Written by John VanDerLaan
Many golfers when they first pick up a golf club have no idea what they are looking at or what to compare it to. They can vaguely recognize its similarity to other clubs but a lot of the nuances of the different variables that a golfer or club fitter have at their disposal are as if written in a foreign language.
Even many relatively experienced golfers, and even some very good golfers, never really chose the clubs that they play with or put much thought into it - maybe they were a friend’s or their father’s or a gift, and they have just stuck with them and learned to build their game around the equipment that was available to them.
There comes a time in most golfers’ lives though when the “equipment'' bug will bite them or even if it’s not a chronic condition they will want to look into investing in new clubs every once in a while. In this guide we will take a look at the main attributes that you should take into consideration when trying to figure out how to choose golf irons.
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Things To Consider When Choosing Golf Irons
Choosing golf irons is best approached systematically. You can divide the golf club into three basic sections - the clubhead, the shaft, and the grip - and then choose attributes of each that match your game, style, or body type and very easily find a set that fulfills your “prescription.” Going at it piece-by-piece like this and isolating each part makes choosing golf irons an easy checklist rather than some mysterious process that leaves you chasing your tail.
Arguably the most important aspect of picking out golf irons is making sure the shaft is correct. There are four basic qualities to any club shaft: length, weight, material, and flex.
Many people obsess over shaft flex, but the truth is most players can handle being off by one flex more or less. Of course if you have the chance to choose, get what you feel is right for you, but most players can actually get around the course in a fairly wide range of different flexes, despite what some marketing materials might lead you to believe.
That is not the same when it comes to length. Length of the club might be the most important variable, along with the shape of the clubhead. This is because a club that is too long or too short will cause the golfer to set up improperly to the ball, and lead to a host of difficult compensations and poor ball striking, in most cases.
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Shaft material (graphite or steel) is mostly a matter of preference these days. It used to be that graphite shafts were inferior unless you had a slower swing speed, but that is no longer the case as there are modern high-end graphite shafts that have properties to match or even exceed the performance of steel at all swing speeds. That said, the vast majority of golfers do not need to invest in anything beyond normal steel shafts, and most still prefer the traditional look and feel of steel shafts in their irons.
When it comes to the weight of the shaft, if you are a beginner or intermediate player, it’s best to stick to a shaft weight that is appropriate for your age and athletic ability (stronger players with faster swings can usually handle heavier shafts better). If you are at a point where you feel you really need to fine-tune the weight of your clubs, it’s best to work with a clubfitter to find the right balance between all the components of your clubs and whether or not your transition move matches up well with lighter or heavier clubs.
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Type Of Iron
If your clubs are the right length, the type of clubhead is the other main thing you need to prioritize when picking out golf irons.
Blade irons are one solid piece of steel without any perimeter weighting, alternate materials (like tungsten inserts, etc.), or any cavity to speak of on the back of the club.
Blade irons are the quintessential “classic” golf irons and usually come in smaller, thinner shapes. They are notably harder to hit than modern club designs, and even the vast majority of professional golfers have stopped using blade iron heads for their full set, and many more in recent years have opted to abandon them altogether except in their wedges.
The arguments in favor of blades is that they are aesthetically pleasing, they produce an amazing feel WHEN struck properly, and for the expert golfer they offer more ability to put spin on the ball and shape shots. For the majority of golfers, even scratch golfers and better, this excess spin is a hindrance, hence why they are favored only in wedges, where side-spin is less of an influence on the ball.
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Game Improvement Irons
“Game improvement irons” are a category of clubs where there isn’t a hard-and-fast technical line but generally represent the category of clubs with the MOST modifications and technology possible built into them in order to maximize forgiveness and maximize ball speed.
All game improvement irons will utilize some form of “cavity back” which widens the sweet spot and adds a trampoline effect to the middle of the face, as well as typically a broader sole (to reduce the ability to chunk it), and a lot of offset (to help the typical amateur who battles an open clubface to square the face by impact).
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Many other categories of irons utilize these technologies but in more subtle ways. The “game improvement irons” will utilize as much of each of these factors as possible, but sacrifice feel and aesthetics and shot-shaping ability to some degree. Examples of a “game improvement” club would be Callaway Rogue, Titleist T300, and Taylormade M4 irons, although you see more and more players of all ability levels experimenting with these types of irons, especially in their longest irons.
Muscle Back Irons
“Muscle back irons” originally were a slight change to the blade design, that added a fatter/thicker section of steel to the bottom half of the blade, giving the club a little more forgiveness when interacting with the ground and a little bit higher launch.
These are still reserved for “players” line sets and you will see them in many tour players’ bags in the mid-irons. Examples of a “true” muscleback iron set would be the Mizuno MP series and the TaylorMade P7-MB.
In many players' full sets, and most players' longer irons, you will start to see this style also blended with a cavity back. The lines are blurry between the nomenclature and some people use different terms interchangeably as most of these features exist on a spectrum across many different lines offered by each company, but one way to refer to a club that features a small “muscleback” (or sometimes nowadays an insert of tungsten, titanium, or another metal to fine-tune performance) as well as a very small cavity is what can be called a “players cavity” club. Examples of these include the Callaway Apex series, the Mizuno JPX series, or the Srixon ZX-series.
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Cavity Back Irons
The cavity back golf iron is generally credited as the invention of Karsten Solheim, the founder of Ping, around 1959. Since then millions and millions of copies and improvements have been made, all revolving around the same idea:
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Take some of the steel from the middle of the BACK of the clubhead, and move it to the perimeter. Which leaves a “cavity” in the middle. These “cavity back” or “perimeter weighted” golf clubs immediately improved the forgiveness, sweet spot, and launched balls higher and farther on all strike locations.
Today you will see clubs on the market with everything from the subtlest etching, moving a gram here and there to the edge of the club, to designs which maximize the amount of steel that can be moved without sacrificing the integrity of the club.
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Forged or Cast?
Forged vs cast is a debate that you can’t really appreciate until you’ve actually flushed a forged club dead-center and felt the thick, “buttery” feeling that golf nerds pang over and fuel their addiction with.
Japanese manufacturers are famous for making some of the most sought-after forged clubs by golfers the world over, lending their world-famous Japanese steel and craftsmanship to the game.
Forged clubs are made from a steel which is softer and can be “stamped” into shape. In the old days by hand, nowadays by machines. For cast clubs the metal is melted and poured into a mold. What you get with this different quality steel is a forged club that feels “softer” when it hits the ball. The one tradeoff is that forged clubs can wear out faster, and also can accumulate “bag chatter” markings with extended use. Many high-end wedges, including the popular Vokey line by Titleist, opt to use cast materials since wedges are used so often, players don’t want to have to change clubs so often. All this said, for your average golfer who isn’t a professional hitting thousands of balls per week, your forged clubs will last many many years.
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The final consideration that is often overlooked with forged clubs is that with use, the loft and lie angles can change over time, as well. On the other hand, it is much easier to adjust the loft and lie angles with a club fitter if you need to, so investing in a set of forged clubs that can be adjusted down the road is often a good idea for a golfer who is dedicated and serious about learning the game, but still developing their swing.
How To Choose Golf Irons By Handicap
There are a lot of factors to how to choose golf irons, but many attributes are common amongst handicap levels. Body types and athleticism/strength will dictate more with the shaft and grips, but oftentimes the clubhead style can directly correlate to handicap level.
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If you are a low handicap player - congratulations, you can probably play a passable round of golf with most any set that somebody hands you! That said, since you know how to find the center of the clubface, you’re going to be able to shop more based on aesthetics and feel by looking at clubs that are blades, musclebacks, or “players cavity” designs.
One of the most popular options amongst good players these days is to build a “blended” set featuring more of a cavity-back and wider soles in the longer irons and more feel and shaping ability in the shorter irons and wedges.
This is the set up that you will find in most of our Golf Gear Advisor staff's bags.
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A mid-handicap player should stay away from pure blade irons, and consider muscleback designs for only their wedges and short irons. There’s nothing to prove here and the more the data from systems like TrackMan and the PGA Tour Shotlink accumulates, more and more elite players are convinced to build in at least a little bit of forgiveness to their clubs.
A great option for a mid handicapper is also to build a mixed set, using musclebacks in the wedges, mid-size cavity backs in their mid-irons, and game-improvement designs in anything 5-iron or longer.
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Golf is hard enough. If you are a high handicap golfer, it’s probably best to build in as much forgiveness as possible. This is the conventional wisdom, and this is why these types of clubs exist and so much research and technology has been built into these clubs in the first place.
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The lone exception might be if you are a developing golfer or especially a developing junior, it could be acceptable to experiment with some clubs that are built for a player that is a little bit above your current skill level and “grow into them.” This is only for the player who is committed to pursuing the game long-term and can take the growing pains … as there is something to be said for learning to strike the ball properly with a club that will always give you feedback that you did something right or wrong. Again this is not for the faint of heart but it is a legitimate option to consider.
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Step By Step Guide To Choosing Golf Irons
Buying golf irons doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s a step-by-step guide, as simple as we can possibly make it:
Step 1. The Clubhead
Choose this based on your ability level. The higher your handicap, build in more clubs in your set with game improvement features, and clubs that feature more exaggerated game improvement features.
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Step 2. The Shaft
First and foremost pick a shaft that is the right length for you. There are many variables a clubfitter could help with, but what you are trying to accomplish is being able to comfortably reach the ground without excessively bending at the knees or at the waist, for taller players.For shorter players, you want to make sure that you don’t feel like you have to choke up on the club, although some very good players have learned to play this way.
After that choose a shaft weight that matches your strength level / athletic ability level. Most golfers who have never been fitted for clubs will be fine with normal weight shafts unless you are a junior, a senior, a lady, or have a physical limitation or injury. If you are naturally a bigger guy with a faster swing or feel like you’re swinging a toothpick you can find a heavier set.
Step 3. Shaft Flex
Choose your shaft flex based on your strength and swing speed, mostly. There can be fine tunings and some golfers use shafts that would surprise you, but this is a starting point.
If you hit your driver over 275 yards consistently, or your 7-iron over 170, test stiff and extra stiff.
If you hit driver between 240 and 275, or your 7-iron between 150-170, test stiff and regular flex
If you hit driver between 200 and 240, or your 7-iron between 130-150, test regular and senior flex
Below these numbers look into senior flex or ladies flex.
Step 4. Grips
Golf grip size is more about comfort and feel than science, for most golfers. There are some norms but some golfers strongly prefer much larger or smaller grips. There are not many choices, and the vast vast majority of adult male golfers are going to use either “standard” or “midsize” grips.
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Golf Pride provides a rundown if you want to get scientific and either choose grips based on glove size or actually measuring your hands.
An easier test is this: Can you palm a basketball? If so, consider testing midsize or jumbo grips. If not, standard grips are probably for you, unless you have smaller-than-normal hands or just prefer a smaller grip, you can opt for an “undersize” version of the same grips.
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Final Thoughts On Choosing Golf Irons
Choosing golf irons can be intimidating, but remember that pretty much no matter what set of irons you choose, all of the major equipment manufacturers and several direct-to-consumer companies are putting out sticks that are better than what previous generations ever dreamed of being able to play with.
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That said, given all the technology and choices, we want to utilize it properly. The key is really a matter of fitting each part of the club separately - the clubhead style, the shaft (length, weight, flex, and material), and then the grip, and look for or order a set that matches each of those areas.
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After that your only job is to trust it, stick with it, head to the driving range and enjoy your new clubs!