Whiffle: verb – to blow lightly in puffs or gusts; noun – something light or insignificant.

Friday, April 23, 2010

An "Obsolete" Rant

"Are your clubs obsolete?" That's the question Golf Digest asks here, in an article about upgrading to the latest technology. It comes complete with a long list of clubs the magazine considers to be in various stages of obsolescence, including some models (especially drivers) released as recently as 2008. Obsolete? Really? (Image: The Whiffler Collection)
     According to Merriam-Webster, the primary meaning of the word "obsolete" is: "no longer in use or no longer useful." Think of Beta format videotapes, computer floppy disks, and my size-34 pants. But "obsolete" can also mean: "of a kind or style no longer current." In other words, "old-fashioned." (Again, my pants come to mind.)
     OK, fine. By that definition, some (or perhaps even all) of the clubs in my bag are indeed obsolete. But they still do the same job, the same way, as more modern golf implements: They propel the ball in the general direction of, and ultimately into, a 4.25-inch hole in the ground some distance away. They are both "useful" and "in use." Obsolete? No more so than my Popeil Pocket Fisherman.
     Regular readers may have figured out by now that The Whiffler is pretty cheap – though I prefer to say "frugal," "fiscally conservative," or "tighter than John Daly's Lap-Band." How about "family rich, golf poor"? That is to say, golf is high on my list of passions but fairly low on the financial priority scale. I prefer to put my limited golf budget toward greens fees, par-3 rounds with the Golden Bear Cub, and pre-round donuts rather than new stuff.
     And when I'm honest with myself, that's at the heart of my love/hate relationship with equipment. It occurred to me recently that if I had unlimited resources I would probably be a golf club junkie. But I don't, so instead I find myself mildly resentful of the ongoing golf technology revolution.
     When I was a naive teen-age golf nut poring over the pages of Golf Digest, there were lots of gadgets and gizmos advertised in the back that were said to add yards to your tee shots and cut strokes from your score. I remember once pointing some of these things out to my dad, who replied, "Well, according to these ads, if you used this, this, this, and this, and added up all those claims, you'd hit the ball 400 yards and shoot 60 every time. And I don't think that's going to happen." My dad was in advertising, and he knew not to take every claim literally. It was a lesson I took to heart. (He also taught me the value of hard work. Thanks for trying, Dad.)
     When it came to clubs, there were good ones and not-as-good ones, but I never felt I was at a significant disadvantage when competing with my older Walter Hagen irons and Johnny Miller woods. When I splurged and bought myself a set of Wilson Staff woods as a high-school graduation gift to myself (Chargers RULE! Class of '81! Wooooo!!!), I didn't necessarily expect them to improve my game. I bought them partly for the prestige of owning fine clubs (I admit) and also because it seemed like a good investment (it was). I fully expected to play them for a lifetime, or at least until they wore out.
     Things started changing in 1991 with the introduction of Callaway's Big Bertha driver. With a relatively tiny head (by today's standards), measuring just 190cc in volume, it was the first salvo in the modern equipment wars – and perhaps the first driver to offer a true advantage over more traditional clubs. Before long, drivers were topping out at a balloonish 460cc (now the legal limit) with price tags in the hundreds of dollars – for one club! I paid about $140 – $335 in 2010 dollars – for my set of four Staff woods: Driver, 3-, 4-, and 5-woods (set of four puffball knit headcovers not included). (Image: dwquailgolf.com)

Bottom line is I have two basic problems with the modern equipment revolution:
     1) As discussed, the $$$. Though I don't play any real competitive golf anymore (just the annual White Lake Classic – or as I like to call it, the "Fifth Major"), it bothers me that you have to invest so much in clubs just to play on a level fairway. The good news is that things seem to be leveling out at least a little, and there are plenty of ways for the smart shopper to find only slightly "obsolete" clubs for fairly reasonable prices. Because the technology is advancing so rapidly (or so "they" would have us believe) new clubs do not hold their value well. That's bad if you're selling, great if you're buying. As long as you're willing to be a few years behind the curve.
     2) I don't think that making the game easier necessarily makes it better. It's supposed to be hard. Last year at our church golf outing, everyone had to tee off with an old-fashioned wooden driver on one hole. Surprisingly, I hit it pure – and watched in horror as the ball banana'ed drastically from left to right. Just like I hit 'em in the old days. It made me realize that as much as I like to think I hit the ball a lot straighter than I used to, and score at least as well as ever, I have to admit that a lot of the improvement is due to modern metal woods and perimeter-weighted irons.
     And there are still a few holdouts. I'm one. Even though my classic Tommy Armour Silver Scot irons (purchased used, of uncertain vintage) are apparently so obsolete they're not even listed in the Golf Digest list, they still seem to do a decent job of propelling the ball toward the hole with reasonable consistency (as evidenced by the WLC traveling trophy hanging on my office wall*).
     And take a look at this item (also at golfdigest.com) about Champions Tour player Mike Reid. He's been playing his TaylorMade fairway woods since the early 1990s, and claims he hasn't found any that are better. (Image, below: One of Reid's ancient fairway woods. Look at the worn-out sweet spot. If you can hit the ball that consistently, who needs modern technology?)
     If you want to go even further back in time, check out the Society of Hickory Golfers, dedicated to the promotion and encouragement of golf played with hickory-shafted clubs. I love it! Wouldn't it be fun to see a bunch of pros play in a tournament like this? As I understand it, swinging hard is poison in hickory golf, and it'd be nice to see a tournament where the smooth-swinging short hitters have a distinct advantage.

Back to the Golf Digest article for a moment. I also object to this sort of language: "... a staggering number of golfers continue to play with outdated equipment – irons and woods that with each year become increasingly ill-suited to helping them hit the ball farther down the fairway and closer to the hole."
     "Increasingly ill-suited"? Are these clubs made of uranium or something? Do they gradually degrade on a molecular level as they age, like Sergio Garcia, in a way that renders them ineffective? Only by comparison to new clubs – which is not the same thing as being "ill-suited" to the task of hitting a golf ball.
     Finally, the piece also links to a number of fairly amusing case studies – which make me feel a little better about the clubs in my own bag. One writer pokes some fun at Andrew Han of Burlingame, California, who swears he's going to hang on to his 34-year-old Lynx irons until he breaks 80. Is this crazy or admirable? If he's not playing in tournaments, I lean toward the latter. After all, if your ultimate goal is to test yourself against yourself, doesn't it make sense to do it with the same (or similar) clubs? Maybe a new set of irons would shave a few strokes off his game, but there's diminishing satisfaction in that. You haven't really improved; only your equipment has.
     It's also easy to imagine that golfers who obsess about their equipment may cost themselves a few strokes because of it. If you're never quite confident your clubs are "just right," you're ... well, never quite confident. When you've played the same clubs for a long time and aren't always thinking the grass may be greener on the other side of the pro shop, you can free yourself of those thoughts and that doubt and focus on what you can do to improve your game.
     As an avowed capitalist (and someone who works in marketing), I understand that equipment company money fuels much of the golf world. Golf Digest no doubt pays many of its bills with dollars it receives to hawk the latest advancements. And that's fine. But it's also something to keep in mind when weighing the value of the advice they provide about your equipment choices.
     Here's The Whiffler's advice: Don't be pressured by claims of "obsolescence" into buying new equipment you don't need (or can't afford). If you like buying new stuff and can do it without taking out a second mortgage or prying out your fillings and mailing them to webuygold.com, go for it. I'll try to keep my resentment to a minimum. But if the ancient clubs in your bag give you a sense of satisfaction and you enjoy playing with them, I say keep 'em – with pride! They're useful to you for as long as you keep them in use.
     Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go de-oxidize my vast collection of 8-track tapes. It may take awhile.

*The trophy has become such a monstrosity over the years (the tradition is for each winner to add a memento to it) that none of the lovely but stubborn WLC wives will allow it to be displayed in their home.


  1. Very good Zim. Put a smile on my face after a long week. I learned a couple things:
    1. I didn't know "banana'ed" was a word. This will come in very useful, thank you very much; and 2. $140 in 1981 for 3 woods?! Really? Wow. Wow that it was that little, and wow that you remember. What drives the increase in cost - all the exotic metals and composites I suppose. When does the green revolution hit golf equipment and we go back to a renewable resource to make golf clubs, like, say, wood? Wouldn't that be a kick. and 3. I think I learned the secret to getting under the Whiffer's skin to win the Fifth Major. Something to do with reverse psychology/persimmon/slicing/banana-ing. Haven't worked out the details yet.

    Any bites on the advertising space?

  2. Actually, I was a little surprised when I put $140 into the inflation calculator that the 2010 amount came out as high as it did. Still, you'd be hard pressed to get a set of four high-quality modern "woods" (if you could find a set of four) for $335. And the ad space is still available. Phil Knight is not returning my calls – even after I did him the enormous favor of posting his creepy new Tiger Woods commercial at no charge. Ingrate.