Fyre Lake Golf Course looks to the future

Sometimes the best ideas take a while to come to fruition. Worse yet, sometimes those “can’t-miss” plans sink faster than a chunked ProV in a greenside pond. Fyre Lake Golf Course in Sherrard, Ill. (20 minutes outside Moline in the Quad Cities), is a very good idea that has flared and flickered and nearly gone out a few times. Ground was actually broken for the Nicklaus Design course on the shores of the namesake man-made lake way back in the late-mid 2000s. Ownership woes and a historic national economic collapse delayed opening. Then yet more mismanagement threatened its survival until it was purchased in 2015 by Larry Whitty and Mike Thoms. In July, 2020 – during yet another national economic crisis – Fyre Lake was sold to PGA Certified Director of Golf Mark Krizic, who will also lease 144 acres of adjacent land from Whitty and Thoms and establish a year-round Callaway Training Center.  

“The bones of the facility are fantastic. When I first went there, I thought that this could be a top-10 Illinois course,” says Krizic.

These all seem like big plans for the unique layout, which rises and falls along the shores and inlets of Fyre Lake. Local players in the golf-rich Quad Cities tend to view the 6,505-yard course as a bit of an enigma: it’s a bit out of the way, and conditions and green fees have fluctuated over the years. Length is not the primary defense; the members’ tees are just 5,945 yards. Rather, uneven lies, tucked greens guarded by the lake, deceiving yardages, and ever-present prevailing winds conspire to make Fyre Lake play at least 500 yards longer that it says on the scorecard. In other words, it’s a challenge and a thrill, and locals really hope the course’s newest incarnation under Krizic’s ownership will finally establish it as one of the area’s—maybe even the state’s—best public courses.

“I wish the new guy all the best,” said one Quad Cities golfer whom I spoke to at a recent visit to TPC Deere Run. “It’s a great design. But you never know what you’re going to get out there.” Krizic has a lot of plans to address that uncertainty. “I have a pretty good track record of addressing issues like that,” he says.

Playing Fyre Lake Golf Course

As noted already, Fyre Lake Golf Course should not be underrated due to its length. The par-70 design forces precision from tee to green, and plenty of power is also required on several holes. The 436-yard 1st is one of the prettiest opening holes in the state, with the back tees set basically off the edge of the practice putting green next to the clubhouse. A good drive here still leaves a mid- to long-iron to a narrow green that falls off dead right or rises to a rough-covered mound on the left.

Fyre Lake Hole 1 offers one of the prettiest opening drives in the state.

The 521-yard 2nd is the only par 5 on the front. It plays from a tee sitting below the level of the fairway all the way uphill to a green perched on a hillside high above. It feels more like a 700-yard par 5 every time I play it.

The 424-yard 3rd tumbles back downhill toward the lake, with no level spot on the fairway until it ends short of the thick rough on the lakeshore. Your approach here has to find a rock-walled green with no bailout right and H2O left.

There’s no bail-out on the approach to the 3rd green at Fyre Lake.

As pretty as the front nine holes are, the real fun starts after the turn. There is one memorable hole after another. The 190-yard 12th is a pulse-racing par 3 from the tips – actually a totally different hole from the back tees compared to all the other tees. From there, it’s a 180-yard carry between trees and over a deep ravine. From the more forward tees, there’s progressively less and less carry required. Really a nice design for players of all skill levels.

The back tees of the par-3 12th demand everything you’ve got.
The middle tees on the 12th hole are much less intimidating, but still no cake-walk.

The 401-yard 13th plays way downhill to a semi-blind landing area, and then further downhill to an island green that you just might see in your dreams or your nightmares, depending on how well you hit your approach. One of Fyre Lake’s few design drawbacks is here. The back tees for the 386-yard 14th are located on the same island. So if the group in front of you is pokey—like maybe they’re playing the tips when they shouldn’t be and are hitting ball after ball to try to get back over 230 yards of water to the 14th fairway—you will have a lot of time to ponder the tricky approach.

Waiting to hit your approach on 13 until the group on the back tees of 14 finally clear the water is…frustrating.

A second design flaw is on the 372-yard 15th. From the back tees, there’s only a sliver of fairway to aim at, paralleling the reedy shore of the lake. The problem is a large tree that stands between the members’ tees and the water, which nearly blocks the fairway from view from the tips. If you’ve got a reliable power fade with your driver that you feel comfortable aiming out over the water, you’re fine. Otherwise, chances are you’ll find rough, reeds, or water. Or, like one hapless golf writer, the tree AND the water, with a nearly perfect yet utterly disastrous drive. 

View from the tips on Hole 15 at Fyre Lake. Do you see any fairway up there?
Even if you find the fairway on 15, the green is as unforgiving as any on the entire course.

What’s the skinny on Fyre Lake Golf Course?

Fyre Lake Golf Course is all the challenge and fun (and perhaps frustration) you can handle. Many casual golfers might be surprised to find that a course doesn’t need to have four par 5s to demand length and control on basically every hole. If you’re struggling with your driver, Fyre Lake will burn you. There are plenty of forced carries, both from the tee and on approaches, and several greens that leave basically no room for error on any side.

There are precious few places to miss the green on Fyre Lake’s 8th Hole.

The putting surfaces themselves are full of movement, and many of them have multiple tiers. A curious – and particularly vexing – aspect of the current course set-up is the total lack of collars around the greens. You read that right: no fringe, no “first cut,” no “frog hair.” What this means is there is no buffer between the putting surface and 3”-4” rough. So if you ball rolls to the edge of the green, you have no way to take your putter back without hitting said rough. It’s sort of like putting on a mini-golf hole when your ball is up against the boards. If this sounds like an exaggeration, see the photo below. That was my ball and, shortly thereafter, my three-putt.

Pretty hard to take a decent backswing on putts like this.

According to Krizic, though, this is a hallmark of a lot of Nicklaus designs. “He doesn’t like collars. I like this aspect of the design, actually. It makes the greens really pop visually. But yes, sometimes it makes putting hard.” So I’ve learned my lesson for next time: don’t hit it near the edges of the greens!

In short, Fyre Lake Golf Course is a very good idea that has persevered through bad timing, bad times, and bad business. But it’s a great layout, with a seasoned, dedicated new owner. Golfers who haven’t visited it yet owe themselves a round.

For those who have played and wonder about the future of this unique course, Mark Krizic says this: “The vision for the course is always the same. Make sure the greens are consistent, maintain the golf course. But you have to put money into the golf course to make it happen. We’ll improve customer service, including pyramids of balls on the range, names on golf carts, starters and rangers. Our very first aspect will be the golf course, but that professionalism will be there, along with an actual pro shop. And a Callaway Performance Center is on the table. We’re going to start reaching these goals in 2021.”  

You’ve got a lot of balls, Mister! (Can we see them?)

When it comes to golfers, there’s a continuum running from those who commit to playing one brand and model of golf ball to those who put into play literally any ball they scoop out of a pond, stumble upon in the weeds, or spot in the woods.

Me? Well, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ve learned that there’s a huge difference between various golf balls, and some do simply perform better *for me* than others do. However, I also have learned that there is a fairly large number of recreational players for whom the golf ball they use is one of the lesser impediments to their consistent success.

I have grown particularly fond of several companies’ balls, though, especially during this past summer, in which my game has stabilized and improved to the point where I can fairly compare one model against another.

These are the five golf ball models, from four different manufacturers, that have made the biggest impressions on me this season.

Volvik XT Soft ($37.99/doz)

Volvik is one of the most intriguing and fastest-growing brands of golf balls. They certainly win the “unique line-up” award. Volvik’s balls are widely played on the LPGA Tour, and the company sponsors the Long Drive Tour. I’ve written several times about their Marvel Comics Universe super-hero balls, which are fantastic gifts and conversation pieces as well as solid performers.

The XT Soft model represents an affordable premium entry that received a Gold rating on Golf Digest’s “Best New Golf Balls” Hot List this year in the over $35 premium category. The special sauce in this three-piece, urethane-covered ball is bismuth, a metal that is incorporated into the core. Now, bismuth is a key ingredient in Pepto-Bismol, and I’m not positive I understand what it does to promote energy transfer in a golf ball. But I can confidently report that I never experienced any queasiness while playing the XT Softs.

The yellow version of the XT Soft is the most visible yellow hue I’ve ever played, and both the white and the yellow perform admirably. They are long off the tee and offer excellent control around the greens. The three-line alignment system is perhaps the best on the market. Interestingly, whenever I play these, I feel like I get helpful bounces off trees, too. Maybe it’s the bismuth, I don’t know. These balls just seem to pop back into play somehow.

Titleist Tour Speed ($39.99/doz)

MyGolfSpy.com has fabulous golf ball testing facilities and methods, and according to their crack staff, there’s a reason the ProV1 has dominated the golf ball market for so long: Titleist has some of, if not the, most stringent quality control in the golf ball world.

Titleist brings that same meticulousness to the production of their new Tour Speed balls.

The Tour Speed has a proprietary thermoplastic urethane cover and a 346 quadrilateral dipyramid dimple design that the company claims make it longer and faster than Callaway Chrome Soft, Bridgestone Tour B RX, TaylorMade Tour Response, Srixon Z-STAR and Srixon Q-STAR TOUR.

I’ve played the Tour Speeds several times, and they do indeed have a piercing ball flight that launches like a bullet and plays particularly well in hard, fast conditions. Spin and feel on the greens are not as exquisite as ProV1, but they are very well behaved and consistent. It seems like my distance judgment on pitches, chips, and putts is always particularly good on days playing the Tour Speeds. It’s sort of a Goldilocks thing: not too much spin, not too little—just right. If the ProV1 feels too squishy or spinny for you, give these a whack.

Srixon Soft Feel Brite ($21.99/doz)

If your absolute bottom line when it comes to golf balls is finding the best ball possible at the lowest price possible, Srixon Soft Feel has been your go-to for several years now. Are they the longest ball you will play? No. But do they combine competitive distance with excellent responsiveness around the greens? You bet they do. So if you tend to lose a lot of balls, you can stock up on these at basically 2-for-1 the price of “premium” balls.

And if you do lose a lot of balls, try the new Brite version of the Soft Feel. These golf balls in orange, red, and yellow-green practically glow. For a somewhat seasoned player such as myself (ahem), whose seasoned eyes have trouble following the ball in the air, especially in overcast conditions, the Brites make an enormous difference.

OnCore ELIXR ($25.99/doz) and Vero X1 Prototype ($39.99/doz)

Buffalo-based OnCore Golf probably makes the best balls you’ve never heard of. The direct-to-consumer manufacturer has three models: Avant, ELIXR, and the brand-spanking new limited-edition prototype Vero X1. I’ve written about the ELIXR before, reporting about the good impression it has made. It is a three-piece, value-priced premium ball that performs as well as or better than balls selling for $10 more per dozen. The ELIXR incorporates OnCore’s original design idea: metal in the mantel. This combination of performance and price-point has earned the ELIXR a Golf Digest Gold rating for 2020.

OnCore’s new premium four-piece, tour-caliber ball is the Vero X1. This ball also has the metal-infused mantle, 85 compression, and a premium cast urethane cover that in combination produce tremendous distance off the tee and spin around the green. I played the Vero X1 over two rounds in a recent tournament and experienced something I rarely, if ever, have before: backing the ball up on the greens. Seriously, with everything from a 6-iron on down, I was able to spin the ball back on the greens of my home course between 6 inches and 6 feet. In fact, for the first time in my life—including rounds played with ProV1(x)—I had to worry about backing the ball up too much. But don’t take my word for it. A scratch-handicap buddy of mine found one of the Vero X1s at another course a few months ago. He’d never heard of them but decided to play it. “That’s a really good ball!” he raved. “I couldn’t tell any difference between it and my normal Bridgestone.”

But just in case you’re skeptical about a direct-to-consumer outfit, you might be interested to know that OnCore not only has team members like the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, but is also breaking ground on a $30 million golf entertainment facility with an integrated hotel in spring, 2021. The facility will feature heated hitting bays with virtual and augmented reality capabilities, swing analysis and diagnostics, and 120-160 hotel rooms. According to a press release from 2019 (before the pandemic), OnCore Buffalo was also “exploring numerous additional sports entertainment options … including year-round indoor surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding, and bays with simulated baseball, basketball, hockey, and archery competitions.”

So OnCore must be onto something, because they seem to be selling plenty of golf balls. And as soon as their sports nirvana opens up, I’m shuffling off to Buffalo!

GolfLogix delivers Tour-quality data on your home course

When Bryson DeChambeau reaches into his back pocket for a fourth look at his yardage or green book, I want to drive a ProV1 straight through my TV screen. But then again, the guy did just dominate the U.S. Open, so all that information can’t hurt. In fact, it seems to help quite a bit.

But how can you get a taste of that sweet, sweet data for your home course? I mean, maybe you belong to a swanky private or semi-private club that prints up detailed yardage books. If you play at a daily-fee course or muni, though, you’ll need to measure out your own green maps. Ain’t nobody got time for that, except Bryson.

But now GolfLogix offers green maps and yardage books of nearly any course you can think of. These books run $40 each, include hole maps on 50-yard scales and green break maps and heat maps on 5-yard grids. We’re talking serious data here.

I checked out two of the GolfLogix books, one for Lake of the Woods Golf Course in Mahomet, Illinois (my home course) and one for Harrison Hills Golf Club, a superb public course in Attica, Indiana. These are two courses I know very well, so I thought I’d see if the green maps would help out with some of the tricky reads that abound at both of them.

I’ve brought several guests to Lake of the Woods, and nearly every one of them has said that the greens are among the hardest to read they’ve ever played. It’s not that the contours are crazy, or that the greens are wildly tiered or shaped. There are just lots of subtle breaks that often run in multiple directions on any given green. The Sangamon river also runs along the edge of the property, and several holes seem to be affected by the “pull” from the river. I’d always wondered if these quirks were just in my head.

When I opened the GolfLogix green book, though, I soon realized they weren’t. Balls on the 10th hole,for example, always seem to roll faster uphill (toward the river) than downhill. And sure enough, even though the green appears to be canted from back to front, there’s a large flat spot in the middle that does not look flat. So if you’re trying to trickle a putt down from the back of the green toward the front, it hits that flat spot and, well, stops. All those downhill putts that have come up short now make sense!

Lake of the Woods, Hole 10 green: Weird flat spots that make you think the ball doesn’t roll downhill.

At Harrison Hills, the greens are dramatically contoured, and much faster than at “The Lake.” So if you’re above the hole on some of them, you’ll be lucky to roll any putt within 5 feet. The green at the 400-yard 9th is a great example. The GolfLogix heatmap of the green is deep crimson at the front, meaning a massive false front. From the fairway, though, the 40-yard-deep green looks relatively inviting. But if you land on that false front, your ball will not stay on. And any putts longer than 15 feet will require all your skill, even with the green maps, to get close with all the movement here.

It’s hard to find any straight putts on the 40-yard deep 9th green at Harrison Hills Golf Club.

GolfLogix Green Maps & Yardage Books: The skinny

It may sound corny, but when I pull one of these detailed folios out of my back pocket, I feel like a “player.” And when I point out that there’s a 3-inch break opposite the direction of every other break on the infamous 7th green of my home course – and then I turn out to be right! – I feel almost as smart as DeChambeau. Almost.

The 12th hole at Lake of the Woods Golf Course in Mahomet, Illinois, can feel like you’re playing down a corridor.

TPC Deere Run in Silvis Brings Tour Dreams to Life

TPC stands for “Tournament Players Club.” The TPC network spans North America, and includes some courses in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia. Over half of them are private, many more are exclusive resort courses, and a handful have hosted PGA Tour events.

TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois, is the long-time venue of the John Deere Classic, traditional PGA Tour stop the week before The Open (British). It is unique among TPC courses not only because it is a regular Tour host that is fully open to the public, but also because it is easily the most affordable of all TPC courses.

And when I say “affordable,” I mean it. Rates at Deere Run top out at $119 – that’s peak time, inclusive of cart and unlimited use of practice facilities. But savvy and flexible players who are non-local residents can find rates as low as $59. Local residents never have to pay more than $69, and they can play for as little as $49.

Let me repeat that for the readers who just joined us: You can play the self-same course where the pros play every year for less than $60.

The tournament that is today The John Deere Classic was born in 1971 as The Quad Cities Open, at a local private course. The ensuing years as a Tour event were tenuous, to say the least, but after Tiger Woods turned pro and made a splash at the 1996 playing, Illinois native D.A. Weibring negotiated with John Deere and the Tour to design and build a TPC on the banks of the Rock River. When TPC Deere Run opened in 2000, the 7,213-yard par-71 layout was ranked as the 8th Best New Public Golf Course by “Golf Digest.” And it’s been hosting the Tour event ever since.

Playing TPC Deere Run

If you watch the pros on TV, they can make it look like a pushover. Paul Goydos carded a 59 here in 2010—and didn’t win, because several other players went ultra-low, too.

But don’t let the super-humans on Tour fool you: TPC Deere Run is all the course amateur players will ever want. Conditions are impeccable, and the variety of holes is outstanding: Long and short par 3s, 4s, and 5s. Some open fairways, some tight fairways. Over 70 bunkers, and plenty of water. Opportunities for both greatness and disaster.

The variety of holes will allow you to hit – or try to hit – a full array of shots off the tees, though most par 4s on the front set up best for fades. There are seven sets of tees, including two sets of blended tees to allow players of all skill level and all lengths to find a fit for their games, from 5,179 yards up to 7,213 yards. Generous landing areas provide opportunities to approach greens from multiple angles, only a few of which are truly optimal.

The 561-yard 2nd is one of the favorites of anyone whose played here before. From the elevated tees, the vista is expansive. The Rock River flows serenely in the distance beyond the huge fairway, which bends gently to the right on the second shot. The green is protected by a small desert’s worth of sand, and a small barn behind it harks back to the agricultural roots of the area and the sponsor of the tournament played here.

The tee shot on the par-5 2nd at TPC Deere Run is a beauty, and all about position and length.
The green on the 2nd hole is a Midwestern classic.

At the 454-yard 4th, you realize that you are in for a day of one gorgeous golf hole after another. The sentinel oak in the center of the fairway makes the tee shot thrilling, and form the fairway, it feels like the river lurks just beyond the putting surface.

The green at the par-4 4th looks from the fairway like it’s ready to fall into the river.

The 158-yard 16th is one of the prettiest short par 3s in the entire Midwest. The green is cut into the bluff overlooking the river. A rock wall runs in front of the green, and the bluff drops away precipitously to the left, making the entire left side a very penal hazard. When the tournament bleachers are still up behind the green, this is a hole that gives anyone the chance to hit a good shot and feel like a pro.

The 158-yard 16th: Can you say, “Aim right?”

The 17th and 18th are two fun closers – the stuff that memories are made of. The 557-yard 17th is a reachable par 5 that plays out of a chute of trees to a wide-open fairway and green complex that allows for run-up fairway woods. The 463-yard 18th has seen its share of drama during the tournament, and amateurs can feel some degree of the same exhilaration by carving in a slight draw to the front of the green and watching their ball trundle back toward the pin. Over-cook it, though, and you’ll find the pond that borders the entire left side of the green; fade it instead, and a tricky pitch or sand save will be required, á la Jordan Spieth’s first PGA win.

The par-5 17th is reachable with two good shots.
Experience the thrill of hitting it stiff on a PGA Tour closing hole.

The word on TPC Deere Run

The front side of the TPC at Deere Run is tighter than the back, with nearly every hole framed by trees on all sides. The back nine is more open, with some room along the fairways, but there are many more fairway bunkers in play on the back. There is not an awkward tee shot on the entire course; all the trouble is laid out clearly before you on the tees and approaches (with the exception of the approach on No. 4).

The greens are ideal – receptive but fast – and many are basically pear-shaped, with narrow fronts that make for some devilish pin positions. Despite some tiers and undulations, though, putts within seven feet are generally flat. Most greens are also surrounded by closely shaved run-off areas that will test all the short shots in your bag.

The clubhouse is a grand fieldstone structure, and houses a first-class restaurant and bar, with a lovely shaded patio overlooking the 18th green. The pro shop is consistently rated one of the best in the country, so take some time to browse. The walls are filled with memorabilia from the PGA Tour event that has been played in one form or another in the Quad Cities area since 1971. It is well worth coming early and staying late not only to avail yourself of the luxury of a TPC, but also to bathe in golf history. After all, how often do you get to play where the best in the world play?

The 14th at TPC Deere Run is a short, lovely, and vexing par 4.

(Photos by Andrew Hollingworth & Kiel Christianson)

Wilson D7 Irons set pace in “players distance” category

There are a number of iron categories: “tour,” “player,” “game improvement,” “super game improvement.” Then of course there is the distinction between “forged” and “cast” irons.

Another new category has gained steam and fans over the last few years: the “players distance” iron. The target audience for this category is low double-digit handicappers, and maybe even high single-digit players, who find themselves losing distance either on off-center hits or with – ahem – advancing age.

One of the real class acts in this category is the Wilson D7 Iron. The D7s are packed with technology, including progressive “power holes” and progressively thin, very “hot” faces. Best of all, they maintain a more sleek, traditional profile than many irons that straddle the “game improvement” line.

The D7s come in both forged and cast versions. The former, new for 2020, list for $1000 (GW-5), and the latter for a very reasonable $600). It has been many seasons since I switched to forged irons, so I thought I’d take the “working man” version out for a test to see what all the engineering and materials advances over the past decade or so have done to improve feel and performance of more budget-friendly clubs.

Playing the Wilson D7 Irons

I played a set of the Wilson D7s with stock KBS regular flex shafts. I was concerned about that shaft choice, as I normally play stiff shafts. But I have noticed no increase in tendency to hook (which I do at times) or slice (which I almost never do with my irons). The tips of these KBS seem somewhat stiff, so perhaps that’s the reason. To be honest, though, sometimes I wonder whether the differences in stiffness in steel iron shafts is even a thing.

So how did they perform? Let’s cut straight to the chase: I put them in my bag for what I thought would be one test round. Seven rounds later—including a semi-final win in my course’s Match-Play Tournament and my low round of the year just yesterday (75)—they’re still in the bag.

Compared to my usual forged irons (by a major and universally respected iron maker), the Wilson D7s bring several benefits. Tops among these, is their incredible forgiveness. I have mishit a dozen or more shots – fat, thin, toe, high on the face – and on well over half of those misbegotten swings, the ball has ended up on the green (or near it, anyway).

Along with forgiveness, these irons are long. This is expected, given that the lofts are jacked up, averaging 1.5-clubs stronger than “traditional.” In fact, the lofts are even stronger in the D7s than those in the Wilson Launch Pad Irons, which are in the super game-improvement category. This ratcheting up of lofts doesn’t make it harder to get the ball in the air, though, as the center of gravity is as low and as far back as can be managed without sacrificing a somewhat more “players iron” look.

Length isn’t always a plus, though. I was pretty dialed in on my yardages with my old irons. Well, to be honest I was last year. This year, I was feeling like I needed to step on some swings to get them to their “normal” yardages. I blamed lack of practice. I blamed swing changes. I blamed COVID-19. But frankly, it’s probably because (a) I’m getting old, and (b) I wasn’t striking the ball very consistently. The D7s allow me to pull my “usual” club for the “typical” yardage. If I really stripe a shot, it may go long, but aside from on greens that are very hard, this isn’t usually much of a penalty.

The only drawback to the D7 design, as far as I can tell, is their rounded sole (where you’ll find the progressive power holes, configured specifically for each iron). The leading edge of the face is protected from digging in by this sole, which adds a small bit of extra bounce angle to the clubs. Like the Launch Pads, I’m sure the D7s incorporate this design in order to help players avoid fat shots. And, when the turf is soft, it is a useful feature, indeed. But when the turf is baked out, and your swing is a little too shallow, the club tends to deflect off the ground and up into the ball, resulting in thin shots. In dry conditions, you really need to focus on descending into the ball; however, doing so will deloft the face even more and likely add yards. The rounded soles also require some practice with punch shots—a typical strength of mine, thanks to lots of practice—which don’t come out quite as clean as with irons whose leading edges are sharper.

Long story short: “players distance” irons might require some adjustment because they do, in fact, give you extra distance.

Finally, let’s talk about feel. I can’t compare the standard D7s to the Forged D7s, as I haven’t tested the latter. But to be honest, the standard D7s feel plenty soft to me. I can draw and fade them well enough, and I can feel quite clearly when I pure a shot, compared to off-center strikes.

Scorecard

The Wilson D7 Irons are ideal for players who are seeking to maintain distance without sacrificing feel or looks. They’re stable and powerful – so much so that you may find your best shots going a little too far until you recalibrate. Golfers who play well-manicured, softer courses will find the sole design particularly forgiving.

If you’re looking to buy, see below!

Discount Code: WilsonGolf15-8

A few rules to mention:

  • The codes give 15% off all full-priced Golf Items, including Custom. However, outlet items are excluded. 
  • All codes expire 12/31/20

Wilson Launch Pad Irons elevate the ball and your game

Golf is a lot harder than it looks on TV. Upon hearing of my affection for the game, a friend of mine told me that he had gone to a driving range just one time. I asked him why only once. He said, “I hit a large bucket of balls. Didn’t get one in the air. It just seemed like way too much work.”

It was several decades ago that this friend of mine had tried his hand at golf. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him to give it another go, with more modern, more forgiving equipment. It was just too late for him.

But it’s not too late for your buddy, or you, for that matter. There is a whole new generation of golf clubs – often called “super game-improvement” clubs – whose sole purpose is to help high-handicapper recreational golfers enjoy themselves more. To help them get the ball in the air.

This is the sole purpose of the new generation of the Wilson Launch Pad Irons ($700 steel shafts; $800 graphite shafts), and their sole is their purpose. Let me clarify.

The irons’ moniker refers to the Launch Pad sole, featured throughout the set, from 4i to PW (and other wedges, which you can buy separately to match). The sole of the club is wide, wider in longer irons and narrower in shorter irons, which keeps turf interaction to a minimum. The idea is for the sole design to reduce chunked shots, while the hollow composite heads allow for a thinner, “hotter” face and move the center of gravity away from the face, which will get the ball in the air faster and with more “pop.” Along with the wide soles, the bounce angle serves to “float” the leading edge above the turf, which, according to Wilson, reduces chunked shots by 73% among testers.

Playing the Wilson Launch Pad Irons

All of this sounds great in theory, but how do they play?

Two of the more common mishits by occasional or high-handicappers are the chunk and the blade. After several range sessions with the Launch Pad Irons, it is very clear how they protect against the chunk: those wide soles and leading-edge bounce mimic hitting regular clubs off a mat. If you hit a little behind the ball, the club tends to “bounce” up off the turf, especially if the ground is firm. If you’re hitting off carpet-like bent grass, you can still chunk the occasional shot, but you almost have to try to do it.

Conversely, if you tend to blade shots – hitting them so thin that they don’t get into the air – you’ll still need to work on your swing to impart a descending—or at least level—blow with the Launch Pad Irons. However, even a more “sweeping” swing produces much higher, much longer trajectories than standard clubs.

My son, a high school player who hits the ball a mile high with his regular clubs, found the short irons in the Launch Pad set to be TOO helpful: shots just skied into the stratosphere. But once he worked into the 6i-4i range, he admitted his surprise at the consistency of the Launch Pads, in terms of both trajectory and dispersal. This made me think that for a lot of players, a blended set of more traditional shorter irons and Launch Pad mid- to long-irons would be worth considering.

As for me, I noticed an immediate increase in the height of my shots: about 5 feet higher across the set compared to my normal irons. As for distance, the Launch Pads may have increased center-struck shots just a bit, but any gain was negligible. Off-center shots were improved by several yards, though—noticeably longer.

Are the Wilson Launch Pad Irons all rainbows and unicorn farts? Not exactly, but no club is. The extra “pop” you experience in distance comes with a literal “pop” in sound. It’s sort of a hollow pop, which takes a little getting used to. The sound matches the heads in a way, whose somewhat rotund profile also takes a short while to grow accustomed to.

And if you do struggle with bladed shots, they won’t fix that flaw; however, you’ll be able to work on swinging exactly the same with your PW as you do with a fairway wood – a shallow, sweeping swing will still get the ball in the air.

One final note: it is true that “game-improvement” irons tend to decrease lofts so recreational golfers will think they’re getting more distance. The Launch Pad Iron lofts are a touch stronger than “normal,” but only by 3-4 degrees (i.e., a club stronger). So your 4i is 21 degrees, which is a typical 3i loft. That’s less than many competitor sets, and even less than many “regular” iron sets these days.

And a final, FINAL note: The stock steel KBS 80 shafts are excellent. I normally play stiff shafts, but requested to test regular shafts, as they seemed to fit the overall goals and design of the Launch Pad heads better. To be completely honest, I have noticed no adverse effects from the change in stiffness – I don’t hook the KBS shafts (in the Launch Pads or the new D7s, which I’ve also reviewed), or find them hard to control, even on full-bore swings.

Scorecard

Altogether, if you’re looking for irons to help you enjoy the game, and work less on hitting the “perfect” shot, the Wilson Launch Pad Irons are a solid bet.

If you’re looking to buy, see below!

Discount Code: WilsonGolf15-8

A few rules to mention:

  • The codes give 15% off all full-priced Golf Items, including Custom. However, outlet items are excluded. 
  • All codes expire 12/31/20

Cleveland Golf CBX Full-Face wedges are forgiving and consistent

Some amateur golfers are just afraid certain clubs. High on the list for most amateurs is the lob wedge. Visions of chunked and bladed shots skitter across the gyri and hide in the sulci of their brains as they address those delicate touch shots over bunkers to tucked pins. And then, well, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

My son, a high-school junior who plays on his school’s golf team, was a victim of those waking nightmares last year. He was missing greens and having to hit mini-flops to try to get close to save par or bogey. But he just didn’t have a club he felt good about: the sand wedge had too much oomph—and bounce—but the lob wedge he was using (one of my old ones) was digging into the turf.

Enter Cleveland Golf and their legendary wedge designers. I ordered a new 60-degree CBX Full-Face wedge ($150) for my son, and when it arrived, I regaled him with the design features that I thought would engender some confidence in him and fit his short game.

First, as the name implies, the Rotex and laser-milled Tour Zip Grooves on these wedges go all the way across the face—all the way to the edge of the toe. This is a brilliant feature, as it ensures spin even on toe-hits (which my son tends to do). These keep the ball from knuckling out of the rough if contact is widely off-center.

The second feature is the half-cavity design, which moves the center of gravity a bit more toward the toe and also provides rock-solid stability no matter the contact.

The third is the high-toe face, which stretches the toe-end of the club higher than normal, in case the club slides a bit too far under the ball. Even if this happens, you can still make decent contact.

Finally, the range of bounces can fit anyone’s game. On my son’s, we went with a 10-degree bounce, which is around 2 degrees more than most lob wedges. This bounce keeps him from digging into the turf and works well for bunker shots, but still allows him to get the club under the ball on those flop shots.

The skinny on the Cleveland Full-Face Wedges

So how did all this engineering work out for my son? After just one round, the quote that sums it up is, “I really like this lob wedge!”

Almost immediately, confidence grew in the quality of the contact he was making, and he was able to swing more freely, even on those more delicate shots. No more fear.

And the joy of telling my son, “Nice up and down!” is, as they say, priceless.

Sun Mountain 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag

I don’t carry my clubs too often anymore—maybe just for a quick evening 9. I walk most of the time, though, using a push cart. So I’ve been looking for a golf bag that is light but spacious enough for me to stow all my extraneous gear—cigar holder, range finder, lots of extra souvenir ball markers and divot repair tools, rain jacket, beverage or two, etc. The Sun Mountain line-up of golf bags is pretty fertile hunting ground for just such a golf bag.

The new 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag ($230) weights just 4.5 lbs. and has 14 full-length club silos, as the name implies. There are 9 spacious pockets and, best of all, the fiberglass legs are amazingly sturdy. The bottom is cart-friendly as well, including pushcart-friendly. There are elastic cords to keep the legs in place when not using them. This bag allows me to carry 9, walk 18, or hop on a cart for a luxurious round now and then.

The best features of the 4.5 LS is the legs: wide feet, sturdy graphite fiber, and a springy retraction action. If something is going to go wrong with a stand bag, it’s the legs. These feel rock-solid, and the springy retraction ensures you don’t have a floppy leg hanging down to catch on your own leg as you’re putting it on your shoulder or your car trunk as you’re loading or unloading it.

Another critical feature of a stand bag is accessible, well-placed pockets. You want to be able to reach some pockets while the bag is still on your shoulders. You also want to make sure that storage space isn’t sacrificed in pursuit of lightness. The bag has, happily, plenty of room for all the necessities and some extras. I can get a rain suit to the big side bag, loads of balls and tees, various cigar paraphernalia, and valuables in a felt-lined, water-resistant pocket. At first, I was skeptical of the efficacy of the cooler sleeve – as opposed to a cooler pocket (with a zipper) – but the open-top sleeve is quite capable of keeping most drinks cool for most of a side even on 90-degree days with 90-degree humidity.

The Skinny on the Sun Mountain 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag

This is a workhorse of a golf bag. It’s suitable for all forms of on-course locomotion, and constructed well enough to last for many, many years. The straps are nicely padded and perfectly positioned, the handles are well positioned and rock-solid. The silos keep club grips from getting jammed up, and those legs won’t collapse on you. In short, however you like to get around the course, this bag will work like a charm.

Sacks Parente Series 54LH Mallet Putter excels in design & performance

“Counter-weighting” has been a big trend over the past couple of decades, especially on putters. The idea behind weighted grips, weighted shafts, weighted plugs inserted into the top putter shaft, etc., is that distributing the weight more equally along the length of the putter promotes a one-piece take-away without extra hand and wrist movement.

When Steve Sacks and Rich Parente founded Sacks Parente Golf Company in 2018, the two golf industry veterans said “counter-weighting, schmounter-weighting.” (Or at least, I imagine them saying it.) And they did the exact opposite: they designed several series of putters featuring Ultra Low Balance Point (ULBP) technology. This patented feature consists of an ultra-lightweight graphite putter shaft and a heavy, but precisely balanced putter head. The philosophy behind the design is that the player should be able to feel the putter head through the stroke. The weighting also allows for a relatively short, controlled stroke that delivers considerable “pop” to the ball.

Playing the Sacks Parente Series 54LH Mallet Putter

Sacks Parente is a boutique putter company with several model options, ranging from a true blade to a hollowed flanged bade to and Anser-style model to mid-sized and large mallets. These models don’t come cheap – depending on customizable features, you could spend up to $800 on flatstick. However, due to the ongoing pandemic, “SP” is offering deep discounts on all models.

I tested the 54LH VA Mallet putter, with a graphite shaft and mid-sized grip, which normally runs $599 but is currently on sale for $399. Besides ULBP, there are a couple of other notable innovations in this model. First, like all SP putters, it features a front-weighted center of gravity (CG). This means that the putter head’s center of gravity is pushed forward, near the face. This reduces the “gear effect” (twisting) that affects putts when struck off-center, as well as any sidespin that occurs when the CG is farther back.

The second feature is Vernier Acuity (hence the “VA” in the putter’s official name). Vernier Acuity refers to the three red and blue alignment stripes behind the face. Sacks Parente was the first company in 2018 to incorporate these triple-stripes into their products. Now several larger companies have followed suit (including Callaway, which Rich Parente co-founded in 1982).

I normally play a mallet putter, and I prefer the plumber-neck look of the 54LA, as opposed to the center-shafted version, which is also available. As seen in the picture below, not only is the balance point ultra-low, there is also about a 1” toe-hang. This means that the 54LA VA is ideal for a basically straight back and straight through stroke, with just a bit of rotation (the so-called “gate-like” motion through impact).

At first, I found myself missing putts with the 54LA VA to the left—pulling just a hair. With the slight toe-hang, and the extremely low balance point, if felt like it was too easy to close the putter face at contact. The mid-sized grip helped counteract this tendency, though, and I soon settled on focusing closely on the VA alignment stripes through my stroke, and the ball started to roll true to my intended line.

The most notable characteristic of the 54LA VA, however, is the way the ball “pops” off the face. Not in a hard way – the feel is very soft. But because of the mass and the extreme weighting of the head, a short, controlled stroke is plenty for any putt of a reasonable length.

I shared the Sacks Parente 54LA VA with Troy Gagne, reigning Club Champion of Lake of the Woods Golf Course in Mahomet, IL, coach of the Mahomet-Seymour HS Girls Golf Team, and scratch player. He’d been having trouble hitting his normal Anser-style putter hard enough early in the season when the greens were a tad slow. He handed it back to me after his round and said, “I really like that weighting. And I got the ball to the hole – finally!” When I asked if he noticed the “pop” off the face, he agreed completely: “It’s a little deceiving at first. It really does come off the face with good speed.”

Performance aside, there are a couple of features of the 54LA VA that take some getting used to. First, for an old guy like me, I missed being able to scoop my ball up from the green with my putter; this one makes you bend over to pick everything up. Also, I am semi-concerned about the durability of the lightweight graphite shaft. Bending over to pick up a ball or get the ball out of the hole, I tend to lean on my putter. If I put my weight on this one, I worry that I’ll snap it. Finally, the first round I played with it, a slight rattle developed somewhere in the shaft. Towards the end of the round, the sound stopped and it hasn’t come back, but I figure there’s some loose epoxy in there somewhere.

Sacks Parente 54LH VA Putter: The take-away

Sacks Parente putters remind me of high-performance sportscars. The engineering and balance are tuned to exact specifications. In order to take advantage of this exquisite machine though, you need to practice to get the feel. You can’t just stick it in your bag and expect to go out first time and drill all your putts. Speed will need to be dialed in, as will control of the putter head and face. It’s imperative to really work on the “pendulum” action of the putting stroke – let the head swing, because if you get twitchy, you could lose control. Get that stroke grooved though, and watch the putts race into the hole.

Bonus

My Sacks Parente putter came with a classy metal ball marker and a snazzy logo hat, both of which became immediate favorites.

Get in the zone with the 2020 Cobra King SpeedZone Xtreme Driver

Press releases for Cobra’s SpeedZone drivers, new for 2020, tout six different performance “zones” which they claim are based on design features of the world’s best sports cars. I’m not totally sure what that is supposed to mean, but these zones are listed as Power Zone, Strength Zone,  Light Zone, Low CG Zone, Aero Zone, and Stability Zone.

That is, indeed, quite a lot of zones. Conspicuously lacking is the namesake “Speed Zone.” But never mind that now. As they say, “the proof is in the pounding.” (Well, no one has said that before now. If you like it, it’s mine. If you don’t, forget you read it here.)

Playing the Cobra King SpeedZone Xtreme Driver

Golf Magazine’s Clubtest 2020 spotlighted the tour-model King SpeedZone ($450) and the SpeedZone Xtreme ($449),  focusing on one specific aspect in which both of them performed better than the competition: ball speed. Specifically, when tested with the swing robot, off-center strikes retained more ball speed than any other driver, displaying nearly no decrement on to-hits compared to center strikes.

When I took the King SpeedZone Xtreme—which is the model geared toward average golfers—out to the practice tee, the feel was what stood out to me first. In particular, the feel was incredibly solid and the sound was remarkable consistent. One thing I really liked about my current driver (at the time) was how well I could tell where I’d struck the ball with it – toe, heel, low, high, center all felt and sounded (and behaved) very distinctly. The King SpeedZone, on the other hand, felt practically the same no matter where I made contact with the ball, and the sound barely fluctuated, either.

So, the question is: do you consider this a good or bad trait? At first, I wasn’t sure. My contact is pretty inconsistent, so the feedback I get from sound and feel help me figure out what my swing flaw du jour is. The SpeedZone Xtreme is SO solid, the differences in sound, feel, and distance are extremely subtle. During my first couple of rounds with it, this sort of threw me off a little.

After playing it six rounds though, I have learned the minute differences between a slight toe-hit and a slightly thin strike. And when I do find the sweetspot, it feels like a perfect hammer strike driving a nail in with one swing. I cannot recall any driver I’ve tested (close to 100) that has felt more rock-solid heel to toe, crown to sole.

What does this solid feel get you, distance-wise? My best swings are rewarded with distances as long or slightly longer than any driver I’ve tested. Honestly though, improvement in overall distance on “good swings” is not dramatic. This said, however, distance on off-center contact—which, much to my chagrin, is a large percentage of my swings—is considerably improved. Where before I’d occasionally toe-hook my driver 200 yards, now even those ugly shots consistently end up 20 yards farther than before. My less tragically awful “bad” swings produce even better results.

The SpeedZone Xtreme has just one extra tungsten weight (compared to two in the SpeedZone), deep in the sole, and it comes in 9.0, 10.5, and 12.0 degree base lofts, with each of these lofts adjustable +/- 1.5 degrees and in draw, fade, or standard bias. My 10.5 degree standard loft really launches the ball high, even when I tee it down a bit. The 458-cc clubhead sets up beautifully behind the ball, without any hint of feeling “oversized” (which it isn’t, but some drivers just look bulkier than others; this one’s sleek). Finally, the stock 60g HZRDOUS Smoke shaft is a powerful, consistent, low-spin engine driving the power.

Cobra King SpeedZone Xtreme Driver: The verdict

I thought I had found a driver last year that would be in my bag for many seasons to come. Well, I was wrong. The King SpeedZone Xtreme is my new go-to, especially on those days when I’m not sure what kind of contact the next swing will deliver (which is, frankly, most days). It’s nice to know that even poor contact will not be penalized as much, and mistakes off the tee will generally be minimized.

Extra Features

The 2020 King SpeedZone Drivers (along with all King SpeedZone irons, fairway woods, and hybrids) include COBRA CONNECT™ Powered by Arccos, the award-winning smart golf system that helps players of all skill levels make smarter, data-driven decisions. Electronically enabled sensors are embedded into the grip, automatically recording the distance and accuracy of every shot so golfers can track performance round-to-round and use analysis to improve practice sessions. Golfers also have access to Arccos Caddie, which utilizes Artificial Intelligence to make better on-course decisions for lower scores.