This was probably the worst golf winter of my married life, which now stands at a touch over eight years old.
While a typical mid-Atlantic winter includes plenty of blustery days, as well a reasonable chance of a late-season blizzard, the common theme is a string of barely-good-enough days to play golf. It might be 45 degrees and a little cold on the face, but it's golf weather, damn it. We didn't get a lot of those days this winter. It rained a lot and hardly snowed. The chance to get out, put in some time on the course and the range, and figure out a bag setup for 2018 just wasn't there. So that means spotty at best opportunities to try out a pair of new iron sets, as well a new driver, a few wedges and a putter, so that by the time spring truly arrived, I felt confident in what my clubs were doing for me.
I knew I would be gaming Cobra Golf's King F8+ driver. They were kind enough to send it to me, and I've had my best driving seasons with Cobra or TaylorMade products in hand. However, I had to make a big adjustment from the 63-gram HZRDUS Yellow shaft in last year's TaylorMade M1 440, which was practically a 300-yard laser attached to my hands, to the 76-gram version of the same shaft in the King F8+. The first round with that new shaft felt like I was swinging a 2x4 and hoping to catch the ball with any of the flat sides. It didn't go well at first, but once I learned to swing a little harder, it quickly became a fairly finder while taking away the left side of the golf course. After all, it was practically impossible to shut down the face. Two rounds in, I had what I wanted.
I had a new wedge to put in the bag, too. Bridgestone's Tour B XW-1 wedge would replace my 52-degree from Cleveland, whose RTX 3 had become awfully handy as a sand wedge. (I've ditched my lob wedge. I can open up a sand wedge just fine.) The black coating on the XW-1 was appealing, as was the rounder, more-compact look. The lower bounce made me happier, too, because I pick, don't dig. My goal for the year is to get feeling comfortable hitting lower approach shots with my wedges. It's something I've always been unable to do, and over time, I've grown accustomed to flipping the hands just enough at impact to prevent any kind of boring trajectory. This year, that's changing.
Then there was the new putter going in the bag. For seven years, I've gamed a Yamada Burning Copper putter. I love it. The copper makes my heart melt. The stitchback kangaroo-leather grip has weathered to fit my hands like, well, a leather glove. But I'd lost confidence inside 7 feet. My arc stroke wasn't getting the ball in the hole, and I blamed my alignment (though it was alignment and stroke combined). By happenstance, I came to get to know the folks at Brainstorm Golf, and their Happy Putter Eye Align series sounded like what I needed. My brain longed to be stimulated, not look at the same alignment marker all the time. I needed something new to stare at just prior to pulling the trigger. Turns out, the Eye Align was perfect for me. The blue PVD finish and the Happy print across the face is cute, but the technology really works. I don't hit many putts outside of gimme range these days.
Frankly, all of those decisions were pretty easy, or they weren't decisions at all. It was just acquainting myself to new friends. The iron-set battle, though, remains a difficult one now five months into the year.
I have two sets in hand.
After gaming their FG Tour V6 irons last year and absolutely loving them, Wilson Golf sent me their C300 Forged irons. They're in the new-ish player's distance iron category, blending forged feel with the company's Power Holes, which are spaces filled with polymer to allow the face to flex more for better forgiveness and a longer carry. On one hand, I was reluctant because I don't need more distance at this point in my life. I need control, which is what the FG Tour V6s gave me. I knew my distances perfectly, but I had a harder time stepping on them when required.
The other set was from Mizuno, as they kindly sent me their MP-18 MMC irons. I was intrigued by the multi-material construction concept from Mizuno, given they're not a company oft willing to slap the MP label on a tech-driven iron. Titanium is co-forged into a portion of the back of the iron to give designers a way to use tungsten ports in the carbon steel head for the right weight placement. It's a fascinating concept, and it still looks at address like Mizuno sets I've gamed and adored in the past.
Out the gate, I figured Wilson would win. I'd grown comfortable with their aesthetic, and I was really pleased with the FG Tour V6s -- again, really amazing. I just as well assumed I'd stick with what worked. So, I played my first nine rounds of the year with them. And they were swell. I scored well with them in Myrtle Beach, as well a round at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. I won my buddy-trip trophy, the Old Greensburg Cup, for the third time in nine years thanks to some timely iron shots in the final round.
The slightly bigger blade isn't a turn-off, as I loved the deeper face on the V6s last year. I never thought about the Power Holes, since they're shrouded and placed only out of sight. The long irons are truly long, giving me up to 10 yards more when I need to call on it. My ball flight fit the profile of the C300 Forged without sending the ball too high or ballooning.
However, it was during a round in Houston at Champions Golf Club when I got spooked. I was playing with Steve Elkington and Secret Golf CEO Vito Palermo, and we played nine after waiting out a nasty storm. Out the gate, I was hot. Too hot. After OK approaches for the first few holes, I nuked the green on No. 3 by 30 yards. I flew the sixth green by 5 yards. I went long on No. 8 by 10 yards. On the ninth and final hole, I hit my third into a par 5 some 20 yards deep. In every case, I pulled the club I knew I should hit. In every one of those cases, they flew like rockets. Maybe I just had a great ballstriking day -- albeit with bad scoring results -- and should disregard that. But I've never hit an iron that good in 24 years of playing.
So, after coming home, my next round had to be with the MP-18 MMCs. I'd given them a round fresh out the box on a cold December day, but it wasn't really enough to tell me how I'd feel about them long-term. Since then, I've played a handful of rounds with them, and I haven't gone long on many shots since. The MP-18 MMCs still feel like a Mizuno should -- great feedback but soft feel in a well-crafted club. I don't notice the material changes since they're out of sight. They feel good in hand. They fly a little lower than the Wilsons, which comes in handy sometimes.
Now I'm about 15 rounds into my year, and, outside of a likely freak occurrence probably playing juiced up with a major winner, I don't know which iron set is best. I've had spectacular rounds with both, and the stock distances really aren't any different with either. It's easier to call up more yards with the Wilsons when needed. It's easier to play a controlled style with the Mizunos, which I frankly don't do much.
This is probably going to be the first season in a while I don't have a clear favorite iron set until maybe September. I'll switch back and forth, maybe depending on the conditions. What this early-season process has proven to me is hitting a bucket of balls in a net during a fiting won't do much to help you find the best iron set for you. It can give you an idea of distance and dispersion, certainly. But until you play several rounds with them in hand, you'll never experience the full breadth of situations where you need to rely on your tools as a golfer. So, if you can, grab some demo sticks and go play a few rounds with them, trying to re-create those situations that aren't your stock shot from the middle of a flat fairway. You'll be amazed what you learn.
Meanwhile, I have a bag I feel good about, even if the irons might change now and again. The King F8+ driver is a winner -- and I'm now using a lighter TPT Golf shaft I adore so far -- to keep me long and straight. My Srixon Z U65 2-iron is favorite club. The Cleveland RTX 3 sand wedge has a beautiful rust and can get me out of anything. I've rarely felt more comfortable on the greens with the Brainstorm Golf Eye Align putter (though I'll have a new putter coming soon; more on that in the future). When I feel confident in what I'm pulling out the bag, I feel confident in what I'm going to get out of my game. It's an annual exercise worth doing, even if you're not restocking every year.