Study: The Clubs In Your Bag (By Handicap)

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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.

Core Metalwoods

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.

where-differences-exist

  • 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.

5and6

  • 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

specialty-wedges

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.

Other Observations

  • 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.

About Tony Covey

Tony is the editor of mygolfspy. His coverage of golf equipment extends far beyond the facts as dictated by the companies that created them.

He believes in performance over hype. #PowerToThePlayer

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Comments

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Fones January 2, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Seriuosly guys, I’ve played since 17, now 72 and sick of ‘better’ golfers. Courses are closing everywhere and there ate few young people playing. Stop being so stupid and invite everyone to play or we won’t have a course to play.

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ROBERT ANTHONY PACE December 10, 2016 at 11:34 am

all i have to say is,
watch out for the guy who carries a 1 iron
and has a deep tan.

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Carolina Golfer 2 December 7, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Interestesting Read.

@Anthony, Great comments, the game needs more guys like you playing. Let’s play, enjoy the company, enjoy the day, and course. Who care’s if you’re scratch or 30+, just don’t be a Dick.

I suspect the reason so many 30+ handicappers have a 3 and 4 iron, they are likely beginners and maybe buying the presented set by the OEM as opposed to going through a fitting and being advised that maybe a 4 hybrid would fit them better. Actually not just them, but fit most any golfer better…ha

Good piece

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Jerami Waddell December 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

The diffrence is the center of the club face. Plain and simple

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Andrew Crumpton December 7, 2016 at 11:42 am

Both have better grammar than whoever wrote that.

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Steven P. Lombardi December 7, 2016 at 10:19 am

6 handicap, and considering 5 hybrid due to its ease of launch from all lies and higher flight for sticking targets

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Ken December 6, 2016 at 10:54 pm

I’m a 7 hdcp, age 56 and started playing at the age of 13. My first set of clubs were Ben Hogan Executives, laminated wood driver,3,4 and 5 woods, 3-sw and Ping Answer putter. I played those through high school golf team and averaged 40.2 for 9 holes on the year. Shortly after came the age of metal woods and I’ve had numerous clubs in and out of my bag since. Today I play a 10 year old driver that I’ve tried to replace 3 times and keep going back to. I still play over bunkers that take 240 to clear and my average drive is around 280. The driver is a Callaway FT-5 with a Graphaloy Blue stiff shaft and the face is hotter than the surface of Mars. I carry 1 other wood and it’s a Taylor Made r7 Titanium 5 wood head on a Graphaloy Platinum X-stiff 3 wood shaft. I like the ball to stop before it rolls into trouble and I can get a ball out of tough rough or off of a tight lie. Max distance is only 240 but hey, if you land a 3 wood on most greens it’s going off of the back anyway. I carry 2 and 3 TM rescue hybids, TM r7 tour 5-7 irons, Callaway X2 Hot Pro 8-PW, Cleveland 52,56,60 deg. wedges, all stiff Dynamic Gold metal shafts and a Carbite Mallet putter. I’ve carried 4 wedges since the mid 80s and everyone thought I was crazy. Now, everyone carries 3 to 4 wedges. The reason I don’t have newer and more expensive stuff is because I’ve tried it and it’s no better and often worse than what I have played for the last 10 years. My favorite ball I ever played no longer exists, it was a Taylor Made TP red. These days I’ll play anything with a urathane cover and I play them untill I lose them no matter how many scuffs I get on them. I played one ball for 5 rounds before i lost it. The 4th round with that ball it had 3 cart marks and a chip out of it and i shot a season low round of 71. To me, it’s bad mojo to dump a ball that lets you find it over and over and over again. Just go play!

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Bill December 7, 2016 at 12:22 am

Just an observation and certainly no offense is intended. Your irons are “game improving” Callaways, and if you average 280 from the tee and 240 with your 3-wood, one can only assume that, as a 7 hdcp, your short game must need some improvement. Am I correct?

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Steve December 6, 2016 at 10:28 pm

I found this interesting, and mostly expected. As an aside, I am one of those that mostly plays a relatively short course with raised greens having quite a bit of undulation, so I have a set concentrated at the short end (and would like to do even more of that). Unfortunately, I have been finding it extremely difficult to set up my bag in a way that doesn’t ‘waste’ money. I would be happy to buy a set that did not include a PW, so I could buy a specialty wedge; does anyone offer that? Otherwise, I am not living in a place that even offers sets without the 3 or 4, unless they are custom ordered (by then, I might as well buy the 3/4 and let them sit). So, yes, my 3/4 mostly sit at home, I have replaced with strong 5wd (4?) and a 3/4 hybrid. I keep the regular P, and have added 52,56,60,64, with the 52 bent to 51… The day that more OEMS add REAL flexibility in the way that Hogan is trying (or Hogan becomes available in other parts of the world) is the day I will stop complaining about OEMs.

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TonyG December 6, 2016 at 8:40 pm

Don’t lump us all together. I am a 3 handicap and will play with most anyone and enjoy myself (exception is people that take themselves to seriously). I especially enjoyed playing with people that are new to the game. I also think age is a big consideration. I am the one three handicapper in the survey that carries a 7-wood because the rough here can get thick and I have trouble getting anything but that club to go through it.

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Keith Ritter December 7, 2016 at 12:48 am

My woods and hybrid change depending on the course. 3 wood is mainly used when fairways are hard cause I don’t get much air on it but hit it very straight. Use a 16* hybrid when there are par 5’s I have a chance of reaching in two because I hit it pretty high and as long as my 3 wood. And I carry 4 wedges that are 48, 53, 59, and 63 degrees. I’m thinking about adding another hybrid next year, use a 16 and 21 degree right now.

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Adam Shields December 6, 2016 at 11:00 pm

Interesting!! I prefer a 4th wedge over a 4th longer club

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Cliff Morgan December 6, 2016 at 9:27 pm

Interesting but almost feels like common knowledge. I hate a wood and since playing a 1 hybrid (16°) I don’t ever see me putting a wood back in the bag. Creativity with clubs is another thing I have seen is big difference between the handicaps.

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Stan Lieber December 6, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Besides handicap, the most important criteria is club distance. At age 71 (12.4 handicap), my driver averages around 190-200; my 3 wood is about 165-175; my 5 wood is 145-155; my 7 wood is for 135 on average. Staying in the fairway is much more important than ‘crushing’ it. I have a full set of HYBRID IRONS (Ben Hogan A.H.S. by Callaway) from 4 through PW–because I tend to ‘sweep’ them more then hit down and take divots, a SW and a putter. That’s 13 clubs total. On a typical round, the clubs I use the least (but occasionally) are the 5 wood, 4 HYBRID IRON (130 yards), 5 HYBRID IRON (120 yards), 6 HYBRID IRON (105-115 yards), The 7 wood is for par 3’s with water or down slope; the 5 wood is only used when the distance is right for a par 3. The MOST used clubs are the Putter, PW, 3 Wood and Driver. It’s all about gauging distance and the number of shots to the green. My driver is a 12 degree Nickent 4DX with Senior shaft. My 3, 5, and 7 are all Cleveland Launchers with Regular Shaft; the Ben Hogan Hybrid Iron set has a STIFF shaft on each club. For each hybrid iron, I use a STIFF shaft. That helps me get consistent distance without worrying about trying to kill it and get variations in distance that blur the choice among clubs. My putter is ANCIENT–An original Zebra Mallet-Face Balanced (35″) putter. My PW Hogan (45 degrees) and my SW is 54 degrees. Playing with consistency and relaxation (less stress on every shot’s distance) is the most important thing for me–after 45 years. My putter lets me FEEL the ball at impact and guage the distance on the practice green. Unfortunately, my wife is still a much better putter than I am. When your vision ages/declines (stronger prescriptions), so does your ability to judge the ‘line’. So, I just pick a spot 12 inches BEYOND the cup and always go EXTRA HIGH on the break. Missing it on the low side is always wrong. MY SUGGESTION: figure out your distance with each club and a LESS whippy shaft. Then relax and dial in your distance. Your swing won’t be as “long” but it will be more consistent and cause less grief for you. FYI, my wife and I play between 50 and 80 rounds a year. I’ve tried every single brand known to man below $400 for a driver and less then $500 for an iron set. Find what is ‘comfortable’ to you and instills confidence. If they disappoint, sell them (E-bay or back to a retailer as a trade-in). Keep working on the woods because that is where the distance is; then move on to the comfort/confidence issue with the irons.

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Mike Honcho December 6, 2016 at 3:25 pm

I’d like to see the same research and comparison regarding golf ball use. If you’re an 18 handicapper or higher, best bet is your swing speed doesn’t support you using a tour-level ball. I.e., ProV

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Tony Covey December 6, 2016 at 3:40 pm

There is anything but widespread agreement on whether there’s any correlation between swing speed and the type of ball you should be using. Honestly, it’s Bridgestone against the world on this point. From what our data has shown us, slower swing speed players need help getting the ball in the air, and generating enough spin to hold greens. If anything, that suggests most would benefit from a higher spinning ball like a Pro V1.

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Steve S December 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Or the Kirkland Signature….

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Anthony Centimano December 6, 2016 at 7:11 pm

I love the condescending attitude taken by lower handicap players towards higher handicap players. Articles about why golf isn’t growing and what’s wrong with today. I’ll tell you what’s wrong, attitudes. I’m an 8 handicap, I play with all ranges of players and I don’t care. I marvel watching scratch or negative handicap players play. I have patience when someone is new. I don’t care if they are playing with new stuff or ancient stuff. But to generalize and be a dick on the course, that’s why folks get turned off.

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Cliff Morgan December 6, 2016 at 9:31 pm

I’m with you. I play with guys who play in the mini tours and guys who are doing good to break 100. I always tell higher handicap guys to have fun and keep pace. Most understand and don’t mind to pick up if they are really hacking it up on a hole. I enjoy playing with guys who just started because they have all these ideas (thanks to golf channel) but watching a guy break 100 or 90 for the first time is great.

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Brian Fuerstenberg December 6, 2016 at 11:08 pm

As long as someone is out there wanting to enjoy the game of golf, I don’t care how good they are. Unless someone is making money off the game, it should be about having fun and trying to get better.

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Matt December 7, 2016 at 8:54 am

Exactly Anthony I absolutely agree with you. It’s even worse if you’re playing on a public course and these lower handicappers think their playing on the PGA Tour and have no patience with high handicappers, like really why; don’t you sod off and join a ultra private course then.

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revkev December 8, 2016 at 8:58 am

I guess I’m fortunate. I rarely see this issue at the courses I play. One is a muni for a golf league that I’ve been a part of for ten years and the other a private club that I has graciously given me a clergy membership. The general attitude that I see on both courses is that golf is a brother (or even sister) hood and all are welcome to play in any group. The league is individual and even though I’m in the A flight I regularly play with folks in lower flights and we have a blast. The same holds true when I play with all lower handicappers in my own flight.

I’m very sorry to hear that you guys are experiencing such poor attitudes.

I thought this was an interesting read. I also thought that the first observation about very high handicappers just going with their beginner box set was spot on – so long as they are having fun who cares and if they want to improve a teacher will soon help them into better equipment choices. I also appreciated T jumping in on the golf ball – saved me the trouble.

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Drew Ng December 6, 2016 at 5:22 pm

!5 HCP players have most expensive, latest model drivers, clubs, wedges and shiny Scotty Cameron putters. 😉

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