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High Flyer - Interview with Bob Vokey
July 2011

Having sold an incredible seven million units of his signature wedges since joining Titleist in the mid-1990s, design guru Bob Vokey is the leading authority on grooves, grinds, gapping and other nuances of the wedge: the most versatile club in the bag. Dominic Pedler talked to one of the golf industry’s most colourful characters.

Gi How did you first get into golf club design and engineering?

BV: My dad was a good golfer and a tool and die maker, so I would often tinker with golf clubs in his workshop in the garage. Being Canadian, I was actually more interested in hockey and I also played baseball and football. But in my 20s I had a girlfriend in southern California and I got a job there with TaylorMade. I got to know Lee Trevino, who would always be adjusting his clubs and I learnt a lot from him when I started as a technician on tour. I worked on drivers, irons and fairways as well, but when Titleist asked me to specialize in wedges I got behind the grinder and away I went.

Gi: How does the challenge of designing wedges compare to that of the other clubs in the bag?

BV: I used to think wedges were just ‘get out of trouble’ clubs, but when I saw how players like Trevino, Dave Stockton, Bruce Crampton and Lanny Wadkins used them, it transformed my way of thinking. The versatility of the wedge and the need for design creativity is so much greater than for other clubs – it has to work in a whole variety of situations. And because of the loft, the player sees so much more of the face at address which alone requires an extra element of craftsmanship. It’s the most unique club in the bag and the toughest to design.

Gi: To what extent did the rule changes on grooves, which came in for tour pros in 2010, affect you in terms of both design and player fitting?

BV: It was a difficult time to say the least. We had some 600 players to convert to conforming grooves in about six months but first I had to test and get feedback on some 16 different combinations of proposed new grooves. Some of the early comments from players familiar with the old higher spinning grooves are not printable! Even when we’d chosen the best new grooves, there was a follow-on effect in that players now required different grinds and lofts to create an appropriate trajectory that best compensated for the lower spinning grooves. For several months I had my team of grinders working 10-hour shifts.

Gi: Would you agree that it was partly your own success in creating high-spinning groove designs over the years that prompted the authorities to rein back spin in the first place?!

BV: Certainly my grooves designs back in the early 2000s did get a lot of publicity. With the incredible control that players were getting from the rough the phone was soon ringing off the hook. I guess wedge designers did help create the monster and the USGA then wanted to control that monster.

Gi: How much less spin do 2010 conforming grooves generate – and is that figure meaningless if the world’s best players can adapt their technique to achieve almost as much control as before?

BV: As a general rule, the new grooves spin some 30-50% less out of the rough. From the fairway there is really no difference at all. But with those 50-75 yards shots from the rough, players initially found a big difference. But once they worked at it, many adjusted surprisingly well – even if it meant changing their technique. Players like Robert Karlsson, Ross Fisher and Webb Simpson also commented that slightly less spin actually helped them reach those back-right pin positions that were previously so hard to get to. Like they say on the commercial— “these guys are good”.

Gi: To what extent is the ability to adjust dependent on the type of player and his swing?

BV: The quickest to adjust were what I call ‘trajectory biased’ players. Guys like Scott Verplank, Zach Johnson, Tom Pernice and other feel-based players who naturally vary their trajectory according to any situation. It was amazing how well they coped even from day one. But even the more spin based players, like Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy, who have grown up relying more on spin, have also adjusted by visualizing a wider range of trajectories and allowing for the extra release.

Gi: How have the groove changes dictated other wedge specifications?

BV: It’s mainly about trying to compensate for the higher launch angle resulting from the new grooves which, having less bite, cause the ball to roll up the face a bit more making it harder to control. Some players have moved to lower lofts than the 54° and 60° combination that was very popular. Geoff Ogilvy is an example of a player who moved into a 58° for his highest loft. Other players have preferred a change in the bounce and sole grind. At the start of last season Ian Poulter found the ball slipping up the face too much and I gave him more bounce with a wider flange. He took it to Tucson the next week and won the tournament (WGC Accenture World Matchplay). But, generally, players are reacting more to what the ball is doing by tweaking their technique rather than their equipment.

Gi: Turning to average players, what are your key tips on wedge fitting?

BV: Gapping is crucial. A lot of players don’t know what the loft gaps are in their set, especially at the short end where pitching wedges have got steeper over the years. They used to be 51° but have come down to 47° or 46° but the sand wedge has stayed the same at 56°. A gap wedge of 52° can really help a player achieve consistent distance gaps. I encourage 4° to 6° loft increments to help you avoid those dreaded half-shot and quarter-shot situations. Of course, you can simply adjust the loft on your existing wedge – but be careful as that has a direct effect on the bounce angle on the sole of the club. Lie angle is also important for dispersion and control. Too upright, for example, and you’ll be hitting too many shots left.

Gi: What’s your view on the lob wedge of 60° or more – should average golfers be playing them?

BV: The lob wedge can be a great club but it takes a lot of time, practice and confidence to be able to play it properly. Because of the high loft it’s especially difficult to make consistent contact. One minute you’re hitting 60 yards, the next minute 40 yards. And average players with a typical ‘over the top attack’ are often going to lose trajectory and spin. Even many tour players are struggling now with 62° and 64° because of the way the ball slides up the face with the new grooves making it launch higher anyway.

Gi: To what extent does the choice of shaft affect wedge performance?

BV: It can make a big difference. I’m a strong believer that there’s a lot to gain from having a slightly softer flex shaft in your wedges than you have in your irons. I remember in summer 2000 suggesting to Tiger Woods – who then used [True Temper Dynamic Gold] X100 in all his irons – to move to a softer and lighter S400 flex in his sand wedge. The next time I saw him was at the Open at St Andrews and I asked him how he was getting on with it. He said “You saw how I did at Pebble Beach, didn’t you?!” [Tiger won that US Open by 15 shots – Ed.] He later told me that while he had lost maybe one yard in distance he had gained so much more feel around the green and more elevation from bunkers.

For many pros I actually now recommend the even lighter S200 shaft which I think is the best blend of control, firmness and feel. It is particularly good for those touchy feely shots.

Gi: Who do you regard as the best wedge player you’ve ever seen?

BV: Without a doubt Seve Ballesteros was the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. The last wedges I made for him, a few years ago, were the 300 series in 55° and 60° lofts with slightly wider soles. Seve was a firm believer in having wider soles – as I am – as it gives you more effective bounce. Jose Maria Olazabal is right up there too – he’s unbelievable, as are Trevino and Brad Faxon. Of the younger players, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Michael Sim – you’re going to be hearing a lot from him in the future.

Gi: Are tour players now changing their wedges more frequently in order to avoid wearing out already lower-spinning grooves?

BV: The first point is that the new CC [Condition of Competition] grooves don’t wear out nearly as quickly as the previous Spin Milled grooves. While some players are very hung up on spin I always stress that wedge play is about much more than the grooves – there are a heck of a lot of shots that you’ll play with a wedge that don’t depend on spin. It’s also the case that, over time, a wedge will settle into your own ‘swing print’ rather like an old pair of shoes molds to your footprint.

Gi: How much does angle of attack and swing type dictate wedge fitting for all standards of player?

BV: I like to identify what I call ‘diggers’ and ‘sliders’. Diggers have a generally steeper angle of attack, with a ‘straight-up-straightdown’ swing style that often benefits from a wider sole and more bounce. The opposite is a slider with a slower, syrupy swing and a shallower angle of attack who would need less bounce for his more precise contact. But it’s also about the type of courses you play on: the type of grass will influence your bounce while small, heavily guarded plateau greens often demand more loft compared with wide flat greens. And of course it depends on the individual and the amount of spin he generates. We recommend all players get fit for their wedges – these are you scoring tools!

Gi: Are there any performance differences between finishes, for example, Tour Chrome and Oil Can, Black Nickel – or the raw finish so popular on tour?

BV: I’ve done a lot of tests and I believe that any performance difference is negligible. It’s all down to personal feel and there are wide variations in preference, but some players swear that the raw rusty finish has better feel and also spins more. Some players actually use both Tour Chrome and raw wedges – like Ross Fisher, his 48° and 54° are plated but his 60° is raw!

Gi: To what extent do top pros vary the specs of their wedges according to the type of course and turf conditions?

BV: Particularly on links courses, some players will ask us to take off some bounce and give a bit more heel relief and trailing edge relief so that the wedge sits better on tighter lies. That was a popular request at St Andrews last year. I reduced the bounce for Ryuji Imada, for example. I expect the same at Royal St. Georges this summer, it will play very firm. I’m really looking forward to Open week.

Gi: Cast versus forged? You are surely the person best placed to settle this long running debate…

BV: I’ve heard all the stories that forgings have better feel because the grain structure is tighter, the molecules are better aligned, etc. and at first I believed it myself. But castings have improved so much in recent years, to the point where even many top players simply cannot tell the difference if you don’t tell them. In fact, there are many players who, for years, believed my Spin Milled wedges are forged when they’re not – they’re cast! We use 8620 carbon steel in a process where the voids are reduced and the granular structure is so much better. There is also the huge benefit that cast wedges can be designed with more features and replicated more consistently than forged wedges. It’s one of the reasons we are able to offer so many bounce and grind configurations.

Gi: You recently launched WedgeWorks Exclusive wedges in the UK and Europe. What’s different about that offering?

BV: Wedge- Works is my Custom Shop here in Carlsbad, CA. We are able to offer our high performance wedges with a variety of personalisation and customisation options. It’s basically like bringing the Tour Van to the average golfer. We have special finishes, toe engravings, stampings, shafts, grips, everything. We had a lot of requests so we recently added the 200 Series to the WedgeWorks lineup. I think it will be quite popular in the UK and Continental Europe.

Gi: What is the next frontier for wedge design now that grooves have been reined back?

Well, my Condition of Competition grooves are not quite at the limit and, as milling techniques improve further and we start to deal in space-age tolerances of 1,000ths of an inch, there is still scope to improve on groove performance. [Titleist chief] Wally Uihlein has told me to take my next designs “right to the edge” and that’s what I’m doing with the new grooves I’m working on. While we have worked hard on ensuring volume and edge radius comply with the new rules there is still scope for new geometric configurations that get more ‘teeth’ on the ball. CAD-CAM technology is transforming design and manufacturing all the time, while, personally, I’m still learning every day from the constant feedback from players. I always say: I’ve got the best R&D department in the world – the PGA Tour!

Vokey Wedgeworks – the ultimate personalised wedge

Master craftsman to legions of top pros, Bob Vokey is offering a variety of personalised wedge customisation opportunities to all golfers through his new Vokey Wedgeworks Exclusives initiative.

With special grinds and custom finishes embellished with personalised markings, the wedge itself is made-to-order in the same California workshop catering for tour pros such as Rory McIlroy, Matteo Manassero, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott.

Choose from the Tour Van Design (TVD) and 200 Series, both of which are popular on tour. The TVD model is a variation of Vokey’s “Most Favourite” M Grind, featuring a crescent shaped sole and moderate camber for precision shot making. It comes in three custom-only finishes – Bright Brushed Chrome, Oil Can Zero and Black Oxide. The 200 Series is a classic Vokey design identifiable by its teardrop shape and trailing edge relief.

Three customisation packages include the Wedge Only offering customised shaft, grip, length, lie and loft; The Links, which adds personalised hand-stamping up to four characters and a choice of 20 paint-fill colours; and the Tour, with up to eight personalised characters, 44 toe engraving options and further customisation of the shaft-band and ferrule.

Available through any Titleist stockist. £117 (Wedge Only), £139.50 (Links Package) or £162 (Tour Package).

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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