The Golf Club Fitter

Bill Kelly is a self-described “professional club-fitter” who works out of a small workshop at Tee Time, Carpinteria’s popular driving range on the ocean side of Highway 101 at the Bailard Street exit. Bill had a set of Wishon clubs made for me recently: sand wedge through 5 iron, two hybrids, and a driver. Later, he added a 3-wood at my request. My 30-year-old set of Pings featured a steel shaft, so I’ve passed them on to my son Tim. The new clubs, with graphite shafts, allow me to put more lag into each shot and have added distance and accuracy. Many golfers, including me, have gone through life simply buying clubs off the rack and have adjusted our games to our clubs. Guys like Bill Kelly suggest that is playing the game backwards. He believes clubs should be adjusted to players, and at all levels, not just at the professional level.

“There are different ways of fitting clubs,” he explains during a short conversation on the putting green at Tee Time; “some of them take five minutes, and some take two and a half hours.”

A fitting begins with an interview, during which Bill ascertains the golfer’s tendencies, analyzes his existing equipment, and takes him out on the driving range to measure his ball-striking abilities with a launch monitor. From that, Bill comes up with a set of golf clubs. “It will give [the golfer] the best accuracy, consistency, feel, and distance he can get based on his swing,” he says.

Q. What am I doing wrong by going out to Golf World and buying a set of clubs off the rack at half the price?

A. I don’t want to talk down about what people in retail stores do, but, they are there to sell golf clubs…

…So are you…

I’m here to help golfers. [Retailers] take five minutes after you hit a few balls into a net; they don’t take up to an hour to talk to you about your golf game and what your tendencies are, and so on. They don’t spend an hour or an hour and a half having you hit golf balls with different test clubs – not clubs that I want to sell, but test clubs that can help me figure out if you need a 13-degree driver or a 12 ½-degree driver, if that’s what the data indicates is best for that golfer.

What happens if he gets better after having spent $700 or $1,000 with you on a set of custom-made clubs?

If that person thinks we ought to take another look at his set because he’s made some changes to his swing, that’s easy. We’ll just go do that, and if necessary, we can make some small changes to his clubs to bring them up to his current swing. Let’s say he had a tendency to go “over the top” in his downswing, if that gets straightened out, that would require a different lie angle. It’s just a bend in the club head that would be required. There may also be minor changes in length, which can be done by extending the length (or shortening) the length of the club. Neither is expensive.

Tell us about Tom Wishon, your golf-club maker.

Tom Wishon has had more innovations in club design than any other two club designers put together. Tom Wishon is first with new ideas and they get copied by all the original equipment manufacturers. Most recently, something he has done that nobody had ever done, is to build drivers without a roll. Nobody knew why they put roll on the club, but they apparently just did it because they put bulge.

Wishon analyzed it and discovered there is no need for roll. In fact, roll is a detriment, because if you hit the ball low on the face of the driver, the ball goes very low and if you hit it higher on the face, it goes too high. The only time you ever get the loft of the club is when you hit it in the dead center. Without roll, the launch angle and the loft angle are identical, unlike on clubs that have roll. He’s had forty such innovations.

Tom Wishon was vice-president of engineering at Golfsmith and was teaching club-maker classes, which I attended. [At some point], he decided he was being asked to do certain things he didn’t agree with, so left Golfsmith. Now, he writes for Golf Digest and consults for many original equipment manufacturers. Wishon Golf (wishongolf.com) is now in its fourth year; his home base is Durango, Colorado.

How did you become a golf-club fitter?

I have a six-foot, ten-inch son (Tim) and when he was sixteen, we couldn’t find clubs to fit him. I happened to see a book in a golf magazine that said “Learn How To Make Your Own Golf Clubs.” My wife, Nancy, got it for me and I made golf clubs that fit my son. Soon, I was making them for friends, kids for Christmas (beginning in 1991), and when I retired from private industry, I kept doing it. Then, I went to formal training and worked for a year at the Golfsmith store in Oxnard as the head club maker, mostly doing repair; I’ve done every kind of repair there ever was.

At what point should someone either adjust his clubs or buy a new set?

I believe the Ping Eye Two iron is as good as many of today’s irons, but if your clubs are really old – older than five or seven years – you’ll get better technology in irons to make an upgrade now. In woods, if they are older than three years, maybe four, you’re better off with the latest technology. Most of the heads on drivers this year, today, are 460 cc, as big as the USGA will allow. They are more forgiving for the average player, and the average player is probably an eighteen handicap.

Some golfers say technology is ruining golf and that equipment has gone about as far as they’d like to see it go. Have you taken a position on either side of that argument?

The USGA just put out “The Nine Myths of Golf” and it’s oriented toward the comment you introduced: that the equipment is getting so good the players think it shouldn’t get better. The USGA, however, says that golfers are better athletes today. They work out. Maybe the balls are a little better, and maybe there is more forgiveness in the clubs, but if you are a PGA player, you don’t need forgiveness; you need to hit it dead center in the sweet spot or you won’t get the good shot and they need to get a good shot on every shot. I think it is more the athlete, the training, the video equipment that’s available to check your swing, and the teaching. I don’t know how much further the technology can go.

What is the dumbest thing an 18-handicapper does, as far as his clubs go?

He goes to a golf store and buys an off-the-shelf set, then he comes to me because he can’t hit them and says, “I need these adjusted.” Well, he’s just added another three or four hundred dollars on the price of his golf clubs; he could have bought a set from me for maybe a couple hundred dollars less than he bought it at the store.

So, what will a set of custom-made clubs cost the average golfer?

If you go buy a set of Callaway irons with graphite shafts, they are going to cost you around eleven hundred dollars for an eight-iron set. I can make golf clubs that are better for you because they meet all those performance criteria that I’ve mentioned – accuracy, consistency, distance, and feel – for nine hundred dollars.

Anyone that watches the Golf Channel has seen the variety of putters out there. What do you recommend?

The main thing about a putter isn’t the head design at all. You need to have a putter that is heel- and toe-weighted so that it has a fairly high moment of inertia; the Ping Anser has a high enough moment of inertia that all the rest is window dressing.

The most important things about a putter are: length – the right putter length is incredibly important and it is simply done with a few tools out on the putting green; The next is putter lie angle – if the lie angle is wrong, putts outside five feet are going to have an error built in and you are going to miss either left or right most of the time; finally, believe it or not, putters don’t have zero loft; what you want to have as you go through impact is about four degrees of loft.

Bill Kelly (805-218-5451) or his associate, Bob Dugan(805-223-5304), man the Golf club Pro shop Monday through Friday from 12:30 pm to 5 pm, and on Saturday from 10 am to 4:30 pm. A full professional club fitting costs $150; a driver fitting is $65, an iron-set fitting $75, and putter fitting $50. A complete fitting is likely to take up to two and a half hours.

Tee Time Golf Driving Range (805-566-9948) on the ocean side of the Bailard Street exit off Highway 101, is open 7 days a week; Tuesday through Sunday from 8 am until dark (now, 8 pm); Monday from 10 am to dark.