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Fitting for a king

Titleist gives the royal treatment at its testing facility, crunching the numbers for those looking to get the most out of their games

Reporter Michael Whitmer (center) takes it all in as Titelist club fitters James Kroeger (left) and Alex Stimpson analyze data from Whitmer's swings at a recent fitting in Acushnet. (George Rizer/For The Boston Globe) Reporter Michael Whitmer (center) takes it all in as Titelist club fitters James Kroeger (left) and Alex Stimpson analyze data from Whitmer's swings at a recent fitting in Acushnet.
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / August 25, 2011

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ACUSHNET - Too high.

That was the immediate observation when my custom club-fitting session began. Not that my 6-iron shots were going too far (I wish) or too straight (yeah, right). No, the launch angles that the Titleist Trackman picked up were higher than the assembled team of club fitters wanted to see, so that gave us a good place to start. Not only would we look for a new set of irons, but we’d see if an equipment change could bring me a slightly lower ball flight, which should increase distance and, hopefully, help lower my scores.

Everyone who plays golf knows about someone who buys new clubs every year, either trading in an old set or adding to what becomes an impressive collection already taking up too much space in the garage. I’m not that person. I’ve played with two sets of irons since 1988: Hogan Edge for 14 years, then Callaway X-14 for the past nine, although I still have the Hogans. With all the technology now available - and my handicap steadily climbing - I was looking for an excuse to buy a new set. When the Globe agreed to pay for a fitting session (but not the clubs, my editor quickly made clear), I jumped, eager to learn all about swing speeds, smash factors, lies, lofts, and spin rates.

Custom fitting has been around for a long time, with early 20th-century players such as Bobby Jones having clubs handmade to their pinpoint specifications. Tour professionals have always had a hand in how their equipment looked and felt, bending this club and grinding that one until it met their wants and needs. But consumers were mostly limited to finding a set on the store shelf, and hoping that it would be a decent match to their skill level and swing type. An early version of custom-fitted irons for the general public came in the early 1980s with the introduction of the popular Ping Eye 2, which had a colored dot on the back indicating if the lie was standard, flat, or upright.

Now, because of the popularity that’s built up over the past few years, custom club fittings are available almost anywhere: many club professionals offer fittings, as do high-volume superstores such as Golfers’ Warehouse, Golf Town, and Joe & Leigh’s Discount Golf Pro Shop. TaylorMade has a fitting center at The International in Bolton. For those who want to get fitted, they don’t need to drive very far.

I chose Titleist, which welcomes scores of touring professionals and amateurs throughout the year to its Manchester Lane Testing Facility, located on a dead-end street near the company’s headquarters in nearby Fairhaven. Why Titleist? I’ve used the clubmaker’s drivers, wedges, and putters for years, liked how the latest batch of irons looked, and talked to some people who went through the fitting process, one that would prove to be much more grueling than I ever anticipated.

Convincing myself that a custom fitting might help was half the battle.

“It’s critical for everyone to get fit,’’ said Karen Gray, a PGA professional who oversaw my session. “I don’t know what the percentage would be of who’s in the wrong equipment, because a lot of people are well fit. But some people have all the wrong things going on, and [getting fit] really makes their game a lot better.’’

Numbers don’t lie My session began by warming up with my Callaway irons. The Trackman was set up a few feet behind me, and would provide data all day. It measures, among other things, clubhead speed, ball speed, launch angle, spin rate, trajectory, carry distance, and total distance.

I quickly learned that the two numbers that seemed to matter most were launch angle and spin rate, since both directly impact how far the ball travels.

“The lower the ball speed, typically the more launch and more spin you need, because you need to keep the ball in the air,’’ said Alex Stimpson, one of the Titleist fitters. “With irons, there’s a certain range we’re trying to get you in, because we don’t know what you’re trying to do, if you prefer to knock it down or hit it high. We’ll take your averages and figure out what we need to do.’’

Once I had sufficiently warmed up, they began snapping together 6-iron clubheads and shafts, letting me take a few hacks, and seeing what Trackman had to say. They’d sneak in a new clubhead model without me being aware (shows you what I know), and constantly tried new shafts. At least six shafts in the 6-iron alone, all in an attempt to bring down my launch angle. With the Callaway, my launch angles with the 6-iron were as high as 23 degrees. The average 6-iron launch angle in the Titleist iron they ultimately recommended was 19 degrees.

Any idea what shafts are in your clubs? It might not be the wrong one, but chances are there’s another shaft that will improve the way you hit the ball. Gray said they have 490 to choose from at a Titleist fitting, giving new meaning to the term multiple choice.

How important is finding a shaft that helps, no matter the club?

“I know this sounds kind of corny, but when we’re fitting for a driver, when you’re making a sculpture, loft is the big dynamite blast to get all the work out of the way, then the shaft is the little chiseling to make it perfect,’’ said Titleist fitter James Kroeger. “It’s probably the most important part of the club.’’

After settling on an iron model - the cavity-backed CBs, to my surprise, and a 1/2-inch shorter than standard - we worked on a hybrid and a 3-wood. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the day was when I informed the fitting team that I have no confidence in my 3-wood, which happens to be a Titleist club. One glance at it, and they knew why.

“You can’t hit that club,’’ Gray said.

When I asked why not, Gray, Stimpson, and Kroeger answered together, rattling off different elements.

“Steel shaft, too heavy, too stiff, design, loft, center of gravity, smaller head, deeper face. Every single thing about that club says not you.’’

For all those years, I thought I was the reason for so many poorly-struck 3-wood shots. But it wasn’t me. It was the club!

An upgrade on a hybrid and 3-wood was quickly discovered, but the bulk of the full-swing session was spent on the driver, and trying to find one that duplicated my preferred right-to-left ball flight, while increasing the spin rate slightly so I can gain more distance. In the smaller D3 clubhead (still 445 cc, compared with the 460-cc D2), Kroeger switched the setting three times, finally choosing one that added loft, turning the 8.5 degree into a 9.25. Strangely, I didn’t hit the higher-lofted club any higher, but the spin rate increased, and a few drives passed the 265-yard mark (Kroeger kindly reminded me that I was into a headwind).

Toward the end of the fitting, wedges and the golf ball were also included.

Ball fitting?

“Everybody knows about club fitting. People don’t give the same thought about their golf ball as they do with their clubs,’’ said Patty Harrington, a member of the Titleist golf ball fitting team. “A lot of times people will just look for something that’s white, round, and on sale.’’

If Harrington was making an assumption about my spending habits, she politely didn’t say.

Heavy workload The full session, which costs $450, lasted nearly 3 1/2 hours, and with the sun out and the temperature near 90, golf gloves had to be rotated and cold water guzzled with frequency. Gray estimated I hit 300 balls, the collective, unforeseen impact of that workload leaving the left side of my body sore for three days. If you schedule a similar fitting, come prepared.

Once my body healed, I took my old clubs, the ones that I hit too high, on a trip. Some good shots, lots of bad ones. A few decent rounds, too many that weren’t. Until my new set arrives, that’s what I’m stuck with.

A custom club fitting includes terms and numbers that I previously knew very little about. But it also brings hope, that with the right equipment tailored to my swing, I can maximize my ability and hopefully play better. Unfortunately, the fitting only identifies the right clubs to use. We still have to hit the shots.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.