Delving Into the Mind of a Club Design Icon

Over the last few days, news has broken that Dick’s Sporting Goods has purchased the name Nickent Golf and will be coming out with some new clubs featuring that company’s name very soon. In the Spring 2010 issue of THP: The Magazine, THP had a chance to sit down with legendary club maker John Hoeflich and chat about his life in golf and his career that includes many highlights. Here is that interview in its entirety.

January 2010
Golf club design has come a long way over the past two decades and one man has been at the forefront of new club technology, cutting edge design, and playability. While his name may not be recognizable to the average golfer, his behind the scenes contributions to the game of golf qualify him for a plaque in the Golf Hall of Fame right next to the most revered names in golf. In the world of golf club design, John Hoeflich is a true visionary and legend. Hoeflich’s work includes some of the most successful iron designs in golf history, including the Tommy Armour 845 iron, Titleist DCI irons, and the TaylorMade rac irons and wedges.

The Hackers Paradise recently sat down with John Hoeflich to discuss the past, present, and future of club design.

The Hackers Paradise: How did you break into club making?

John Hoeflich: It was 1970 and I was working as a sales rep for Maxfli and really was not doing club making at all. In 1986, PGA Golf changed its name to Tommy Armour and I accepted a job with them.

THP: How did a marketing person at Maxfli make the move to club maker at Tommy Armour?

JH: Well, it was really a collective thing back then. The PGA was going through some major changes and they already owned the Tommy Armour name for licensing. They needed a set of irons to put them on the map and I was the guy that came up with the design.

THP: The Tommy Armour 845 was your first club design?

JH: It actually was the first design I ever came up with. Every player knows that they want to design their own clubs. I was no different. So, I went to work and what resulted was the Tommy Armour 845s.

THP: So, your first iron ever ends up being one of the legendary irons in recent history. Speaking of legendary clubs, what makes a club special or unique from a design standpoint?

JH: That’s a tough one. Special clubs, whether they are a Ping Eye 2, a Tommy Armour 845, or some other club, share certain elements. I think the most common element they all have is that they look good first. Because a club must have a good shape to stay in a player’s bag over an extended period of time. It has to be something that players can talk about on the course. I don’t know if you remember when the Ping Eye 2 launched back in 1982, but people talked about the club when they got it. Then, because people were talking about the set, people started buying them in huge numbers. This went on for 10-11 years and it was because the club had features that players talked about, appreciated, and liked. If clubs don’t have that, they will die a quick death.

THP: So much emphasis is put on “feel” these days, yet the term means different things to different people. What are your thoughts about what people are “feeling”?

JH: “Feel” is 80% sound. Solid feel actually is something more like the absence of sound. Well, not really the absence of sound but, rather, when speaking of drivers, not a very loud sound.

For example, take a muscle back iron and hit it solid. It makes almost no sound at all and people think it “feels” solid. Unfortunately the average golfer probably only experiences “feel” once a round, so they are used to a different sound and, therefore, sound plays less of a role. They can pick up a loud driver and, because the sound may be different from shot to shot, they are okay with it. There is nothing wrong with that at all, but most amateur golfers really cannot tell and it is marketing or industry experts that end up dictating “feel” for some players. Sure, iron to iron will feel different but it is more about sound than anything else to the average golfer.

THP: What are your thoughts on the industry and the migration of tour players over to cavity back irons and away from the blades that were played for so many years?

JH: I guess I attribute part of it to the golf swing. Players today swing harder than they did 20 years ago and, if you are going to do that and use a muscle back club, you are going to get more off center hits. If you are going to swing hard, even for the best players, a cavity back iron makes far more sense. Another factor is that the good players who move up to the tour go through college being supported by companies like Ping, Callaway – which had a program for a while, and a few others. So they have been playing cavity back irons for most of their playing days. When they get to the tour, not as many of them these say “I am a tour player. I have to play a blade”.

I will never forget when I was at TaylorMade and we came out with the rac MB, everybody had to have a set of those – just gorgeous clubs. Every player that was on the staff wanted a set of those. Kenny Perry, Retief [Goosen], Sergio [Garcia] – everybody had to have a set of those irons. I was standing in the TaylorMade truck in San Antonio and Retief came in and said “Can you make me up a set of the LT’s?” The tour rep asked Retief what was the matter with the muscle backs, and Retief looked back at him and says “I’m not good enough to hit those things!” I am listening and thinking to myself, “Here is a guy that is a multiple major winner and one of the best players in the world and he is telling our tour guy that he is not good enough to hit a muscle back.” We all just laughed. The ironic part is that it is pretty much true. Cavity back clubs are more forgiving and I think if you look at the kids growing up in junior golf, the muscle back and blade thing does not have the cache that it did 10 or 20 years ago.

THP: What effect, from a club design stand point, will the new groove rule have moving forward?

JH: For the average guy it is not going to affect much because the average guy does not spin the ball that much to begin with. So, if a guy is 175 yards out and hits a 6 iron into the green, he is not really used to the ball stopping dead or spinning back anyway.

I think what will happen with the tour players or the good amateur players is that they will start using more lofted clubs. Many people forget that we didn’t really have the super spinny grooves until about 2003. We put out the first rac wedges at TaylorMade and that was really the first big production wedge that had the milled grooves in them. The Vokey wedge didn’t have milled grooves back in those days. We were the innovators in that regard and maybe I can sit back and laugh and say “That is my legacy. I am the guy that once and for all killed the square groove.” But up until 2003 most grooves were cast and they were not as spinny. I know the DCIs and the Callaways were not that spinny, but I still remember the guys hitting the green and backing the ball up. So, now, you add some more loft and make some subtle changes in technique and, long term, I don’t think the new groove rule will have the effect that the USGA thinks it will have.

THP: You were one of the pioneer’s of the hybrid line of clubs. What were your first impressions of the hybrid?

JH: It was around 1999 or 2000 that TaylorMade put out the Rescue club. It was the original copper one with the bubble shaft and it was probably one of the worst golf clubs ever made. It really was. We sold approximately 250,000 of them and, of that, there were probably 11,000 people who actually liked the club and could actually hit it.

There were a lot of people that had some influence on that club and I am pretty sure that very few are still around. It was just a terrible golf club but we sold so many of them that we thought if we could just take the concept, which is a trouble club that is easy to hit from the rough or the fairway, and make it into something that works, it could be a huge seller.

Over in Japan, there were a few companies that were making something similar and they were doing pretty well. We had been talking to Clay Long about doing some consulting with us and Brett Wahl and I met with Clay and said, “Here is what we are thinking. Can you come up with a shape that looks decent, has a lower center of gravity, and has some decent sound? And because we are going to target it for the Japan market, it has to have a high ball flight and go left.” That committee came up with the original Rescue Mid, which was only supposed to be sold over in Japan. It ended up coming back over to the tour and of course everybody had to have one. Players were bending them 2 degrees flat and 3 degrees open to keep from hooking. The first real popular and mass produced hybrid came out of that collaboration by trying to improve upon one of the worst golf clubs of all time.

THP: How can consumers find the right hybrid for them? Each year some hybrids look more like fairway woods, while others look more like driving irons. Which type is right for which player?

JH: I think that is the most interesting aspect of the hybrid club, and something we addressed while I was at Nickent when we first came out with the 3DX DC. Hybrid clubs can replace two different clubs. Some of them replace woods and some of them replace irons. Some players are better at hitting iron shots and some people are better at hitting woods. So, when you look at hybrid design, what has happened is that it has kind of split. Now you have hybrids that have a high spinny trajectory and perform more like woods and you also have the slightly narrower shape that is an iron replacement. The average golfer has to decide if he or she is trying to replace irons or fairway woods and then decide which head shape they want. They are two completely different designs geared towards different things. For the higher handicap player, they can ask themselves, “What do I want to hit from 175 yards? Do I want to hit a 5 iron or a 7 wood?” That can help determine what shape will fit best.

THP: You were once again at the forefront of one of the biggest technology changes in golf clubs recently with the introduction of interchangeable shafts for drivers. What were your thoughts going in?

JH: The exciting thing from a golf club manufacturer’s perspective was that you could sell more heads and more shafts and give more custom options to the consumer. But, from a marketing point of view, it was a complete nightmare – convincing the average golfer that he needed to buy 2 shafts with 1 club head. It was priced far too high at the beginning, up in the stratosphere, and it was just a nightmare. But the second generation, where you could change face angles and playable lofts, was when I think the consumer “got it.”

THP: What is next for golf club design? Last year we saw companies launch interchangeable designs and this year we are seeing a lot of companies go with super light technology in drivers. So what have you been working on?

JH: What I am focusing on right now is weight distribution in clubs. We learned a lesson 10-15 years ago that light is okay if the weight distribution is right. But something we learned from the bubble years ago was that light butts on shafts are terrible, or were terrible, for average golfers. It can make the amateur lose a lot of control. You don’t know where your hands are at the top of your swing. That is why so many better players still like steel shafts in their clubs. I am beginning to fiddle around more with weight distribution and, if I find the right venue, you will probably see something that I believe will make a club a little bit easier to play for the average golfer.

THP: Along those lines, you see more and more players playing clubs that may not be fit for their game or making the game harder for them. From a club design stand point, what is the reason for this?

JH: No question about it. It’s ego. Golf is a game of social credit and you know the average golfer derives a lot of pleasure from his equipment and the social credit he gets from his buddies by having the hot driver or latest irons. At the “core” golfer level, the 7-8 million golfers who are buying the high-end and high-performance equipment, it very commonly amounts to that very reason.

For the 18 handicap golfer that picks up the new driver with the Diamana White Board shaft in it, he will get the social credit but it will, in most cases, screw up his game. More golfers screw up their game for ego reasons than just about any other reason. It’s just my opinion, of course, but there are a lot of companies that make millions on these very thoughts by [selling] tour issued equipment. The irony of the whole thing is that custom fitting is both better than it has ever been and more widely available than it has ever been. Yet, today, more golfers are playing ill-fitted equipment.

I will never forget a guy we fit at TaylorMade years ago that flew out on his jet to the Kingdom to get fit. He went through a three hour session and got a complete bag custom fit for him. Then, as he was almost done, he said, “You know . . . while I was flying out here, I was thinking that I really wanted to try this driver and these irons, so can you make these up for me too.” So, what he had done was probably spend $20,000 to fly across the country and purchase new clubs, and then he ended up fitting himself for what he thought he wanted to play.

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