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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Half-Set Challenge

I've been thinking about this for a while, and I've decided it's time to put this idea out and see what happens.

There's a lot of talk about how to make the game more popular -- creating new course formats, changing the length of the courses, etc. -- but hardly anybody talks about the biggest drawback of all. Let's face it, our game is too hard and too expensive. Unless we find a way around these problems, we're going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Although ultimately I think we have to change the way we teach the game, we can address both problems to some extent simply by changing our ideas about equipment. The average weekend player carries far too many clubs to really have fun, and I think most of us could actually improve our game if we simply reduce the number of clubs we carry. I call this idea the "half-set challenge."

When I first learned how to play, I couldn't afford clubs and put together a set from some old clubs my uncle gave me. I had a 3-wood, four irons -- 3, 5, 7, and 9 -- and a putter I already had from playing putt-putt. And since I couldn't hit the 3- or 5-irons very well, I ended up playing with just 4 clubs most of the time. But I had a blast! I think most weekend players could benefit from carrying fewer clubs as well.

Here's how it works: I want you to try playing some rounds using a half-set of clubs. That's right, only 7 clubs. How you choose the clubs is up to you, but let me give you some guidelines and a few sample half-sets to try.

Obviously you'll need a putter. That's one of your clubs.

Forget your driver and pack the 3-wood. I'd personally like to see a 3-wood with a driver-length shaft become the standard long club in an amateur's set. Unless your swing speed is considerably above 90mph, you'll probably hit your 3-wood as far, if not farther, than your driver. And most weekend players hit their 3-woods better anyway, so you'll be in play more often. At any rate, your 3-wood becomes your second club.

That leaves spots for 5 more clubs, and you should choose these clubs based on what you hit best while still giving yourself as much variety as possible. Some sample setups will give you some ideas.

Here's what you might call a "traditional" half-set:
  • 3-wood
  • 7-wood
  • 5-iron
  • 8-iron
  • PW
  • SW (some of you might prefer LW)
  • Putter
Many weekend players struggle with mid-irons, so I included only one -- the "traditional" 5-iron. Even if you don't hit full shots well with it, it's useful for partial swings, especially when you want to keep it low under branches, and for some chipping.

You may look at this set and say, "Hey, there are too many gaps between clubs!" There are good reasons for this:
  • It speeds up play. You don't have to choose between so many clubs. Is it a hard 9 or an easy 8... or maybe a half 7? No questions this way -- only the 8 will work, so that's the club you use.
  • It increases your creativity. You'll learn to manufacture shots. And the more you learn to think about your shots, the better you'll play. And remember, you can always choke down on a long club for a shorter club's distance.
  • It's easier on the body. If you walk, you have less to carry. You don't use all of those clubs anyway, do you? I for one never use my 6-iron... so why carry it?
The gaps are actually a benefit. They'll help your game improve.

Here's another half-set -- I'll call it a "gradiated" set because I've tried to eliminate some of the gaps and make the transitions between clubs more gradual:
  • 3-wood
  • 4-hybrid
  • 6-iron
  • 8-iron
  • PW
  • SW (or LW)
  • Putter
While there's a gap between the 3-wood and 4-hybrid, the rest of the set is pretty evenly spaced out.

Finally, here's a half-set that's based on those used by some of the LPGA players. It assumes you don't have the strength to get a lot of use from the straight-faced mid-irons or hybrids:
  • 3-wood
  • 7-wood
  • 11-wood (aka "trouble wood")
  • 7-iron
  • 9-iron
  • SW (or LW)
  • Putter
That 11-wood is a very useful club, not just for middle-length shots but also for digging the ball out of the rough. I like to use an 11-wood myself; the head is small and heavy, and it doesn't get caught in the rough like an iron.

Give the half-set challenge a try. At least every once in a while, pick 7 clubs from your existing set and go play 9 holes using just those clubs. I bet you'll have a lot of fun... but I also bet it'll help your game improve. With fewer clubs to choose between, the weaknesses in your game will be easier to see. Then you won't waste your practice time hitting balls aimlessly -- you'll know what to work on.


  1. This is a great way to play the game. As a former professional, I CAN hit all of the clubs the same, but you hit on two keys. First, I only walk. And it makes it easier to schlep the set around (hence, better shots later in the round). And you are right, the possibilities of hitting so many different types of shots gets me really into each shot. My set- Driver, 2 iron (love hitting that baby), 5 iron, 7 iron, 9 iron, PW, SW & Putter. Yes, I recognize that it is a massive amount at 8 clubs, but after trying to eliminate the PW, there was just too big of a gap in the area most of my shots end up in. Good post, and I hope more people take this to heart.

  2. You've hit on the beauty of it, JG -- you can focus on the clubs you love to play, but you've still eliminated unneeded dead weight and made the game more enjoyable. I think most weekend golfers would quickly latch on to those advantages.

    And thanks for the positive feedback. I was afraid I might be the only person who liked this idea!

  3. Hi,

    This remind me when i started playing golf. I bought a half-serie.

    For a beginner, it's not a very easy to play combo, mostly because of the 3-wood and 5-iron. So i decide to change them against a 5-wood (I still play this club) and the 5-iron for a 24° hybrid.

    Today when i pick an half-serie to play on sunday, i play:


    I am not comfortable with the driver/wood clubs so i prefer the loss of distance to keep the day peaceful.

  4. That's a great set to use! You can focus on getting better with your swing because you know you can hit those clubs, and you can always play shorter tees if you need to. In fact, that's the idea behind the whole "Tee It Forward" initiative the PGA and USGA recently launched -- play tees that fit your game.

    BTW, here are the guidelines from their website:

    You just find how far you hit your driver (or in a case like Baptiste's, your 5-wood) and then pick tees that play at the recommended yardage.

    Guidelines for Selecting Tees
    Driver - - - - - - - - Recommended
    Distance - - - - 18 Hole Yardages
    275 - - - - - - - - - - 6,700 to 6,900
    250 - - - - - - - - - - 6,200 to 6,400
    225 - - - - - - - - - - 5,800 to 6,000
    200 - - - - - - - - - - 5,200 to 5,400
    175 - - - - - - - - - - 4,400 to 4,600
    150 - - - - - - - - - - 3,500 to 3,700
    125 - - - - - - - - - - 2,800 to 3,000
    100 - - - - - - - - - - 2,100 to 2,300

  5. I keep all of my clubs in my bag but I never play them all. I mainly use...

    hybrid - 22 degree(replaces my 4-iron)

    I have started using my 60 degree lob wedge a bit more, but that is only recently. I use my 4-iron every now and then if I have to navigate below the tree lines, but now that I am in Phoenix, trees don't play as big a factor as when I was living in Miami. If I have a distance that requires a 5, or 6-iron, they stay in the bag and I just choke down on my hybrid.

    I actually hit my driver better than I hit my 3-wood. I don't think I've used my 3-wood in over a year during a round. I can't hit it to save my life. I can't figure out why and until I do, it will stay in the bag. Plus I love my hybrid. It's not uncommon for me to hit hybrid, hybrid, hybrid on a long par 5 and be comfortable with it.

    The interesting thing is, once I stopped trying to hit my 4, 5, and 6-irons, my scores began to improve. Maybe it goes back to the confidence factor you mentioned earlier.

    And the OTHER interesting thing is that I have been playing the proper tees according to the Tee It Forward guidelines. I'm averaging about 260 of the tee with my driver now. A big improvement since we started working together.

    I would like to get my 3-wood in order though. Sometimes I get to a hole which requires a 3-wood, and I have to decide whether or not to hit driver and risk trouble or hit hybrid and sacrifice distance.

    BTW...What's an 11-wood?

  6. Dex, a lot of people don't realize that there are more than just 3 or 4 woods. It goes back to when woods were easier to make than irons -- remember, a hundred or so years ago, irons were forged by hand.

    Most woods now are odd-numbered, although you will occasionally see a 2-wood (similar to the "brassie" Bobby Jones sometimes mentions) or a 4-wood. It gets confusing, primarily because the lofts are different now than they used to be. For example, the 21° club labeled as a 7-wood today was called a 5-wood in my late-1980s set. You can find woods numbered all the way to 13 or 15, although usually the women golfers use them more than men do.

    The 11-wood is popular with both sexes as a trouble wood, although it's often called something else. It has about 30° of loft, and the small head zips through thick rough much easier than an iron.

    As for your 3-wood, try an experiment: Choke down about two inches on the grip and try hitting it, then let me know how it goes.

  7. great post, mike. i walk and carry these 9 clubs most days:
    driver - 260yds
    3iron - 200
    5iron - 175
    7iron - 150
    9iron - 130
    PW - 120
    GW - 110
    SW - 90

    choking down an inch on the irons gets me the 'gap' distance. we usually play the 6300-6400 tees, and with no one in front of us can easily walk 18 in 3:15.

    as you mentioned, choosing clubs is easy, and you don't even have to know exact yardages. most of us can't hit it within 5 yards of distance number anyway.


  8. I'm glad you brought up the "choke down an inch" idea, NC. That's a great rule of thumb for any shot where you're between clubs.

    In case the rest of you aren't following him, NC gets his 8-iron distance by choking down an inch on his 7-iron, his 6-iron distance by choking down an inch on his 5-iron, and so on.

    Here's the deal, folks: Most irons are separated by about 4° of loft and 1/2 inch of shaft. Choking down one inch on the shaft is roughly the same difference. So even if you carry a full set, choking down an inch on an 8-iron and swinging normally is about the same as hitting a full 9-iron, and so on through the set.

    The difference? A choked-down 8-iron will fly lower than the full 9-iron. Great to know when you're stuck under a tree limb. ;-) In NC's case, he can choke down two inches on the 7-iron and expect to hit a very low shot about 9-iron distance.

    And, in case you're wondering, you can get half-clubs by choking down about 1/2 an inch. If you're between that 8-iron and 9-iron, choke down 1/2 an inch on the 8-iron and swing normally.

    It's a good trick to know. Thanks again, NC.