Saturday, March 2, 2024

Golf club fitting gets scientific

Fitting golf clubs goes high-tech, raising golfers’ expectations and vendors’ revenue.

When the clubhouse at Lonnie Poole Golf Course at N.C. State University opened in 2014, the lower level included a 576-square-foot room with two hitting bays. It made for a nice indoor practice site for the Wolfpack golf teams and for golf lessons during rain, snow or other inclement conditions.

Today, there are computers with large monitors hanging on the walls. Racks of golf shafts missing club heads hang along with electronic gear. It’s all in the name of club fitting, the process of matching the latest golf balls, club heads, shafts, grips and putters to players wanting to update their golf equipment with a goal of improving scores.

In August 2012, Larry George, the club pro at River Landing Club in Wallace, fitted me for new clubs. He supplied a large cart of six-irons with various lays, lies, weights, grips and other golf club subtleties. I stroked about 100 balls off a hard piece of plastic, aiming at a target on the outdoor practice range. Larry made his recommendation — Ping i20 from driver through lob wedge — especially for me and my swing.

Since then, club fitting has really changed. Today’s complete, accurate club fitting involves electronic bells and whistles in a studio-like setting to start and then on a practice range, a golf course and a putting green where available.
Scientific equipment fitting has gained popularity for several years for those confident that expertly fitted equipment can cut strokes off one’s score. It is a huge driver of a nearly $2.9 billion annual golf club and golf ball market, according to the National Golf Foundation. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association says golf-related equipment revenue trails only camping and fishing as a recreational sport. “More money is spent on clubs and balls [annually] than on equipment for basketball, baseball and football combined,” reports the association.

Over the past two years, Golf magazine has published an annual list of 25 Elite Fitters across the United States. “Not all golf clubs are created equal,” the magazine noted in 2019. “Neither are club fitters. The top players in the industry differentiate themselves through the savvy of their staff, the sophistication of their tools, the intimacy of their service and their liberty to optimize all aspects of your game without overly restrictive brand allegiance.”

Two of the 25 fitters cited by the magazine in both editions are at N.C. courses: True Spec Golf at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines and Raleigh’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course. No other Tar Heel courses made the lists.

The Lonnie Poole staff has offered club repair, re-gripping, and shaft replacement since the clubhouse opened. But they added full-fledged club fitting when Daniel Spurling joined the staff in 2015, and it’s become a popular business. “With an increase in golf during the coronavirus, we’ve seen an increase in requests for club fitting,” General Manager Chip Watson says. A full-bag club fitting costs $350, covering irons, metal-woods, putters and balls.

“When we started club fitting, we had just one shaft supplier. We now have seven companies,” says Spurling, who is a PGA professional, Master Fitter, and the club’s player development coordinator. “We started with one successful club fitting, one happy customer who told friends of his experience. Our club fitting business grows by word of mouth.”

Several PGA tour professionals have stopped by the club to get second opinions, check how their current fitting aligns with equipment supplied by sponsors, and see if different specs would improve their game. “We just run them through the fitting exercise, discuss the differences in equipment and give them the data,” Spurling says.

Spurling views his work as a “David versus Goliath” when it comes to big-box sporting goods and golf-specialty stores. “We have specific core values because of our important association with N.C. State University. We work with the customer from start to finish. When I handle a club fitting, I’m responsible for ordering the parts and building the clubs unless the customer wants to have the manufacturer build the clubs. It may take a while for the player to adjust to the new set, but we are here all the way to work with that player to keep them satisfied.”

In addition to the club fitting room, other facilities are used to assist customers as they test the clubs. “Having the practice range, the golf course and the putting green is an advantage to club fitting,” he says.

Electronic equipment for club fitting reads the track of one’s swing and records swing speed and speed of the ball as it leaves the clubface. It also measures the flight height and records the landing and roll-out distance.

After nine years, I’m in the market for new clubs, so for my recent fitting at Poole, we used a Ping G425 7-iron loaded with a 72-gram Ping Alta CB regular shaft and a Golf Pride grip. I hit 10 shots with my current Ping i20 7-iron and five shots with the fitted 7-iron. The difference in feel and the numbers were remarkable.

The average ball speed was five miles per hour faster with the new club, while the travel distance was an average of 13 yards longer. Today’s golf clubs might be labeled as a 7-iron, but the loft is 3 degrees less steep than my 9-year-old 7-iron and is similar to my old 6-iron.

Club manufacturers are doing this for marketing purposes, allowing golfers to hit the ball farther with what is labeled as one club down from previous products. Hence, when tour professional Jordan Spieth, for instance, hits a 7-iron more than 200 yards into the wind on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links, the club loft is more like a 6-iron, maybe a 5-iron, under old standards.

The additional distance, though, may not stem from the club alone or the muscular physique of the player. “The ball is the No. 1 weapon on the course,” Spurling says, pointing out that ball fitting is as important as club fitting. “Club fitting is the method to improve your game, to make sure you have the right equipment for your swing and your ability, but golf ball selection is as important with low spin, high spin, low flight, high flight, hard and soft balls.”

I spent about three hours over two sessions with Spurling, taking notes as I stroked golf balls in the club fitting lab, with each shot recorded and analyzed, refining club fitting to my swing. This was just for new irons. Still to come: my driver, 3-metal, and hybrid metal and three wedges (fitted on the practice range because of low ceilings in the clubhouse). Hopefully, new clubs, at a price of $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the make and model plus the club fitting process, will make a difference in my game.

To a frequent partner on the course, I mentioned the club fitting process and the possibility of buying new clubs, fitted to my swing. “The ball went farther, and the results were more accurate,” I told him. His response: “We could be creating a monster.” That’s what today’s club fitting can do. ■

Cary writer Jim Pomeranz, a member of the N.C. Golf Panel since 2004, has been a member of Lonnie Poole Golf Course since it opened in 2009. His low handicap index for 2020 was 5.2 in mid-November.

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