There are a handful of golf legends that go by only one name; Tiger, Jack, Arnie and the queen of golf, Annika.
Annika Sorenstam continues to be a major influence on the game long after her retirement from competitive golf. Right by her side, every step of the way, is her husband Mike McGee, who has golf blood flowing strongly through his veins as well. I have had the privilege of getting to know Annika and Mike a bit over the past ten years. It has long been my opinion that this family is one of the games most generous and genuine. The work that they do through the Annika Foundation is playing a major role in the growth we have seen within the women’s game over recent years.
I had the great honor to chat a bit with Annika and Mike recently. As you will see, they absolutely have their fingers on the pulse of the industry and continue to work hard everyday to make golf better then they found it.
When did you start playing the game and who had the biggest influence on you getting started?
Annika: I started to play golf at the age of 12. I split a set of clubs with my sister, Charlotta. I got the odd numbers and she got the evens. My parents were my biggest influence in starting to golf as they played a lot. We would go to the course with them and ride their pull carts like a horse and get ice cream at the turn. Fun memories.
At what point did you know that you had what it took to play at a high level?
Annika: My first love was tennis, but when I was 16, I decided to focus on golf. I played on the Swedish National Team and won the World Amateur Championship in 1988. That’s when I realized I could play at a high level.
How early in your development did you first start getting formal instruction?
Annika: I started getting formal instruction early on. I would say between the ages of 12 and 14.
Was golf something that was part of your childhood? If so, when did you start and who was your influencer?
Mike: Yes, my Dad, Jerry McGee played the PGA TOUR until I was eight in 1982. He won four times and played in the 1977 Ryder Cup. I traveled the TOUR as a kid, so golf was literally a part of my upbringing.
What are your thoughts on current youth player development programs such as Drive, Chip & Putt and PGA Jr. League?
Annika & Mike: Mike and I both love what the PGA has done with PGA Jr. League. In fact, our kids play to play this year for Old Greenwood in Tahoe. We also love what Augusta National has done with Drive, Chip and Putt. It is a fantastic initiative and really motivates kids to try and make it to the Finals and putt on the 18th green at Augusta National.
Since your retirement from playing, you have been involved in several business endeavors. In recent years a great deal of attention has been put into the development of your Foundation and specifically, your Invitational, Intercollegiate and Annika Cup events. Can you expand on your passion for helping bring opportunities like these to young female golfers worldwide?
Annika: We started the ANNIKA Foundation in 2007 as a way for me to give back to the game that has been so good to me, and now have seven global events that sees over 600 players come through per year from over 60 countries. Over 45 have gotten LPGA cards and we have dozens of college coaches come to recruit the junior girls. We have what we call “More than Golf” educational seminars at each event to prepare girls for the future. I also give a clinic at each event and share my experiences to hopefully improve their preparation. It gives me great pride to help inspire the next generation.
I see that the McGee kiddos did some Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying and did fairly well…what is the kid’s connection to the game at this point in their lives? Any prospects for either to play competitively?
Annika & Mike: Our kids have been fortunate to attend the Drive, Chip and Putt finals the past two years. I can say that it really inspired them to take the game more seriously. They both have talent and I would say Will is more serious about it at this point. They’ll try DC&P again this year. Mike and I just want them to have fun with it. Golf teaches you so many valuable life lessons so the fact that they want to play makes us happy.
Professionally, what is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Annika: I would say being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. That encompasses all of the accomplishments that mean the most….89 worldwide wins, shooting 59, playing against the men. I have achieved more than I ever thought possible and I take great pride in always showing good sportsmanship.
How often do you get out to play or practice? Not for a clinic, or an event, but just for you?
Annika: I practice a little before events. I still play some sponsor outings or TV matches, so I don’t want to embarrass myself. I would say I practice once or twice a month.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the game? Where are we winning and where do we need some work?
Annika & Mike: The game of golf is in a great place on the professional Tours. I love the global nature and the young superstars. Family friendly is the key. I think we have a lot of great initiatives to grow the game, we just need to keep working at it. We need to make it fun, take less time and be more accessible for anyone who wants to play. I don’t think golf is much more expensive than other sports. Competitive skiing and soccer are equally as expensive if not more. We really just need to all work together to make it fun.
The death of the 3-iron and what it means for your bag setup
The 3-iron is almost extinct. It sounds like an odd statement, but it’s very true. Don’t believe me? Go try and buy one in a set. They are not easily found.
As we evaluate this topic, I’ll refrain from specs from “players” clubs as these are not the irons normally purchased. Yeah, it might skew the data, but even the players capable of playing the long irons are opting out of the 3 iron. And let’s be honest, should any of us be playing a blade 3-iron?
Mizuno only offers 4-PW in the JPX line now. Titleist only offers a 3-iron in T100s, while the rest are void of 3-irons. TaylorMade provides 4-PW in the P790, P790Ti, and P770. Callaway has done the same, only offering a 3-iron in the “players line” of clubs, while the rest is again void of the-iron. Cobra golf has also followed suit.
So are 3-irons just too hard to hit? Is that why no one is buying them, thus causing the OEMs to stop making them? The only ones left to buy are the “players” 3 irons, and those aren’t even reasonable unless you’re a professional.
What if I told you we were being deceived? What if I told you the 3-iron is still very much alive in all the iron sets available but under the guise of a different number?
Let’s hop into the “wayback machine” and take a quick look at the history of iron lofts.
The year is 1970, and the vast majority of irons available are blades. You know, the razor-sharp leading edges that are ready to break your wrist with a deep divot.
The image above is an actual snippet from a catalog from the ’70s. At this point, the 1-iron was virtually extinct, and in 1975, Lee Trevino was immortalized by his joke about how God couldn’t hit a 1-iron, which typically fell in the 18-degree range at the time. 2-irons were standard issue in the set, and the lowest loft you might find is 20 degrees.
Then the ’80s came, and things started to progress. As you might expect, lofts started to decrease. It wasn’t because of flight windows, or launch numbers, because they didn’t have that kind of technology readily available to measure those attributes. It was simply a quest for distance.
Then in the ’90s, you’d pretty much see all iron sets with 21-degree 3-irons, down to 48-degree PW’s, and 21 degrees being the norm for the lowest lofted 3-iron. 2-irons at this time were typically 18 degrees and available by request only.
Then came the 2000’s, an era we all should be familiar with. This is where things started to get interesting. Not only because lofts continued to be strengthened, but because the hybrid became a new option to replace the long irons. Adams Golf made a killing as it perfected this golf club, creating the Idea line that was in the bags of most of the senior tour players and many of the PGA Tour players. These were a fan favorite at retail too. The hybrid was an easy long iron to hit and quickly started to replace 3-irons in golf bags across the country and even on tour.
By this time the pitching wedge lofts started to get pushed to 46 degrees, which was a big jump, to be honest. In the 1970s, MacGregor was making pitching wedges with 49 degrees of loft. So, for the 90’s to be around 48 degrees, it wasn’t too much of a shock. But in the 2000s, we now saw PW’s drop to 46 degrees; a half club stronger. This is where the downfall began, in my opinion.
The first decade of the 21st century needed the gap wedge, also known as the approach wedge or utility wedge or just plain old “wedge.” Now, keep in mind, this club wasn’t anything new. The gap wedge existed ever since the beginning because at 50-52 degrees it was simply a pitching wedge from the ’70s. But it became a necessary element for the bag since the lofts of every iron were starting to move farther and farther away from the sand wedge.
Now in 2020, the average loft of the PW is 43.5 degrees, and the average 4-iron loft is 20.6 degrees. Turns out, the 4-iron from 2020 is .3 degrees stronger than the average 2-iron (20.9 degrees) from 1970. We have come full circle! Instead of maintaining those classic numbers, of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, PW, the new sets are labeled 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, P, G.
I wonder how many golfers out there carry a 4-iron thinking it’s a club they can hit? Probably too many! Obviously, the 3-iron is dead at this point, since it would actually carry the loft of the elusive 1-iron Trevino claimed was unhittable!
Now, it’s time to discuss how we got to this point. You’ll hear a lot of companies talk about “flight windows” or “launch angles” and how it was changed by engineering, lowering CG’s, and increasing speed through thin faces. Some will talk about how the ball has changed, and it just launches higher, and it requires the lofts to be strengthened, or it will just go too high!
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is all a bunch of baloney, and here is why: They started making gap wedges as part of the set. If the launch was too high or the window was too different, why make a matching gap wedge with the same technology and have the loft of a pitching wedge from the 1990s? Wouldn’t that launch or window then be too high for that club too? And yet you still need to buy another gap wedge to fit the 52-degree range. If the average golfer bought a 2020 game improvement set today, they would find the set make up to be 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, PW (43.5 degrees), Gap #1 (48.6 degrees), Gap #2 (52 degrees). That means if you happen to carry a 56 and a 60 degree, you now have the same amount of label wedges (5) as you do irons (5)!
Five wedges in the bag! Does anyone think this is weird?
Furthermore, when was a higher launching iron shot a bad thing? Wouldn’t average golfers benefit from a steeper angle of descent so the golf ball stops quicker on the green?
I conducted a study where I tested a Titleist 716 MB 8-iron with 39 degrees of loft to a TaylorMade P790 9-iron with 40 degrees of loft. All the data was captured on the Foresight GC2 launch monitor. It wasn’t a perfect test since they didn’t have the same shaft or loft, but my findings were surprising none the less. They went the same distance, almost down to the decimal. The Titleist went 165.2 yards, and the TaylorMade went 165.1 yards. Launch was only .6 degrees different while peak height was less than four feet different. So, unless you are Tiger Woods, you are not noticing a difference out on the golf course.
Some of you might think, “so, the label on the bottom of the club changed, it’s all going the same distance. So, what’s the big deal?” To me, it’s the confusion it creates more than anything. By decreasing the lofts, you’re just making the numbered iron go farther, and you are creating even bigger problems by having large gaps with the sand wedge when all amateurs need those clubs. It’s also putting clubs into the hands of golfers when they have no business hitting, like the 4-iron with 20 degrees of loft. Titleist has already made a T400 5-iron with 20 degrees of loft, and that’s just silly.
There also is the argument that golfers love distance, and when they start playing and can hit a 7-iron relatively far, it helps grow the game. Growing the game isn’t a bad thing, but if they are new to the game, they shouldn’t have any preconceived notions of how far to hit a 7-iron, and that means loft at that point becomes irrelevant.
I will not refute that a 40-degree lofted game improvement iron will be slightly longer than an identical lofted players club, but I think you’d be surprised to see the actual difference is a maximum of about three yards longer. The technology works, but by no means is it so substantial that we need to change the label on the bottom of the golf club.
The bottom line is that loft is king, regardless of the technology involved, and I have seen, but one equipment company make a change backwards! This is TaylorMade with their P770 irons. In comparison the P790, they increased the loft by one degree in the short irons and up to two degrees in the long irons, to add height and spin to the irons to improve performance. Imagine that, more spin and height are an advantage! And that was backed by their testing and their data.
Now to even further nail down my point, it is worth noting that TaylorMade Golf offers the highest lofted Pitching Wedge in the industry at 49 degree, which are in the Tiger lofts of the P7TW irons. That same iron set has a 22.5-degree 3-iron. At 22.5 degrees, it is typically the lowest-lofted iron in the golf bag of the best iron player on the PGA Tour in 2019. Of course, he has the skill to play an iron with lower loft, but the point that history reveals to us is that the effective loft of playability for an iron is about 22 degrees and higher. Anything lower lofted than that is typically replaced with a hybrid. This is not just a trend for the amateur golfer either, and it is even happening on tour with the best players in the world.
We will probably never see the lofts rolled back, but the least we can do is update Lee Trevino’s quote, “if you ever find yourself in a thunderstorm, lift up your 4-iron, because not even God can hit a 4-iron.”
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