Why average golfers don’t improve

Scores don’t improve much from year to year for the average golfer, as least as measured by the National Golf Foundation. In 2010 the stats were about the same as they’ve been over the past few decades – 97 average score for male golfers – 114 for women – 100 combined average.

Some think the reason is golfers don’t play or practice enough. It is true that ‘conditioning’ of mind and body leads to more reliable repetition. But, if one wants to improve on their current state, they’ll need to make changes or else they are simply grooving non-success.

Taking lessons surely helps, if taken from a knowledgeable teacher/observer, but that takes time and discipline not just during the lesson but afterwards where one needs to re-engineer their swing and mindset to the new, often uncomfortable techniques. ‘Change’ isn’t easy.

Golf technology provides yet another fix for game improvement. We know from TV watching that pros are hitting the ball longer than years past. And it might also be true that iron accuracy, chipping and putting have improved, but that’s harder to verify, so we mostly take vendor advertising claims on faith for these game segments.

In fact, since the new drivers and custom fit golf balls have aided the driving game without commensurate average score reduction, logic says the other game elements may actually have gotten worse.

Serious golfers and the robot

What we do know is that a robot, like the USGA’s Iron Byron, hitting shots in 2010 compared to 1970 is longer off the tee and has lower shot dispersion with irons.


The robot is the most consistent ball striker there is.

Serious golfers like touring pros emulate this robotic performance. But touring pros, with their remarkable performances, need to sacrifice time for innumerable sessions on the practice tee and often have sage advice to keep their swings tuned. And, since it is their job, they willingly do it.

Watching the top pros, or serious amateurs for that matter, we note a short ‘bridge’ in their ball striking capabilities to the robot. In fact, more than one commentator has quoted that a given player is “hitting it like a machine”.

But what about the average golfer? Does a short ‘bridge’ exist between an average golfer’s performance and the best players in the game? In fact, does “any” bridge exist for those arm flailing, reverse pivoting, over-the-top, outside-in practitioners at all. We know the answer. The average golfer is mired in a non-improvement rut.

Even Ben Hogan had a class for these 'average' folks. Hogan placed 'golf learners' into 3 classes. The first and second class were those already somewhat adept that could take advice. If they would work hard at practicing his concepts, Hogan would work with them as a trainer. If not, Hogan would not spend time with them. The "class three'ers" he defined as those who come out to the practice tee to pick up a few tricks so that they can record a passable round on the weekend. Again, he wasn't much interested in sharing his swing ideas on these folks. Of course, when you think about it, most folks doing other things in their lives other than playing golf, are class three'ers or 'average golfers'..

So if you are an average 'class three' golfer, does it even make sense trying to emulate the best players in style and equipment when even those great teachers recognize it is mission impossible?

We know the answer. There is no hope of the average golfer ever achieving the serious-golfer proficiency without a massive, time consuming effort.

… but wait, to quote the great Billy Mays, there might an in-between ..

Perhaps if the average golfer tried some new methods, techniques and apparatus suited more for HIS or HER poor game instead of trying to emulate the pros, they COULD improve scores. Certainly putting is addressable, and by now, most players use contemporary drivers with the large 460cc head size to allow greater mishit margin than smaller heads. Both of these appeal to common sense. But what of the iron game where on about every hole, one, two or three irons might be hit. Although composing a significant part of a player’s score in a game, it is the weakest segment for the average player.

Hybrid irons, introduced in the mid-1980’s by Pinseeker, Spalding and Wilson, helped slightly since the marketing message was that one could sweep the hybrid shot much like they sweep a driver off a tee. True, except there is no tee in the fairway. For those who play the ball as it lies instead of teeing it up on a clump through-the-green, there isn’t much advantage in striking a 4 iron or equivalent hybrid.

One thing we know for sure based on average golfer scores for the past 3 or 4 decades, the existing technologies haven’t done much, if anything, to improve average golfer performance because new equipment designs are made for the best in the game, not the worst. And irons are the biggest culprit ..

Maybe it’s time for the average player to break with tradition ..

Iron game improvement for the average golfer

The problem

Possibly the best ‘iron’ ball striker of all time, Ben Hogan, once said “there are as many positions for the feet as there are clubs in the bag “.

This is illustrated below from the Encyclopedia of Golf Techniques, Paul Foston, first edition 1989.


There are 3 complications to proper setup with variable length clubs.

First, the distance from the toeline to the ball changes with each length of club. Think in terms of swinging two sticks – one 3’ long and one 6’ long. Necessarily, to strike the ground with the 3’ stick requires that ground striking point to be close to your toeline. To strike the ground in a similar fashion with a 6’ stick, requires you stand much farther back from the ground strike point.

Second, for most golfers, the ball position is moved slightly ‘back’ in the stance for each variable length club. This is because the clubface must ‘square’ at point of impact for each club on a properly executed swing and, as the variable length clubs get shorter, it is easier to ‘square’ the impact moving the ball back. Otherwise, the player must uncomfortably ‘reach’ for the ball.

Third, the golfer needs to mentally and physically combine the ‘distance away’ and ‘distance back’ for each club length in his bag. For 8 iron club lengths that means one needs to have 16 separate setups and that’s for the basic ‘flat ground’ shot.

This is further complicated by ‘how’ you position your feet assuming you carry a ruler with you to physically measure the precise ball positioning you need. Cochran & Stobbs in their “The Search for the Perfect Swing”, 1968, and still the bible on the golf swing, show how the best players consistently set up their stance compared to poor players. Quoting from page 87 and as shown in the figure below “the main difference in stance between good and bad players is that the good player takes up his stance more consistently”.

Note that the good player foot positioning is very consistent versus the 24 handicapper whose foot positioning varies all over the lot. And, here’s think about this – THAT’S FOR ONE CLUB, THE DRIVER. If an average player can’t consistently setup for one ‘same length’ club, think of the permutation problem with 8 multiple length irons.

As you can see, ball positioning changes with each length of iron. In most cases these varying lengths also require a change in the player’s stance.

So if you have 8 or 9 variable length irons, you have 8 or 9 setups and 8 or 9 swingplanes to imagine.

Another point is that there are no real rules on ball positioning setup. Note that some exceptional players like Hogan and Nicklaus, as shown below, use alternative setups they found more productive. It goes to show that even great ball strikers attempt to simplify their stances by reducing the number of setup combinations. Others, like Seve Ballesteros, have no set rules for positioning and instead let their comfort level determine the setup. Now THAT takes real conditioning.

Unfortunately, hybrid irons don’t successfully resolve this problem. Whether you are using a complete set of Wilson TurfRiders or for lower irons only, today’s du jure solution, the hybrids each have a different length and therefore require a different setup.

Multiple setups are a major complication to the variable length iron game and intuitively a key reason that the iron game continues to be such a mess for the average golfer.

Even with perfectly matched multiple length irons that each feel about the same when swinging them, a decision still must be made on every iron shot as to setup and ball positioning. If you setup 31” away when your best striking zone is at 30”, you don’t need much science to realize that is a problem for shot execution. Even the robot isn’t going to strike consistent shots 1” offcenter.

And it’s not hard to relate to the problem with your own personal experiment. Taking a friend with you to the driving range, hit a dozen 5 irons recording the toeline-ball distance and shot performance. You will soon discover that it is quite challenging to consistently set the right ball address distance from shot to shot. You will also note that when you are properly set, shot results are better.

One last point regarding the basic setup problem with multiple length irons. After you have painstakingly perfected your setup for each iron, you also need to have the toeline aligned properly to the target. Nuff said!

It’s no wonder the average golfer can’t improve their iron game with variable length irons!

The Solutions

Over many years there have been numerous attempts to ease the shotmaking process for irons. Irons were originally ‘related’ for single irons and later ‘matched’ for sets. The relating, matching or correlating (all terms historically used) criteria might be club static weight, swing weight accounting for the physics measure ‘moment’, shaft flexibility with variations, and so on. As early as the 1920’s, designers and inventors had mentioned “getting clubs with consistent ‘feel’ from one another to help players of ‘moderate’ proficiency”. In the mid 1960’s even the engineering talent of putter guru Solheim Karsten had applied to his correlated iron set, heads of the same length and a consistent shaft axis to ball impact point.

With lighter weight shafts and head materials, club lengths have increased as has head size, all with the purpose of making the iron game easier. But most of the technologies benefit the serious golfer, not the average player struggling with fundamentals.

On the other hand, the route taken by design thinkers in the adjustable club field did have some bearing on ways to simplify the game for the average player.

While there is a gamut of materials on adjustables dating to the early 1900’s, some, but not all, used the same shaft for all the irons with the mentioned benefit of ‘same length’ for swing consistency. In performing patent searches on ‘matching club design’, it is remarkable how often patent credits and precedents are given to prior adjustables.

Doubling up lengths

In the late 1930’s, Spalding developed a set of Kro Flite irons under the direction of their star proponent, Bobby Jones. These irons, shown below, mention the ‘matching’ of every two irons in length “ to simplify the setup” for iron play. He says “.. by introducing the brand new idea of matching in pairs as to length and lie, you need master only one stance for every two clubs”. What qualifies this as important in the iron length debacle is that Jones wasn’t only the greatest of his time and maybe all time, but that he was an erudite intellectual and practicing attorney less inclined to marketing puffery and more to real meaning. Watch his instructional videos to understand why.


The dual lengths are illustrated more closely below from a set for sale on the website www.clubsofdistinction.com.


Single length irons

In the mid 1970’s a US patent was granted for matched golf clubs of equal lengths. This became the basis for a set of woods and irons from Tommy Armour Golf in 1989. The models had a five year production run, a success then and, as we can testify being in the used club business, a design with strong demand today (year 2011.

The patent categorized golf clubs in 2 classes – woods and irons. In each class, their ‘matching’ criteria was ‘equal shaft length’, ‘equal lie angle’, ‘equal swing and total weight’. The patent holder, Jack Nix, even mentioned Hogan’s statement in his Power Golf book discussing ‘multiple stance positions as there are clubs in the bag’.

Nix went further and said “the effect of different shaft lengths and weights of clubs is a multitude of different sets of body controls for the player to learn” and “ it follows that if each club has a different shaft length , the plane of the arc swing will be unique for each club. Consequently, the player must develop a different strict body control discipline for each club. A matter of 14 accommodations for a complete set of 14 clubs (sic) , not counting the putter”

Later he says “ equal length and lie angles reduce the complications facing the non-expert golfer in learning to acquire the desired skill”.

A final note is that he recognizes and states that you cannot have a single ‘class’ due to the woods needing more of a power swing than irons, which serve a different purpose.

Triple length irons

In the early 2000’s, Mirror Image produced irons in 3 lengths. The story doesn’t change much in their literature, that being that existing variable length irons are too complex for an average golfer to manage. These irons were made for several years and found success through a network of teaching pros that understood the significance.

Two length irons

Simpletons Golf, begun in 2005, established two lengths – one length for mid irons and one length for high irons. The Simpletons proposition recognized two separate objectives for iron play – one objective to simply advance the ball to proximity of the desired target area – this is the role of the mid-irons. The second iron objective is for shots where the expectation is to normally be ON TARGET – the high irons.

There are two swing planes to learn, one for each outcome strategy. Most ‘average’ players think about hitting targets with their 7 iron and up (the high iron class); most are content to be ‘around the target’ (the mid iron class).

In fact, for some players using higher numbered fairway woods like 6’s and 7’s, the mid irons might be dispensed with. Simpletons irons are sold directly for both men and women at www.simpletonsgolf.com.

Summary and Conclusions

There is no quick fix and the adage about ‘the secret is knowing that there is no secret’, is never more true than in the game of golf.

Club designers have been wrestling with the club matching problem for almost a hundred years. As irons evolved, the higher lofted irons had bigger, heavier heads that required shorter lengths to compensate for greater weight, especially when attempting to match or correlate irons.

Had today’s metal and materials technology been available historically, smaller high loft heads on shafts of equal length to lower lofted irons likely would have been the industry norm instead of variable length irons.

A number of years ago a management concept named ‘re-engineering’ was conceived. The rationale made sense. If, for example, you landed on the moon and wanted to set up a telephone network for the colonists, would you string telephone poles from residences to central offices or would you simply use wireless? The main reason we continue with land based telephone lines today, has little to do with better reception or costs. The fact is these exist solely because they are in place not because they are better or even as good.

Scores of average golfers of today aren’t much improved over 40 years with many improvements in club design, shafts, and golf balls. Golf equipment is primarily marketed via endorsement of the game's best players but unfortunately, what applies to the best doesn't make sense for the average golfer. The golf iron game is historically been the weakest segment for average players.

While there are no miracles or secrets to golf improvement, perhaps it is time for the average 'class three' golfer to shed the vicarious dream of the finest players and experiment with some basic, common sense simplifications, that have a reasonable, intuitive chance for payoff. Fewer lengths in irons is easier to understand, practice and play with than multiple lengths. It’s time to re-engineer the iron game.