This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of LINKS.
EVERY GOLFER DREAMS of visiting St. Andrews, Bandon Dunes, and Pebble Beach. But if you’re a real gear-head, as I am, chances are Carlsbad, California, is close to the top of your list, too. This beach town just north of San Diego is the epicenter of the golf business with the headquarters of Callaway and TaylorMade located there, as well as Titleist’s West Coast test and research facility in nearby Oceanside.
Visiting Carlsbad allowed me to indulge in an equipment freak’s dream, putting my swing in the hands of some of each company’s top fitters to learn which of their clubs—along with what tweaks, twists, and specifications—were best for my game. And these fitting fantasies aren’t only for pros, VIPs, and the lucky golf scribe; they’re available to any golfer who wants to take the next step in equipment and is willing to pay for it.
The first stop on my fitting frenzy was the Kingdom, TaylorMade’s high-tech testing center across the street from its modern headquarters (there’s also an East Coast Kingdom at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia). First created for its tour pros, the Kingdom opened to commoners on a limited basis in 2005. It’s not cheap—the cost is $5,500—but for that you get an incredible video-game-like analysis of your swing, a one-on-one session with a master fitter utilizing a TrackMan radar launch monitor, and a full set of custom clubs built to your specs. Plus, it’s not uncommon to share the range with one of their staff players, as I did with Juli Inkster.
My half-day session with fitter Duane Anderson started with a warm-up. It was easy to find my spot since my name was on a little stand next to a pile of pristine TaylorMade balls. After I got loose, we went inside to the MATT (Motion Analysis Technology by TaylorMade) room where I donned sleeves studded with reflectors that would allow the six cameras in the room to capture a 3D, liquid-metal-like image of me swinging the club from any angle. It was fascinating to see the data collected, like my hand-speed measurement, which was 16.9 mph with a 6-iron. (Anderson said anything between 15–25 mph is good, allowing for the clubhead to release.) It was also pretty cool when he superimposed TaylorMade staffer Justin Rose over my image and compared our backswings, head positions, and follow-throughs.
The MATT session not only provided Anderson with information that would help him fit me, the computer also spat out a recommended set of clubs, shafts, and other specs. For the next couple of hours we moved back and forth between my spot on the range and the TrackMan. Configuring the R1 driver with different shafts and loft settings, he kept an eye on the all-important launch angle and spin rates, but was particularly interested in the ball’s descent, looking for between 35 and 40 degrees to provide the optimum balance between carry and roll.
Fitting the RocketBladez Tour irons focused on lie angle, which he divined with the help of MATT, a lie board, shot dispersion, and divots. For the last, he was looking for a “U” shape, nothing diagonal, showing that the middle of the club was entering the turf first. We found it with a half-inch-longer shaft and standard lie. He also conducted a laser-guided putter fitting that was perhaps more helpful to my alignment than in selecting a model (for the complete sets, see bags below).
Titleist’s program didn’t include putter fitting or computerized motion analysis, but the half-day session, which cost $500, was no less impressive. First, there was the 30-acre facility itself, which with its electronic gates has the feel of a secret military installation (there’s also an East Coast facility in Massachusetts). Then came the personalized service and attention to detail from my fitter, Troy Pullin, as well as manager Cliff Walzak, who bounced back and forth between another fitting session and mine (they do only four or five a day). I also was impressed to see Adam Scott in the short game area getting ready for the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles.
After I’d warmed up with my choice of Pro V1 or Pro V1x balls, Pullin had me hit some shots with an AP2 8-iron on the perfectly manicured range in front of TrackMan. While the numbers were important, Pullin and Walzak were at least as interested in what their eyes, ears, and experience told them about the club’s “turf interaction” and resulting ball flight. My spin was a little high with both the 5- and 8-irons, so they switched me to the lower-spinning CB irons and a Pro V1x ball. They also discovered that my ball speed was better with a standard-length shaft than with my regular irons, which are a half-inch extra long.
One key to their fitting process, whether for a 20-handicap or tour player, was determining where the first utility club or hybrid comes in. They look for when ball speed falls off, as mine did with the 3-iron. “We like to see the efficiency carry through the set,” said Walzak, who recommended I go with a 21-degree hybrid. After selecting a 19-degree hybrid over a 5-wood, we moved on to finding the right shaft and setting for the adjustable 913D3 driver before the 3-wood since the latter gets the same shaft, albeit just 10 grams heavier. The 3-wood wasn’t producing the ideal spin rate, however, so they tweaked the hosel to add three-quarters of a degree more loft.
The final stop was the short-game area to find the right combination of Vokey wedges. We quickly zeroed in on 52- and 58-degree SM4 wedges, trying different bounces and grinds to see how they handled the turf, then moved to 30-yard pitches with the 58-degree wedges before testing them in a bunker.
Callaway was the final stop on my fitting extravaganza. While good, it wasn’t as thorough as the other two, primarily because it was entirely indoors. Of course, at $150 it was also a lot less expensive, and the company will credit $100 of the fee to a purchase of $500 or more at shop.callawaygolf.com or on Callaway clubs from your club or local golf shop. (The company does offer a deluxe session like TaylorMade’s and Titleist’s at their nearby test center but only for tour players and big shots.)
The hour-and-a-half session with Kelley Henderson, a former Florida State player, was exactly what one would get at any of 19 Callaway Performance Centers around the country. They all use Callaway’s proprietary high-speed camera system that captures 10,000 images a second of the clubhead pre- and post impact, as well as the resulting ball flight.
Henderson used a much less high-tech, but no less effective, method for determining lie angle: She drew a vertical line on the ball and stuck a white piece of tape to the clubface, then checked the resulting mark (horizontal is ideal; any tilt would indicate too upright or flat a lie). She recommended the X Hot Pro and X Forged irons. I would have been happy with either, but she liked the X Forged because, although it didn’t go quite as far, it produced a tighter shot dispersion.
The driver and metalwoods were slightly more problematic. Maybe I was suffering from fitting fatigue, or maybe it was because I was indoors and could see only the virtual ball flight, but I didn’t feel that I was hitting them well. Henderson was still able to work her magic to find me the best combination of shaft and head and get the most out of my swing, measured by what Callaway calls the “smash factor,” the ratio of ball speed to clubhead speed. Anything between 1.3 and 1.5 is good and mine was a respectable 1.46.
You might say my trip to Carlsbad was a smashing success.