How forgiving should my irons be? Will “blades” make me a better ball striker?

It depends.

And, emphatically, no.

Would you buy pants with a smaller waist because it will help you lose weight? I thought not.

Maybe the most challenging part of finding the ideal set of irons is that golfers have arguably too many choices. In theory, a more robust menu is a good thing but narrowing it down to a single optimal entrée can feel overwhelming.



As with every club in your bag, an iron fitting begins with a single question: “What do I want this club to do?” That might sound odd given that irons are often sold as a set of five, six or seven clubs. Still, it’s a good idea to break this question into at least two categories: short irons and mid/long irons.

This line of thinking opens the door to an increasingly popular concept: the combo set. Even many pros combine several models within a single brand to find an ideal blend of forgiveness and workability. More on those terms in a bit.

In the retail world, most manufacturers design iron lineups around the idea that golfers may want to mix and match throughout a set, particularly if they’re willing to take the time to work with a professional fitter.



As you ponder what you need from a new set of irons, it’s helpful to keep in mind the four primary classes of irons: player’s, player’s distance, game-improvement and super game-improvement.

This taxonomy largely follows skill and, to a lesser degree, handicap. That said, the labels are suggestions, not hard rules. In terms of aesthetics, as you move from player’s irons to super game-improvement models, topline width, sole width and offset tend to increase.

In the golf industry, when you take away one attribute, it’s often articulated as the existence of the alternative characteristic. This is the ol’ forgiveness versus workability conversation. If a club isn’t very forgiving, brands will likely point to how workable it is. Conversely, irons built for shot makers who want more control over trajectory and shot shape won’t find their irons described as “high-launching” and “easy-to-hit.”

Basically, the two key competing characteristics operate a bit like the hot and cold knobs on a faucet. The trick is figuring out the desired ratio.

Game-Improvement Irons


Design Objective: Balanced performance with a lean toward forgiveness. Most golfers likely fit into this category.

Recently, the game-improvement category has undergone a bit of a metamorphosis. Once upon a time, the design emphasis focused on forgiveness—what the industry loosely terms “playability.”

Today’s game-improvement iron is significantly more distance-oriented than it used to be. Visually, these designs have a larger footprint, more offset, thicker toplines and wider soles which help concentrate mass low in the clubhead and are more resistant to digging.

The drive for more distance is evidenced by the bevy of materials and technology that companies pack into each design. Also, lofts have gotten progressively stronger. For example, 27-degree 7-irons and 43-degree pitching wedges are quite common. The typical industry justification for the strong lofts is that they’re necessary to overcome a lower/deeper center of gravity and to maintain proper launch and descent angles.

For some golfers, particularly faster swing speed players, this can be true. However, high swing speed players aren’t the typical game-improvement target demographic. For slower players, the result is often shots that fly too low, don’t spin enough and ultimately do a piss-poor job (technical term) at holding greens.

The reality is that while the forgiveness offered by game-improvement designs benefit many golfers, the aggressive loft-jacking can work against those same players. It’s two steps forward, one step back sort of thing.

As a sidebar, it appears the industry at large realizes that loft jacking has gone too far. If anything, we’re seeing a shift back towards more sensible lofts for the target golfer.



Design objective: Provide golfers with technology to maximize height/trajectory and distance, creating as many acceptable shots as possible.

As the name suggests, you take the description of game-improvement irons and turn the volume up to 11.

With other iron categories, some energy is spent on attempting to conceal design features that more discerning golfers might find objectionable.

That isn’t the case here. These irons tend to have the largest footprint, most forgiveness and mass properties that encourage a draw (or help mitigate a slice). Form matters but mostly to the degree that it doesn’t dissuade the target golfer from making a purchase. Because of the design intent, these long irons often look a bit like small hybrids. In fact, some super game-improvement iron sets blend hybrid long irons with more traditional-looking mid/short irons.

When developing the super game-improvement Stealth HD irons, TaylorMade uncovered a telling aspect of the psychology of the target super-game improvement golfer. The question the design team sought to answer is “What makes a shot successful?”

What TaylorMade discovered is that so long as a shot met one or both of the following criteria, it was given a passing grade: the ball got reasonably airborne and it stayed on target or missed 15 to 20 yards left of target (for right-handed golfers). Airborne, forward, and anywhere but right of the target is ultimately how this segment of golfers assess the quality of an iron shot.



Design Objective: Control, feel and aesthetics required by highly skilled golfers.

When looking at a player’s iron, if your first thought is, “I’m not good enough to play these …” you’re probably right. Emphasis on probably. Player’s irons serve an aspirational purpose for many golfers. Put differently, there isn’t a shot you need to be able to hit that you can’t accomplish with this category of irons. As a result, it’s the dominant style of irons played on most professional tours.

For better or worse, player’s irons will do what you instruct them to do, just like a manual transmission. It’s fun to downshift around a tight corner but let out the clutch a little too fast and things can get messy in a hurry.

With less material (and therefore mass) shoved to the perimeter of the club, the penalty for missing the center of the face is magnified. However, with more weight concentrated behind the geometric center of the face, the purity of a well-struck shot is unmatched by irons in other categories. To a large degree, it’s what manufacturers are trying to appeal to when they tout a “solid, forged feel” in game-improvement and player’s distance irons.

In this category, the width, bounce and grind of the sole carries more importance because the target golfer likely has, at a minimum, a moderately negative angle of attack. This means that how the club enters and exits the turf will have a pronounced impact on overall performance.

Plenty of player’s irons are forged from a single billet of soft carbon steel. That said, the recent trend involves multi-material designs and hollow cavities. The purpose of harvesting (and then reallocating) weight is to alter performance within the rather strict confines of a smaller overall profile. As a result, some manufacturers use dense materials (tungsten) in the heel and toe to improve forgiveness. Others opt to hollow out a cavity behind the face which is filled with tungsten, aluminum and proprietary malleable plastic structures. The purpose generally is to alter sound/feel and spin/launch conditions without increasing the size of the clubhead.

That isn’t to suggest this category isn’t concerned with distance. But every design is the result of a series of tradeoffs, and this target player likely doesn’t need a thin face to generate robust ball speed.



Design Objective: Retain as many of the qualities of player’s irons as possible while placing a slightly greater emphasis on distance.

There’s plenty of argument as to which company crafted the first true player’s distance iron. Regardless, the category’s existence speaks to the recent evolution of iron club design. As the label suggests, this targets golfers who want the curb appeal of a player’s iron but benefit from a little more horsepower.

As such, the key difference between the two categories is based mostly on what you can’t see. Like some player’s irons, player’s distance irons often feature a hollow cavity behind the face. But in this case, manufacturers use a variety of face materials (generally stronger and thinner alloys) and topologies to boost ball speed.

Also, it’s common to see slight design variations throughout a set of player’s distance irons. Long irons tend to be where golfers can benefit the most from a distance-amplifying construction. But shorter irons launch higher with more spin and less ball speed. As such, attributes like hollow cavities, speed slots and micro-thin faces aren’t necessary or useful.

Considering that, it helps explain the upside and popularity of combo sets. Players can find a bit more height, distance and forgiveness in long irons while retaining the feel, control and shot-making attributes in the short irons.


It’s easy to want to point to a single metric or data point as the determining factor in the type of iron you should play. If only it were that easy. Regarding irons, a player’s handicap is often treated as a solid line of demarcation. It’s an oversimplification that is a solid starting point but far from definitive.

Forgiveness is, on balance, beneficial but not if it comes at the expense of proper launch conditions. Some high-spin players, even highly skilled ones, might be better off with player’s distance irons because the stronger lofts work to reduce spin and generate a more optimal launch window.

Like handicap, swing speed is a reasonable criterion but far from conclusive. By this line of thinking, players with less swing speed should likely play distance irons that help boost ball speed. But additional speed without optimal launch conditions isn’t going to help any golfer hit (and hold) more greens.

The ideal set of irons, for any player, is the one that produces the best combination of launch conditions while providing a desirable balance of playability (forgiveness) and workability (control).



Your static measurements (height, wrist-to-floor, hand size) are good starting points to help determine the correct iron length. But, ultimately, loft, lie and length should all be fitted dynamically based on the unique attributes of your swing.

I’m not a huge fan of fitting lie angle by asking golfers to hit shots off a plastic lie board. Typically, a fitter would place a piece of tape on the sole of the club and then, based on where/how the golfer strikes the board, determine whether the lie angle should be increased, decreased or kept at standard.

The problem with lie boards is, well, that they lie when ball/ground impact do not occur simultaneously. For example, when a golfer makes turf (or board) contact behind the ball (positive angle of attack), impact/lie tape can create an upright reading when it should be flat.

The better scenario is that a fitter has access to tools such as Mizuno’s Shaft Optimizer 3D that generates a dynamic lie angle suggestion. Then the fitter can use that information along with swing path, angle of attack and other factors to determine the appropriate lie angle.



Every iron is designed with a certain amount of loft. For example, a standard pitching wedge in the player’s irons category is 45 to 46 degrees.. However, dynamic loft (how much loft the golfer delivers to the ball at impact) plays a large role in determining how far a shot flies. Because our friends at the USGA (and I am using that term loosely) allow a total of 14 clubs in your bag, it makes sense that each goes a different distance. Otherwise, you end up like my dad, who has at least six clubs that all go 150 yards.

If you want a good starting point, take your 7-iron ball speed and divide by 10. That’s your baseline yardage gap between each iron. My 7-iron ball speed is +/- 120 mph, which means I should have a 12-yard gap between each iron.



Is the Pope Catholic? Is there always one 10-handicapper at the Member-Guest who shoots a net 61? Of course, the shaft matters.

You have neither the time nor the energy to hit every shaft/head combination on the market. A good fitter can help narrow it down but this is also where big data and tech tools come in handy.

I already mentioned Mizuno’s Shaft Optimizer 3D but it’s worth revisiting. In three swings, the system produces the top three suggested shafts (based largely on projected ball speed). Like any model, it isn’t an exact science. But what Mizuno’s platform does well is eliminate bad answers by assessing swing speed, tempo and how you load/release the shaft. From there, it’s a bit of trial and error but at least you’re starting in the right ZIP code. Certainly, a fitter has other means to reach similar conclusions but it shouldn’t take breaking a sweat and 30 full swings to hone in on a general idea of the correct shaft weight, profile and flex.



Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, many golfers carried set-matching 2- and 3-irons. But unless a company pays you to have your name on a bag, you likely don’t have the requisite swing speed or ball-striking acumen to get any benefit from a traditional long iron.

So, at some point, we can all benefit from a hybrid or higher-lofted fairway wood in place of a 3- or 4-iron. The question then becomes, “What is the longest iron I should carry?”

PING’s fitting software “Co-Pilot” uses trajectory analysis and a bunch of fancy algorithms to provide an answer. I suspect other major manufacturers have similar structures for fitters. Again, recall the optimal iron-gapping guideline. If you can’t routinely carry your 5-iron at least 10 yards further than your 6-iron, it’s time to drop the 5-iron. The same is true for the other irons in your set.



There’s a good chance that, whether indoors or outdoors, you’re going to see a lot of numbers alongside each shot you hit during a fitting.

The challenge is making sense of it all. The temptation is to focus on distance at the expense of more important metrics. If you want a phrase to commit to memory, think “descent angle, not distance.” Moreover, it’s not that ball speed, spin rate or launch angle aren’t important data points. But in isolation, they don’t provide enough information. Is a spin rate of 7,000 rpm good? It depends. What about a 17-degree launch angle? Who knows?

The goal of any fitting should be to get the golfer to generate an ideal (or, at least, workable) combination of shot characteristics.

The accompanying chart from PING is built around a target “stopping power” which is represented by the landing angle. The greater the angle of descent into the green, the more “stopping power” the shot has. Also, note that a 7-iron is the industry standard for fittings. As such, most fitting guidelines are based on 7-iron performance numbers.

That aside, it’s also a clue as to the basic data points that you should pay attention to during a fitting. Swing speed, ball speed and carry distance are straightforward, though some fitters will show you total distance, which I would suggest you largely ignore.

Launch angle (think of a plane taking off) and landing angle (or descent angle) are pretty simple as well. But spin rate (amount of spin measured in revolutions per minute) is what ties the two together. A golf ball needs a certain amount of spin to stay in the air. However, too much (or too little) spin can cause a loss in distance. Basically, the higher a player launches the ball (which also means a steeper descent angle), the less spin that player needs to maintain an optimal ball flight. Again, this is only true within certain parameters. Case in point: There is no optimal scenario for a golfer who generates 120 mph ball speed but only a 4,000 rpm spin rate.


Top-end, enterprise-grade launch monitors pump out more information than any golfer needs during a fitting but you might find some pieces potentially useful. Here’s a quick list ranging from “good to know” to “leave it for your instructor to interpret”:

Impact location – Visual data showing where the ball met the club face.

Dynamic loft – The amount of loft on the clubface at impact.

Angle of attack – Measurement of how steep (or shallow) your club is as it approaches impact.

Spin axis – Measurement of the tilt of the axis on which the ball spins. For example, a spin axis of -18° would represent a draw/hook for a right-handed golfer.

Club path – The direction the club is moving (in-to-out or out-to-in) at impact.

Face angle/face to target – The direction of the clubface at impact (open, closed or square).

Face to path – The difference between face angle and club path.

Closure rate – The measure of rotation of the clubface as it approaches impact.

Have an iron fitting on the calendar? Hopefully, this guide allows you to be a bit more prepared.

As always, if you have questions, ask ‘em!

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