A few weeks ago, we published the results of our 2016 Iron Buying Study. What we learned about your iron buying habits was interesting on its own, but when we started looking a little deeper, we found some intriguing bits of information about the entirety of the bag, and specifically the differences between what high and low handicap golfers carry.
We’re relatively (like 99.999%) certain that bag composition is the effect, not the cause. So we’re not going to suggest that golfers are inherently better because of what they carry, but it's not a leap to assume that our ability, and almost certainly our confidence and comfort, dictates what we put in our bags.
There are fundamental differences in what we find in the bags of better golfers and those of…shall we say...less accomplished players.
With that said, it’s also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that, regardless of ability level, the majority of the clubs we carry are the same. Sure, there are inherent design differences between blades and a set of super-game-improvement irons, but for the most part, nearly everyone carries a 6-iron through a sand wedge, and a putter too.
It’s also true that nearly all golfers carry a driver, and an overwhelming majority carry either a 3 or 4 wood as well.
What do all golfers have in common? Where do our bags differ? Let’s take a closer look.
There are strong similarities in the top of the even bag between different ability levels.
- While we observe slight usage percentage declines as handicaps increase, nearly 100% of golfers with handicaps of 3 and under, and just under 95% of higher handicap golfers report carrying a driver.
- We suspect that decline is due to the driver being too difficult for some higher handicap golfers to hit.
- The overwhelming majority of golfers surveyed also carry either a 3 or a 4 wood.
- Combined 3 and 4-wood usage rates peak at just under 95% for the lowest handicap group. From their usage declines to just above 86% before dipping again to 81% (21-29) and then falling to 65.8% among our highest handicap group.
- If not a 3 or 4 wood, what are higher handicap golfers putting in their bags? It’s not a 5-wood (see below), and not 7-wood either (usage among 30+ hcp golfers is lower than it is among 11-29 hcp golfers).
- Possibilities include higher lofted (5-7) hybrid use, or the chipper (just under 8% of 30+ hcp golfers).
Where The Differences Exists
Despite having 14 spots in the bag to fill, the biggest difference between high and low handicap bag composition is found in the three clubs between the longest fairway wood and the 5-iron. Those are slots invariably filled by some combination of fairway woods, hybrids, and long irons.
- Among the best players surveyed, the most likely combination is a 2-hybrid, 3-hybrid and 4-iron, though it’s worth noting that the rate of 3-iron usage is only slightly less than that of the 2-hybrid.
- For low to middle handicap golfers, the most likely combination is 5-Wood, 3-hybrid, and 4-iron
- 4-iron use steadily declines as handicap increases, but it isn’t until we reach the 16-20 handicap range that the 4-hybrid becomes more prevalent than the 4-Iron.
- Among our highest handicap group (30+) 4-iron usage again exceeds 4-hybrid usage.
- 2-iron usage is, mercifully, minimal, with only the best players surveyed exceeding a 10% carry rate.
- Not surprisingly, 7-wood rates peak just above 10% and usage is less prevalent still among single digit golfers.
The Next Frontier?
The survey data we collected hints that a slow, but not unexpected, migration from the 4-Iron to the 4-hybrid underway, but what about higher lofted hybrids?
7-hybrid use appears minimal. It’s just over 5% among 30+ handicap golfers, with no other group above 2%.
5 and 6 hybrid usage is a bit more revealing.
- Data suggests iron use still dwarfs hybrid use at 5 & 6 iron equivalents, but 5-hybrid use is above 10% in every group other than 3 and under group.
- 5-hybrid usage is at nearly 20% among 11 to 15 handicap golfers, and +/-25% for golfers with handicaps from 16 to 30+.
- 6-hybrid use is not nearly as strong. It peaks at 9% (16-20 handicaps) and is above 5% among golfers with handicaps above a 10.
The Specialty Wedge
We offered survey respondents the opportunity to select specialty wedges along with the standard gap, sand, lob options. Here’s what we learned from those responses.
- Only 91% of golfers with handicaps of 3 and under-reported carrying a PW – by far lowest in the survey.
- That’s odd until you consider that roughly 9% within that same group report carrying either a 46° or 49° wedge.
- 46° is likely a direct PW replacement. 49° would be weak by modern PW standards, but it remains a plausible equivalent.
- As PW lofts have been strengthened, 50° has become a common gap wedge loft, so it’s not surprising that nearly 30% of respondents report using 50° wedge.
- Use of a 50° specialty wedge appears to decreases as handicap increases. With the gap wedge now part of many sets, many golfers may not consider specific gap wedge loft any more than they do, for example, their 8-iron's loft.
- Trends for 54° and 58° wedges are exactly what we’d expect; usage declines as handicap increases. This isn’t necessarily about loft itself, but rather the attention to it. One plausible inference is that better players are more likely to pay closer attention to gapping and are, therefore, more likely to have in-between lofts than the once-standard 52°, 56°, 60° combination.
- Not included in the chart, but worth mentioning: According to our survey data, lob wedge use declines as handicap increases.
- Potentially, this is to make room for an additional club at the long end, or a chipper. Some may just find the higher lofted wedge too difficult to manage.
- Among the individual groups surveyed, the 11 to 15 and 16 to 20 handicap ranges are the most similar.
- Not surprisingly given what we’ve learned about where bag composition differs, the greatest differences between those two groups are found in usage rates between 4-hybrid/4-iron and 5-hybrid/ 5-iron.
- The 30+ handicap group is consistently anomalous. For most clubs, we see a nearly linear progression of usage (usage either trends steadily up or steadily down as handicap increases) from the 3 and under group to the 21-29 group. However; in many cases, particularly key slots in the bag, the over 30 handicap group bucks the trend, frequently ticking up or down in opposition to the trend among the other handicap groups.