult. Those with low confidence in any aspect of their game need not apply.

2019 winner Nicolas Colsaerts somewhat went against the grain when winning via a long driving game , certainly compared to the likes of runner-up J.B Hansen and third-placed George Coetzee, as well as previous winners Jaidee, McDowell and Levet. Like the differing results at the Marco Simone course over the last two runnings, we should resume normal service, with bombers not having so much of an advantage.

In a hard event to weigh up, here is this week’s best bets.

Antoine Rozner 28/1

Ewen Ferguson 45/1

Jorge Campillo 45/1

Marcus Kinhult 60/1

There are few of the top lot that can be ruled out.

All of Thomas Pieters, Jordan Smith, Ryan Fox and, Victor Perez appear very high on the season-long tee-to-green lists. The Englishman was the first one on my list but, at 20/1, he can be left alone, especially given I would have expected him to have done better than a best of 21st in three outings here.

Nevertheless, his is the type of game needed for here and with home support probably a boon, plump for Antoine Rozner to make the Gallic crowd go wild for the first time since Levet’s victory in 2011.

Since his last couple of appearances in his home country – ninth and 13th on the Challenge Tour – the 29-year-old has won in Dubai and Qatar in contrasting styles.

The first saw him putt the lights out to win in 25-under, whilst the more relevant victory was at wind-affected Education City, where he grinded out a one-shot victory in eight under-the-card, a final hole 60-plus foot putt sealing the deal.

2022 has been good.

The record of two top-10s in Spain and Crans disguise four further top-20 finishes, and that he was inside the top-10 after round two of the BMW International, round one of the Czech Masters, and rounds one and three at Glagorm Castle.

Indeed, it was after the first of those that he announced he was very happy with the way his game was trending, and, true to his word, his tee-to-green play has been nothing short of stunning.

Since July, he has averaged a ranking of ninth for approaches, two of those efforts rating him leading the field for tee-to-green. Using the older stats, Rozner has recent greens-in-regulation figures of 21/2/2/7/34/5, perfect for a course that will penalise anyone that constantly misses the short stuff.

There may well be a current issue about his putting, but that is true of all the better ball-strikers. After all, it would be neigh impossible to beat them if every facet was ranking in the top five.

Rozner is bound to know this course better than his ‘debutante’ status, so take him to prove himself in a very beatable field.

Qatar seems a bit of a theme with Ewen Ferguson taking the next spot in the plan.

The Scot owes us nothing after two wins this year for the Players To Follow in 2022 column, but I’m not sure he is quite finished yet.

Slightly naïve when in front on Sunday at the Kenya Open, his next two starts might show finishes of 61st and 40th but, again, they disguise better play than the record shows – Fergie was 11th after three rounds at the MyGolfLife and just outside the top-20 at halfway at Steyn City.

That experience no doubt led to a grinding victory – another to be seen in Qatar – where his solid tee-to-green game outlasted most of his opposition.

The game has continued in that vein, with a 12th place at Celtic Manor (7th after three rounds) being a fine correlation with this week’s track, followed by his second victory of the year at Galgorm Castle.

Probably his best effort was in Himmerland at the beginning of the month, when his all-round game was in superb shape, only giving way to a ridiculous pair of putts by Oliver Wilson. As he did in Ireland, Ferguson led the tee-to-green figures via both driving and irons, whilst his scrambling game was also highly ranked.

Despite the smiles, he may have been feeling that defeat when missing the cut at Wentworth, a course that doesn’t suit everyone on debut, and look at his price – over twice that of players that fail to convert winning chances.

At the same price, the mercurial Jorge Campillo is well worth backing to continue a solid bank of recent and course form.

Rather like previous Spanish winners of the French Open, the 36-year-old (yes, I thought he was older than that, too) has that capability to get out of trouble with the short game so identifiable with his compatriots.

One missed cut in his last nine starts shows he has a belief in his overall game, whilst six consecutive cuts sees him in the sort of form that should enable to challenge for his third European victory, after Morocco and (here we go again) Qatar.

Again his record shows just a couple of top-10 finishes this year, but he was in fourth place going into the final round at Kenya, top 10 for the middle rounds in Belgium, led the Irish Open at halfway and was in the final group on Sunday, whilst he closed late last weekend when it turned tricky in Italy.

With an 8th, 15th and 18th in six starts around here, it’s that ability to grind out a result that gives him claims this week. Campillo isn’t a strong birdie machine, so a winning score of around 10 to 12-under will do just fine.

Marcel Schneider and Romain Langasque both tempted me in at the prices, but whilst the former is in flying form, his record shows he improves after a first sighting at a course, so monitor him for a quiet debut and back him next year! As for the French native, he really should do well if his win at Celtic Manor and his home record has anything in them. The issue is that, at the moment, he is hitting it sideways off the tee and unable to recover with his irons – not a great combo around a tight track.

Instead, take a chance on Marcus Kinhult, who beat Robert MacIntyre, Eddie Pepperell and Matt Wallace to the British Masters in 2019, held at the links of Hillside, his sole victory on tour to date.

The Swede, whose tee-to-green game doesn’t give him as much reward as it may be ought to, followed that win by making a tough up-and-down at the final hole of that season’s Nedbank Challenge to join Tommy Fleetwood in a play-off, both having come from off the pace at the start of the day.

Unfortunately, that one didn’t go his way, but he has continued to bank a solid record, including top-10 finishes in Qatar (hello, again), The Renaissance Club and Wentworth through 2020, before a personal nightmare.

As he explained in his DP World Tour blog, the 26-year-old started suffering with dizzy spells, eventually diagnosed with epilepsy. In terms of golf, we can put a red line through 2021 form.

Fortunately, the condition is now under control and having worked his way through the Nordic Golf League, where in two events he finished ninth and first, arrived at full fitness at Kenya to finish inside the top-10, before a closing third in Qatar (hello…oh, ok.)

Whilst he couldn’t capitalise on a place in the final two-ball at The Belfry, it was a good warm-up for a return to Hillside, where he would finish a never-nearer third, following that effort with a pair of 23rd place finishes at the Czech Masters and Crans.

It is worth noting that his best efforts in 2018 were in Qatar, at Wentworth and around here (when finishing in fifth place), whilst the last time the French Open was played here, he again finished quickly to be just outside the top-10.

Kinhult has ranked top-12 for driving accuracy in his last three completed outings, and in the top-20 for scrambling in five of eight starts. This is his track.

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Equipment

Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama make big gear changes in Napa

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Andrew Tursky was on site at the Fortinet Championship this week and got all he could handle in terms of new equipment news. There were new irons, drivers, and even headcovers all over the range, so we had to dig into two of the biggest stories out there on this week’s Two Guys Talking Golf Podcast (give us a follow on Instagram: @tg2wrx).

Rickie Fowler’s new irons

Rickie Fowler has been changing a lot of equipment in his bag as he has struggled to get his golf game back into shape. We have seen him with different drivers, shafts, irons, and putters throughout the 2021-2022 season. Fowler has typically played some form of blade during his career, and Cobra even made him some signature Rev33 blades that were beautiful, but razor thin and intimidating for us mortal golfers.

Rickie showed up to the Fortinet with some brand new, unreleased, Cobra King Tour irons. The King Tour irons look a lot like the current Cobra King Tour MIM irons, and we can only assume that the new Tour will replace the MIM.

The interesting thing about the King Tour irons is that they look a little larger than his preferred blades and that they might have a little more ball speed and distance built into them. From the images you can tell there is a little slot behind the face that might be filled with some type of polymer.

Rickie didn’t get into the tech of the new King Tour irons but did tell Tursky that he was gaining around 3-4 yards on shots that he stuck low on the face. He finished the first round of the Fortinet Championship in the top four, so the new irons have seen some success under pressure. I know many of us hope to see Rickie back to form soon, and maybe these new King Tour irons can be the catalyst.

Hideki Matsuyama’s driver change

The other big story comes from a former Masters Champion testing out some new drivers on the range, Hideki Matsuyama. Matsuyama is well known as a golfer who loves to test and tinker with new golf equipment. Each week there is a good chance that he will have multiple drivers, irons, and fairways in the bag searching for the perfect club that week.

Earlier this week, Hideki was spotted with some new, unreleased, Srixon drivers out on the range in Napa. We spotted a few pros testing the new Srixon ZX7 MkII and ZX 5 MkII LS on the range.

Andrew spoke to the Srixon reps and learned Hideki has been trying the new drivers and seems to have settled on a Srixon ZX5 MkII in 10.5 degrees of loft (and his trusty Graphite Design Tour AD DI 8 TX shaft).

The ZX5 MkII LS looks to have an adjustable weight on the sole that is moved far forward —closer to the face — to possibly lower the spin. We haven’t heard anything specific from Srixon on the new drivers, but with their recent success, we would expect to see some solid performance out of the line.

Check out the full TG2 podcast, below

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