Arnaud : Hi Tom. I have so many questions to ask about the STERLINGs ! Maybe we should start by the beginning : what was the « genesis » of the single length irons ?
Tom : In the fall of 2013, a golf professional named Jaacob Bowden came to visit me in Durango (Colorado) at our company. His reason for visiting was to talk to me about the concept of single length irons, to ask me what I thought about it, and to ask me if I wanted to get involved in a project with him to design a new set of single length irons. Jaacob is an American golf pro who at that time was living with his wife in Zurich. Jaacob would play the occasional European Tour event when he could qualify and he operated a website in which he offered golf swing coaching and swing speed training advice and programs to help golfers. Jaacob liked the concept behind single length iron design – same swing feel for potentially improved shot consistency because of every club being the same length, same total weight, same shaft, same swing weight, same balance point. But he had tried all of the existing single length sets at that time and always had something he did not like about them – sometimes the low loft iron distances were too short, sometimes the high loft iron/wedge distances were too long, and sometimes the distance gap between the irons was too small. So he asked me if I could design a single length set that could be better than what was available or had been available in the past. For me, the fun in clubhead design has always been to do something new, different, something that hadn’t been done before. But Jaacob threw one more challenge at me – he wanted the single length of all the irons in the set to be an 8 iron length. Why? Because every golfer can hit an 8 iron pretty well, even the golfers with a 30 handicap.
Arnaud : Yes, I’ve read lots about the different « trials » of single length during the 80s and 90s, and notably the EQL by Tommy Armour. Can you tell us a bit about these designs ? Why did they fail ?
Tom : Previously all of the single length sets had been made using a 5 or 6 iron length. The reason this length was chosen was mainly because there was a fear if you made the single length to be shorter than this, you could not hit the low loft irons as far as you could in your normal length irons. And if there is one thing that can kill a club design it will be if the golfer loses distance with the new clubs compared with what he is used to hitting the ball in his previous set. But the other problem with using a 5 or 6 iron length in a single length set is that this length makes it so most golfers will hit their 8, 9, PW, gap wedge shots TOO FAR – farther than they are used to hitting these same clubs in their normal length sets. The reason is because in a normal length set, the 8 iron is 36.5″, 9 iron is 36″, PW is 35.5 to 35.75″ and the gap wedge is 35.5 to 35.25″. A 6 iron length is 37.5″ – so with the single length based on a 6 iron length of 37.5″, that is as much as 2″ longer than the PW and GW which explains why so many golfers would hit these high loft irons and wedges too far in a older single length set that is based on a 5 or 6 iron length. So that was the challenge Jaacob gave me – could I design a single length set based on an 8 iron length that would not lose distance in the low loft irons, but would not hit the ball too far in the high loft irons.
Arnaud : I know for a fact that you are a very cautious golf club designer, and if you’ve taken the risk of launching the « STERLINGS » way before anybody knew about Bryson DECHAMBEAU, knowing what happened to Tommy Armour’s EQL (a market disaster) then there must be something really new about the « STERLINGs » ?
Tom : you are right, I remember very clearly that the EQL single length set from Tommy Armour was a failure for the company. But I knew very clearly why the EQL was a failure and I knew once I started to think about how I was going to design the Sterling irons that I would not have the same problems.
I see two reasons why he EQL failed to mass market :
a) EQL was not just a single length set of irons. It was both a single length set of irons AND a single length set of woods. And when most golfers bought the EQL, they bought the woods AND the irons. All of the woods, from driver to 7w, were made to be 42″, a 5 wood length. For most golfers this had the effect of losing a fairly substantial amount of distance with the driver. Most golfers would not stand for that, so this was one big reason for the failure of the EQL.
b) All the irons were of 6 iron length – 37.5″. All the clubheads were conventional investment cast stainless steel cavity back models with conventional lofts and normal 4* loft increments between clubs. Combined with the 6 iron length meant most golfers hit the #3, 4 and 5 irons shorter than they were used to hitting their conventional length irons of the same number. And the 37/5″ length was substantially longer than the golfers had for their #8, 9, PW so they hit these clubs too far, farther than they were used to with their former normal length set.
Arnaud : So, what did you do with your engineers (and the foundry) to make the STERLINGs a better design than any other single length set ?
Tom : first, we chose to design the single length to be 36.5″ which is the same as an 8 iron.
We chose this shorter length for two reasons :
a) almost every golfer hits his 8 iron more consistently than he hits his 5 or 6 iron. A big reason for that is the shorter length of the 8 iron is much easier to control in the swing.
b) using an 8 iron length means that the golfer does not have the tendency to hit his 9, PW, gap wedge too far – because the 8 iron length is not more than 1 inch longer than the 9, PW, GW in his conventional length set. Secondly, the challenge was to design the low loft irons so that they could hit the ball as far or farther at the 8 iron single length compared to what the golfer is used to with his conventional incremental length iron set for the low loft irons. We accomplished that by combining our experience in thin face, high COR face iron design with a little lower loft angle per each iron.
Arnaud : Pretty much what you did with the (now discontinued) 870Ti and 771 Csi irons, with maximum COR ?
Tom : Yes. Wishon Golf was the first company in the golf industry to design an iron with a high COR face. Our first high COR iron was created in 2004, which was many years before any other company introduced their version of a high COR face iron. We invented the technology to use a very high strength steel alloy face plate that is made very thin to allow the face to flex inward during impact with the ball. In testing with golfers, the Sterling #5, 6 and 7 irons at their single length of 36.5″ never hit the ball shorter than the 5, 6, 7 irons in a normal incremental length set of conventional investment cast or forged irons.
Arnaud : Now that we understand better the concept and design of the STERLING, could you tell us what are the benefits of single length ? I’ve read lots of articles and as it is quite a « new » concept for the average golfer, I’m sure you could clarify the situation here !
Tom : The Sterling single length irons will be a very different, and a very interesting model for the clubmakers to sell, I think. There is no question that there are more golfers who have become aware of the possibility of playing with a single length iron set because of the success of the young American amateur, Bryson deChambeau. As we are coming close to offering the Sterling model to clubmakers, I know there are a lot of questions and there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty among some golfers as to whether to consider being fit to buy a single length set or not. There are two primary possible benefits of playing a properly custom fit set of single length irons : a) when all irons are the same length, that also means they are identical for the shaft weight, shaft flex, shaft bend profile, total weight, swingweight and balance point for every club in the set. That means every possible element that has any effect on the SWING FEEL of the irons is identical in every single iron in the set. From this it can be possible for the golfer to achieve a little higher level of swing consistency and shot consistency because every club in the set swings with the same feel. With conventional sets of irons, each iron is a different length, each shaft weighs a little different, each iron has a different total weight, and each iron has a different balance point position on the club. In conventional sets, the only element that is matched from club to club is the swingweight. But because the total weight and the balance points are different in each iron, this overshadows the possible matched feel of having the same swing weight. b) with all irons in the Sterling set being an 8 iron length, this shorter length makes it easier for the golfer to hit the low loft irons more on center more consistently. With a conventional incremental length set, the 5 iron is 38″, the 6 iron is 37 1/2″. With the Sterling irons all 36.5″ in length, this makes it easier to hit these lower loft irons more on center more of the time. And with the high COR face design of the Sterling #5, 6, 7 the golfer won’t lose distance with these lower loft irons compared to the same irons in his conventional set.
Arnaud : Aren’t you afraid that people who have been used to playing « traditional » sets of irons for more than 20 years (like me!) may be a bit reluctant to try the single length theory and design ?
Tom : it is a big decision for golfers to make because it will involve a definite expense on their part to buy a set to be able to really know whether this is better for their game or not. Because of that, we are trying to put together as much information as we can to guide both clubmakers and golfers into how to fit these clubs properly so the golfer has the most chance for success. And as well, how to inform the clubmakers and the golfers to have the chance to try the single length set concept enough before buying to know if this could be a good decision to use this set.
Based on data and lots of testing with different types of golfers, we feel the golfers who are best fit into a single length set will share the following characteristics:
a) the golfer suffers from frequent inconsistency with his irons – he is not as accurate as he wishes he could be, he is more inconsistent than he wishes he could be and he struggles with a number of the lower loft irons in his set.
b) very definitely if the golfer has irons in his set that he does not like the thought of hitting or he has irons in his set for which he has a definite lack of confidence, this is also an indication that the single length set may be a good choice for him. As you know, over the past many years, all of the big golf companies have been lowering the lofts of their irons. Today the average #5 and 9 iron lofts are 25* for the #5 and 41* for the #9. And in fact there are some sets with lofts lower than that. Even the traditional iron set lofts are much lower than the lofts of irons used to be 20 years ago. This change in iron lofts most certainly has helped many golfers hit their #8, 9, PW, gap wedges farther, and the golfers do like that I am sure. But it has also meant that they cannot hit a #3, 4, 5 and many can’t hit their #6 iron very consistently as well. And this is purely because these lofts when combined with the usual longer lengths of these irons makes the clubs hard for many golfers to hit with any reasonable level of consistency.
Arnaud : You are so right. I fit golfers on a daily basis who cannot hit more than their 6 iron, simply because the lofts are too strong on their 5 and 4 irons … it is a pity because many of these golfers are actually better at hitting their irons rather than their fairway woods (because of their angle of attack) :
Tom : of course, and the one answer to this problem has been to be correctly fit with hybrids to replace the hard to hit lower loft irons. There most certainly are a lot of golfers who do have a #3 and 4 hybrid and do hit them better than their former #3 and 4 irons. BUT there are still a lot of golfers trying to play with a #5 iron through wedge iron set, and they cannot hit the #5 and 6 very consistently at all. If so, this person becomes a definite candidate for a single length set.
Arnaud : and who do you think is NOT going to benefit from the STERLINGS ? It is not a « one design fits all », correct ?
Tom : You’re right Arnaud ! It is important to determine who is not going to be a good candidate for using a single length set, so that you, as a clubfitter and a clubmaker, can advise these golfers about this, before they would make the mistake of paying a lot of money for a single length set, only to find they do not like it.
I see four types of golfers who may not be well fit with the single length STERLINGs :
a) any golfer who is completely happy with his current irons, and does not have any real problems with iron shot inconsistency.
b)golfers who are very skilled and have no real problems hitting a #3, 4, 5, 6 iron in their set would have no real need to consider moving into a single length set.
c) for the Sterling iron set design, I would recommend that a very low handicap player not use this set. It very well could be that a very good player with a very high clubhead speed would hit the Sterling high COR design #5, 6, 7 irons to distances that might be too far, longer than he would be comfortable with having in his iron set. You need to keep in mind that single length is an ASSEMBLY CONCEPT just like incremental length iron sets are an assembly concept. They are different ways to ASSEMBLE an iron set. Because incremental length iron sets have been around for a long time, all golf companies will have several different TYPES OF MODELS to go with the incremental length assembly concept. Companies have traditional blade models, traditional shallow cavity back models, slight game improvement cavity back models, as well as super game improvement models of heads – all intended to be built to the conventional incremental length type of assembly.
d) you should also watch very carefully for the golfers who are very traditional in their attitude about golf clubs and golfers who may be very set in their ways and not open to change. In our hit testing, we did actually have two men who hit the test sets very well but in the end, just could not consider playing a single length set because MENTALLY IT WAS JUST TOO DIFFERENT THAN WHAT THEY WERE USED TO AFTER 30+ YEARS OF PLAYING A CONVENTIONAL LENGTH SET OF IRONS. This was a psychological thing for these golfers, not a performance reason. Some golfers just do not adapt well to changes that are too great.
Arnaud : So, what about the low to very low index players (and professional golfers) ? Based on what you say, they should not consider the STERLINGs ?
Tom : For single length, if it ever would become popular enough that a very large number of golfers are interested, if that happens then different models of single length head designs should be created, with different types of head models aimed at different types of golfers. That is why right now I do not see the Sterling clubhead models to be a design that most very low handicap golfers or very high clubhead speed golfers would use – if single length would be very popular in the future, then at that point I might design a much more traditional type of head model set to be built to single length and then marketed toward the very low handicap golfer and very high speed golfer.
Arnaud : this is so honest from you Tom … so, in a nutshell, who do you think should really come and see me to be fit with the STERLINGS ?
Tom : I see the Sterling irons as being a possible consideration for golfers with a handicap from 7 and higher, for golfers with a current 5 iron clubhead speed of 85mph or lower, for golfers who struggle to hit their #3, 4, 5, 6 irons consistently well, and for golfers who simply suffer from overall inconsistency with the irons.
We are also very much recommending that clubmakers have demo clubs of the single length – to have at least a #5, 7 and 9 iron for golfers to try before they buy. Try to have the golfer hit a demo #5, 7 and 9, or a 5 and 9 or a 7 and 9 for a few days so that he can experience the difference of a single length set and to have the chance to see how he hits the clubs compared to his current irons.
Arnaud : Well, thanks for all that precious and rare information. It has really helped me understand better the STERLING concept. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes with my french golfers !
Tom : thanks VERY MUCH Arnaud for your support, and congratulations on the success of your clubmaking business so far !!