One of the early signs that golf was in for an upheaval that would distance it from convention emerged at the Masters of 2002. David Duval, back then still among the world's elite players, arrived at Augusta National with -- egad! -- a 7-wood in his arsenal.
A touring pro carrying a 7-wood? At Augusta? Would you wear a bathing suit to Vatican City?
"It's no different than carrying a 2-iron," Duval explained. "My thinking was that it would be that much easier to get in the air. Give me five more years and I might have a 9-wood."
Meanwhile, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones were upstairs demanding an audience with the golf gods.
Jones: "There's no place in the game for that kind of gimmickry."
Hogan: "Yeah, there is. Imbedded right between his eyes."
Turns out Duval was among the catalysts for change, at the forefront of a movement that would redefine what clubs are socially acceptable to carry in the bag.
"Now you even get Vijay Singh throwing 7- and 9-woods in his bag depending on where they are playing," said Pat Carli, regional sales representative for Ping. "It's becoming the norm now. Sometimes people have to get over being macho and use what works best."
"Performance is the bottom line," said Marlene Davis, a former LPGA player who teaches at the Paddock Golf Dome in the Town of Tonawanda. "If it works better why not use it?"
Gone are the days when most every golf bag was filled with a standard array, with pitching wedge through 3-iron, a sand wedge, a putter and three woods accounting for 13 of the 14-club allotment.
Among recreational players of both genders, the 3-iron's becoming so obsolete it might as well be made of persimmon. Five of Western New York's better women's players -- Kathy Hunt of Brookfield, Ann Luhr of Cherry Hill, Donna Henrich of Fox Valley/Tan Tara and Kim and Kari Kaul of Gowanda -- carry neither a 3- nor a 4-iron. Henrich carries no more than a 7-iron. Golfers are finding that utility clubs, such as more lofted woods or hybrid wood/irons, used in place of standard irons ease the challenge of long approach shots and provide a versatility of purpose that frees space in the bag.
The vacancies are being filled with clubs that offer greater distance control on short approach shots and more options around the green. Out of the area's 10 accomplished amateurs surveyed -- John Gaffney of Brookfield, Tony Hejna of Crag Burn, P.J. Alterio and Fred Silver of Niagara Falls and David Patronik of Brierwood responded on the men's side -- only one carries fewer than four wedges. Silver carries three, in addition to a pair of hybrid irons.
"Since the reality is that MOST of the game, and MOST of your shots should/would occur from inside 40 to 60 yards, it is important to have more club options in your bag," Gaffney e-mailed. "If you chart a typical round of golf, assuming you were to two-putt every green, then at the very least 36 of your shots are putts. Add in greenside work and par-5s almost reached in two and that number increases dramatically. That is why I have gone to four wedges."
"It takes out the guesswork," Davis said. "My sand wedge is like 80 yards, a full swing with my lob wedge 65. My gap wedge past my sand wedge goes 100, and my pitching wedge 110. It really makes it nice to make a full swing with an in-between wedge instead of trying to finesse something."
The tour pros have shown the way, as they typically do. Their increased use of utility clubs and move to a broader assortment of wedges gave the general public the green light to start doing the same.
"No question," said Jeff Beaver, regional sales representative for Titleist. "That's where all acceptance kind of starts. Every player on tour is carrying one or two utility clubs or they're giving something back."
"Golf's a game of tradition and comfort, and what happens is if you're comfortable with your clubs and they're traditional it made it hard to switch," said Jeff Mietus, head golf pro at Lancaster Country Club.
So back when some of the more popular tour players were hitting 1-irons, others followed their lead even though what Lee Trevino once said was largely true: "If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron."
"I used to hit a 1-iron," Mietus said. "Now I wouldn't think of it. I hit a hybrid."
Mark Kirk, the head pro at Crag Burn, said hybrid clubs were born following a phase of club evolution that went largely unnoticed by the golfing public. About 20 years ago, Kirk said, manufacturers began delofting clubs. The standard pitching wedge had been 52 degrees, a 9-iron 48 degrees. Now most pitching wedges are 48 degrees, some even 47.
"Twenty years ago there weren't many players who hit 2-irons," Kirk said. "But because they strengthened the loft, the 2-iron of 20 years ago is now a 3-iron and nobody can hit it. So a lot of players are putting in hybrids and how come? Because they can't hit a 2-iron even through it says '3' on the bottom."
Utility clubs come in two forms, either flat-faced like an iron or with curvature similar to a wood, which helps straighten shots that might sail errant with an iron. Hybrid irons have a lower center of gravity than standard irons, which helps them to get airborne and typically results in greater distance than a comparable standard iron. Area pros say hybrid woods offer greater control than their iron counterparts and are probably more suitable for all but the lowest handicappers.
"My experience is that the hybrid goes an iron longer than the iron they're replacing," Kirk said. "If you're looking to replace a 3, a hybrid 4 should cover that distance."
"I think I'm going to get one of those hybrid clubs, like a 5-iron, because it hits it really high but you still get the distance," Davis said. "The fact they're so forgiving is a great thing for all people."
The manufacturers are flooding the market with options. Tim Fries, the head pro at Transit Valley, said he knows of at least 19 manufacturers who offer quality hybrid clubs. Many manufacturers have begun offering hybrids in a set in place of a 3-iron.
"The standard set used to be 3 through pitching wedge," Carli said. "That seems to have all changed. Most long irons are becoming hybrid. They're eliminating the 3-4 iron and going to more wedges."
The gaps in club selection are closing. The stress of hitting long irons has been reduced.
"Everything," said Beaver, "is getting more exact."