If you're thinking of spending as much as $500 for one heavily advertised name-brand golf club, consider a cheaper, more personalized alternative: a custom-made club measured and fitted to your exact specifications. Extravagant? Not really. A customized club costs more than a basic model, but it can be far less expensive than best-selling brands such as Callaway's Great Big Bertha or the Taylor Made Burner Bubble.
Just how much of a difference can they make in your game? It depends on the quality of the fit and experience of the maker. Some fitters merely adjust the length of the shaft according to your height, while others take into account everything from swing speed to more esoteric indicators such as torque--how much the shaft twists during the swing. A properly fitted club makes it easier to hit the sweet spot without having to make compensations in your swing to find it. The real benefit is greater consistency and distance.
There are several ways to buy custom clubs. Of course, any pro shop can sell you off-the-rack clubs and make minor adjustments in the grip or shaft length, but this isn't customization. Still, "most people come into the shop predisposed to a brand rather than taking the time to go through a fitting," says Dave Alvarez, head pro at the new Chelsea Piers driving range in Manhattan.
RADAR GUN. Most of the major manufacturers offer their own fitting system that pros also may use. In the past two years, Slazenger Golf has abandoned its off-the-rack line to get into the custom-fitting business full-time. Rick Gomes, a teaching professional at Jonathan's Landing Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., says his club chose the Slazenger system because it offers numerous variations of head and shaft weights and lie angle, which is the angle formed by the head of the golf club and the shaft.
The next level of customization is to get measured by a pro who will then order the components and assemble the clubs. Many pros do the measuring for free. Those who do charge typically bill the hourly lesson rate and then credit it toward a purchase. And if you can bring your own set of clubs, the fitter should be able to tell you how they fit. If you're looking for a qualified Professional Golfers' Assn. pro who does it all, you can call GolfSmith, a mail-order component company (800 933-4599), for a local referral.
Bill Ryan, an award-winning club fitter and maker, is one such pro. With a radar gun clocking my swing speed and a device assessing where in my swing I exert the most force, Ryan prescribed a slightly stiffer graphite shaft than the one I currently use. While two people might clock in on the radar gun at 90 mph at impact, they may well need shafts of differing flexibility. "The idea is not how fast you swing but how you swing fast," explains Kenneth Donovan, owner of the Garden State Golf Center in Somerville, N.J., where Ryan is head pro.
The advantage in working with a professional is service, and Henry-Griffitts fitters--all PGA members--combine technology with their own unique teaching approach. The company (800 445-GOLF), which makes nothing but custom clubs, takes the view that equipment affects motion. "Most people fear that if they let nature take its course, they'll end up with a sloppy swing. The reality is, nature will provide you with a beautiful balanced swing if the club fits," says Tom Shea, Griffitts regional director.
MIX AND MATCH. Shea told me part of the reason I was hitting poorly was that I was compensating for an ill-fitting club. Doubtful, I dutifully hit 5-wood after 5-wood from his hot-dog cart of custom clubs. Suddenly, it happened. Using a lighter, more flexible 5-wood with a smaller grip, I stopped pulling my shots to the left and got more distance than I ever got from my driver.
The least expensive route to customization is to get measured by a pro, then take the specifications directly to a club component maker. This is comparable to buying a computer from a mail-order company rather than a retail store. Murray Flam, president of FM Sports in Brooklyn, N.Y. (718 388-3635), a clubmaker since 1946, has a wide variety of shafts, heads, and grips in his back room. He will build the club to your specs, offering a choice of parts you can mix and match.
So before you put down a few hundred dollars for a King Cobra driver in the hopes that you'll start hitting like Greg Norman, keep in mind that you might be better off investing in clubs that will reward your swing--not his.