Since 1991, golfers far and wide have been enjoying a steamy love affair with Big Bertha, the fat-headed driver introduced by Callaway Golf. With a bigger sweet spot and improved weight characteristics, Bertha and countless bulbous imitators belt the ball farther and straighter than a regular-size wood. "It's an unbelievable phenomenon," says T. Edwin Watts, president of Edwin Watts Golf Shops. "Our customers love 'em, and they buy the heck out of 'em."
So, it was only a matter of time before golf-club manufacturers began pumping up their irons. Cobra Golf is teeing off this season with a new line of King Cobra oversize irons. The Ping Zing, Head Golf's Big Head, and Wilson Sporting Goods' 1200 Gear Effect are among those also sporting bigger blades. The field will expand dramatically in August at the big golf equipment show in Anaheim, Calif. Wilson, for instance, will attach oversize heads to all its clubs below the premium-priced Staff line. And Founders Club Golf--whose Judge irons won this year's U.S. Open in the hands of pro Lee Janzen--will launch both midsize and oversize sets.
DEEP DIVOTS. The idea behind the new clubs is that expanding the face allows the clubmaker to move weight away from the center, thereby enlarging the sweet spot in the middle. Cavity-backed clubs--pioneered by Karsten Manufacturing's Ping irons--had already moved weight to the perimeter of the club face. Oversize clubs shove the perimeter out even farther. Surrounding the ball with more weight on all sides reduces twist on impact. And that means balls that are hit off-center fly truer and longer.
The problem is, bigger blades tend to dig a deeper divot, and some say they create undue wind resistance. Moreover, accomplished golfers who like to "feel" the ball with their irons say the expanded heads deaden that sensation. Many traditionalists have a more prosaic complaint: They say the clubs look funny.
By next year, though, oversize irons will be selling across the price spectrum. Wilson's lowest-end model will weigh in at $200 per set. Clubs with graphite shafts from Founders and Cobra will be priced closer to $1,000. Are they worth it? So far, many feel there's more hype than substance. John Hoeflich, Titleist's director of golf-club research, has tested all the new clubs--including Titleist's prototype--for pure performance. He says there's no difference. Nevertheless, Titleist plans to introduce a midsize head on its DTR iron this fall, so it doesn't miss out on a market stampede. "Just making it bigger doesn't make it better," Hoeflich says. "But from a marketing point of view, it's a good idea."
He's probably right. Most duffers are willing to try anything that promises to lower their score. Cheryl Anderson, assistant club pro at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton, Conn., says King Cobra irons with graphite shafts have been flying out of her shop. Anderson doesn't use them herself. But high-handicap golfers "feel more comfortable looking down at that big head--like they're not gonna miss," she says.
SLEEKER HEAD. New Orleans insurance agent Michael Coburn loves them. A 16 handicapper who has been playing for eighteen months, Coburn switched to Cobras from Ping Eye 2's because he seemed to hit farther with the big clubs. "All I know is, I don't feel like I have to swing as hard," Coburn says. "And if I believe it, that's all that counts."
Clearly, market dynamics favor a move to anything new. For the past several years, according to Allan Beyer, senior vice-president at Audits & Surveys, the overall golf-equipment market has been declining. Oversize drivers, led by Big Bertha, have been the one bright spot. Callaway Golf, a $23 million company in 1990, is on pace to post $200 million in sales this year. Its stock price has nearly quadrupled since it went public in early 1992.
But don't expect to find a Big Bertha iron at the August show. Founder Ely Callaway says his researchers haven't devised a club he's happy with--yet. "Our retailers say 'Hurry up.' I hear it 1,000 times a day," Callaway says. "Well, we hurry, but we hurry slow." Industry watchers think Callaway is shooting for an oversize iron with a sleeker head than on existing models. "I don't think the right club has been developed yet," says one major golf retailer. It's just a matter of time.