Golfers are not like other sports fans.
Millions may be similarly obsessed with baseball, football or basketball, and waste years of couch-bound hours in front of the TV, but they needn't actually own a football, nor possess a Tom Seaver instructional video to indulge their obsession.
Only golf really requires that you play the game in order to be addicted to it. Consequently, we must buy expensive clubs, flammable pants, magazines, sunglasses, soft spikes, motivational videos, swing aides, hand warmers, golf vacations and silly hats. By comparison it seems much cheaper and less painful to be a Cubs fan.
So, periodically, I’ll be reviewing some of these products, be they goofy or brilliant. And most of these are grand ideas for holiday gifts. Full disclosure: Some of these items come to me unsolicited, some demos I request, others I might have seen at the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. But in all cases I've actually tested the products, though don’t confuse that with scientific testing or the marketing claims of the manufacturers.
My epiphany for 2014 was that I needed decent-looking, golf-specific, prescription sunglasses instead of just using your dad’s sexy clip-ons with my regular glasses. But the hurdle for most of us who wanted prescription sunglasses was that optometrists told us prescription lenses couldn’t be made for the more sporty, wrap-around, golf shades. That’s no longer true.
SportRx, a performance eyeware company out of San Diego, offers stock lenses with all the major sport brands, such as Oakley, Adidas, Bolle, Rudy and others, but they specialize in grinding custom made lenses for various sports.
"Using clip-on sunglasses for golf is a bit like putting a putter head on a broom handle," says SportRx vice-president and optometrist Rob Tavakoli. "It’s amazing to me that golfers will have the finest driver, the best shoes, the latest swing aides, but they compromise on their vision and use everyday glasses. For us, it’s an education issue.”
Tavakoli, an avid cyclist, says he has tested many lenses on many different golfers and he has come to some conclusions.
"The most common mistake golfers make is to have lenses that are too dark," he says. “We don’t think green or gray really works very well for most golfers. They’re too neutral and don’t enhance colors. You can’t really read the greens. We’ve been very pleased with the rose-brown-amber family of tints that protects the eyes, but helps define contours and land features much better."
And now, after wearing a new pair of Oakleys with that rose-brown tint, I think I agree. They don’t leave my eyes fatigued after five-hour rounds in the Texas sun, yet they aren't so dark that I feel like I have to take them off to read greens. I should have been wearing these for the past 30 years.
I won't surprise anyone by saying TaylorMade’s SLDR driver was the best new thing I put in my bag this year. The adjustable-head driver -- off-spring of golf’s first adjustable driver, the R7 in 2004 -- has received plaudits from the pros, the masses and virtually all serious gearheads. A sliding weight located on the front of the sole moves the clubhead’s weight low and forward to lower the driver’s spin, thus increasing distance.
I've kept mine at a slight draw from the day I unwrapped it, and while I’m still quite capable of pop-ups and duck-hooks, my solid shots are clearly longer. There are plenty of good drivers out there. The best from PING, Nike, Callaway, Cobra and Titleist will continue to please their fans -- especially those looking for more forgiveness than the SLDR provides -- but if you simply want 10-15 more yards, the SLDR unleashes impressive distance.
More surprising to me was that TaylorMade also produced the year’s most interesting irons. That would be the RSi series, three styles of irons ranging from Tour-quality, forged instruments to elegant game-improvement irons that every 20-handicapper should covet.
I was most impressed with the model in between, the RSi2, a handsome hunk of forged carbon steel and tungsten technology that has a bit more forgiveness than the Tour-quality RSi and a bit more performance oomph and workability than the RSi1. But don’t believe me. I watched Tom Lehman hit them in San Antonio at The Club at Sonterra and put them through their paces like a robotic Iron Byron.
He stood on the No. 10 tee box, which was playing at around 170 yards with little wind, and proceeded to hit nine 7 irons 182 yards on the button, with an 89 mph swing speed. He put some pink impact tape on the face of the RSi2 7-iron to see what the ball was really doing.
"This club is really consistent across the entire club face,” Lehman said, intrigued. “The weakest part of the club is high toe. I’m hitting it there on purpose. But I’m still getting much the same distance, just a slightly different ball flight."
I'm not fool enough to think I could replicate that. My 7-iron toe jobs aren’t going 182 unless they take the bus, but when I hit mine a smooth 160 in the middle of the clubface they felt nearly like a blade. Little vibration, penetrating ball flight, and a clean simple look at address. That’s about all I ask. I can't say my Mizunos will be sent to the minors, but they now have stiff competition.
I have no reason to dislike the Titleist Pro-V1 family of golf balls. On those Spring mornings when I actually find the middle of a clubface they fly fast and behave like a champion border collie. If I ran Goldman Sachs, I would give them away like breath mints. But sometimes -- let’s say you’re playing a strange course in 20 mph wind with nothing at stake – you simply don’t want to spray new $4 balls into knee-high roughage.
I'm convinced the next best thing for average golfers is the mid-level, "E" series of golf balls from Bridgestone, which sell for about $22 a dozen at Golfsmith. Bridgestone’s top of the line B330 models -- all American-made in Georgia, by the way -- compete well with the Pro-V1, as evidenced by the 15 Tour and LPGA players who use them, but the "E” series specifically aids those with slices, low ball flights or those who simply want more distance. I think I just described 25 million golfers.
I’m still surprised more American golfers don’t go Euro and routinely use pull carts -- or, more accurately, push carts. My amateur research suggests that there is still some geezer stigma to pushing a cart at many American golf courses, which seems absurd. Only in Krispy Kremed America would there be zero stigma for sitting on one’s fluffy butt in a motorized cart for five hours, but let us see you walking 5-6 miles pushing your clubs and we find you comically unhip. The simple truth is this: carts let you carry more stuff and nearly eliminate back strain, thus letting you swing freer and better regardless of age.
I’ve gone through my share of flimsy, clumsy chariots, but then along came Clicgear in 2007 with a Canadian inventor’s ergonomic dream, an efficient, all-but-indestructible push-cart that folded up so compactly it would fit in virtually any car trunk, along with your clubs. Clicgear soon became a word-of-mouth sensation, blowing away competitors, and now they are easily the gold standard in carts for walking golfers. Rarely in golf do I encounter a product in a highly competitive niche market that enjoys the kind of devotion Clicgear does. One website, mygolfspy.com, simply threw in the editorial towel in rating Clicgear’s new 3.5 cart and said it had achieved "perfection." But I understand why. I can’t imagine golf without one.
Nor can I imagine going to Ireland or Scotland for golf without my waterproof Sun Mountain bag. I'm not sure I fully understand why every golf bag is not waterproof, since they’re always full of things like cell phones, scorecards and cameras, but Sun Mountain's H2NO line of moisture-defying bags has certainly changed my game.
On trips to Scotland and Ireland, where the horizontal ice pick squalls can inundate a golf bag in seconds, I learned long ago to carry gallon-size, zip-lock plastic baggies to keep notebooks and electronic stuff dry. But my Sun Mountain bag is now the first line of defense.
They all weigh about four pounds or fewer, have efficient sturdy fold-out legs, smart and abundant zippered pockets and, most essential, the excellent Sun Mountain dual-strap, which evenly distributes the weight, like a good backpack. The list price on these 2015 bags can run $250 or more, but you can usually find last year’s perfectly wonderful models for $150 or less at a place like Golfsmith.
Similarly, I would feel naked abroad without my OGIO Monster travel bag. We've logged tens of thousands of airline miles and lost a few battles with snarling baggage carousels, but I’ve never had anything inside damaged with this ballistic-fabric workhorse. Yes, your clubs will be more secure in one of those hard-plastic cases, but they won’t fold up and may not fit width-wise in that wee rental car you just got in Dublin at midnight.
(Speaking of travel, American Airlines continues to give me the most problems on my flights to Europe, from routine lost and damaged bags to my most recent nightmare, where an American rep on the phone assured me I would not be charged a fee for my golf bag to go to Ireland, then to be hit for $100 at the check-in counter. Weeks of protest to American’s customer relations department got me nothing. Plan your trip accordingly.)
Though not quite golf equipment per se, gorgeous golf photography is as much a part of my golf life as a shag bag. Several years ago, I was walking up the staircase of the clubhouse at the Carne Golf Club in far northwest Ireland, where I’m a member, and stopped to admire a stunning photo of Carne’s enthralling 11th hole.
Aidan Bradley, a Cork, Ireland native who now lives in Santa Barbara, California, and photographs courses from Augusta to the Azores, had captured the elegant beast at peace before dusk, the rumpled dunes like a khaki jacket dropped on the floor, russet and blonde sea grasses bent in the wind, the solitary 11th green waiting for victims. I liked the photo so much that a copy now hangs in my office. Bradley’s portfolio includes courses from 14 countries and 33 U.S. states, with reprints ranging from $75-$200.
When I go to Europe for golf, I've learned to expect rain, dress accordingly and take two pairs of golf shoes, so a soggy pair can dry out between rounds. Like most golfers, I've used wadded-up newspapers to stuff in the shoes to help soak up moisture, but this year I discovered Stuffitts -- cedar-filled, light-weight, anti-microbial inserts that fit perfectly in your shoes. They also make other models for gloves, helmets and stinky gym bags.
Joe Lee is a successful LASIK eye surgeon and addicted golfer in Los Angeles who decided the world needed a better indoor golf net. The problem with the traditional variety – typically a semi-circular expandable nylon net – is that it usually takes up too much space inside, is unwieldy and doesn’t give a great deal of visual or audio feedback about the quality of the shot.
So, Lee invented the SwingBox, a 50" x 47" metal box, with dozens of cords of thin rope stretched across the outer surface that adeptly stop even the mightiest golf drives. As the ball passes through the lattice of rope it is dramatically slowed, then it hits a sturdy mat and cascades harmlessly down the contraption and returns to your feet. Though there’s no launch monitor or electronics involved, the audio feedback of a reassuring thunk with each solid hit is more pleasing than the muted whiffle of an outdoor golf net. Perfect for a garage or roomy man cave.
And, yes, I’ve spared you all that juicy inside intelligence on the latest wrist-watch rangefinders and solar-powered launch monitors. Please don't tell me if these can somehow be combined with Google Glass.
-- Bruce Selcraig is a former staff writer with Sports Illustrated whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's and The Atlantic, among others. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.