Words from the wise: Bob Vokey - PGA of Australia

Words from the wise: Bob Vokey

When it comes to wedges, the best players of the past 40 years have trusted one man more than any other.

Bob Vokey’s career in golf club design progressed to the point where he was appointed chief designer for Titleist’s range of wedges, the Vokey wedge brand growing to become one of golf’s most trusted and recognised. A special guest at the PGA Golf Expo last year, Vokey shared his insights into an industry that has changed significantly and revealed which is the favourite wedge in his bag. With Tony Webeck

My passion for wedges goes back to the old Dyna-Power days and the old MacGregor Expeditor. They were get-out-of-jail clubs at that time. A true pitching wedge had different shots you could hit with them. Pitching wedges today, because of the strengthening, they have just evolved to be a 10-iron or an 11-iron. It’s not a true pitching wedge in the set. What we’ve done with the Titleist clubs, the 46 and 52 may have lofts of a pitching wedge but the design is with the creativity of a scoring wedge.

We used to get by with two wedges. The pitching wedge was a versatile wedge that allowed you to hit all sorts of different shots and then the sand wedge was used mainly for bunkers and the rough. But as the game evolved these players got so fantastic in being able to manipulate those particular clubs out of the bunkers that they made the greens tougher. Undulating, pot bunkers, they made it so you needed a lot of different shots. Players wanted more loft for greenside shots but with a wide sole they could not hit the shots that they needed to hit. So what evolved was a narrow-sole sand wedge with a little bit more bounce. That is the science of it but there is also an art to it as well.

I’d say it’s more of a challenge to design a wedge now than when I started. When I used to do wedges, I’d find the centre of gravity by balancing a model on my finger. Was that a science? It was an old science, but it worked.

My dad said to me, ‘Son, if you don’t love what you’re doing, quit, or you’ll never be a success.’ I worked my hiney off. I remember driving my 295,000-mile Datsun B210, sleeping in a sleeping bag in my 1,100-foot golf shop in Vista, California. I was fortunate a lot of players would come in because it was right by La Costa.

I did everything by eye, by feel, the old-fashioned way with a toolmaker by hand, which would take months to do. Now I give all these measurements to an engineer, who puts them into the computer and I can see this clubhead moving around on the screen. Ten years before it would take me two weeks to come up with a prototype; he does a playable prototype overnight. That’s the way it’s being done right now. I did it the hard way but that’s what we had to do to learn, and we learned a lot from doing it the old-fashioned way.

I’ve got what I call my go-to guys. Guys like Tom Pernice, Charley Hoffman, Ben Crane, they will come to the TPI test centre and I’ll have all these wedges waiting for them to hit and I’ll go back and do a little grind, a tweak here, a tweak there and we’ll go and hit them. That’s how it all started many, many years ago.

Every single grind that we have in the line right now came from the best players in the world. And not just in the United States. I would go over to the British Open all the time and I had a lot of very good Australian pros that I worked with. I was with Adam Scott at Medinah just this year and he was showing me a lot of different things and we were talking about a lot of different things. Geoff Ogilvy is another of my go-to guys. I’d bring Geoff prototypes five years before SM6 came out and then a few years ago when I gave him a SM6 to try he says, ‘Isn’t that the one you showed me at Torrey Pines about five years ago?’ Yes, because that’s how long it took us to work with the SM6 with the progressive centre of gravity.

In 2012 I was at Olympic in San Francisco and Adam was in the bunker. He’s a great bunker player and he had this 260-08 at that particular time, a wedge we had way back when. He wasn’t liking it and I told him to hit something. I told him not to look at the sole and hit it. Next thing you know it’s popping out and he’s asking to look at the sole. I tell him no. He hits some shots from the rough, some from the fairway. Finally I let him look at it and it happened to be the K Grind with a little bit wider sole. He said to me, ‘I can’t hit his club.’ But he put it in play, he played well and it was a 6-degree K.

Two weeks before the 2013 Masters he gives me a call. ‘Voke, can you give me one with a little bit more bounce.’ I sent him one that was 10-degree K and he won the Masters with it. And it’s still in his bag today.

Working with tour players, they basically knew what they wanted and I was able to advise them and get their feedback. Working with the avid golfer, it’s a little bit more involved.

I talk to them. Sometimes when people come to me they can be a little nervous so I try to relieve the player’s anxiety when they come in to be fit. I’ll give them a little explanation as to what bounce is, what grinds are and let them know the importance of their feedback. I can only fit that person – tour player included – if they tell me how it feels. I don’t care what anyone says, the closer you get to the green, the greater variety of shot-making comes into being. That’s where feel is.

I’ll look and analyse the equipment they’re coming in with. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Take all of that into account. You can ask all sorts of questions that will help when you are fitting them for bounce, loft and grind. Their handicap will tell you a lot so have to take all of that into account before you even go out and hit a shot.

Lee Trevino would say all the time that the wedges are the most important clubs in your bag. Tour players such as Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott, very good tour players, hit 12 greens a round. There’s an opportunity to get up and down so very often and they’re up and down in par or under par. The weekend golfer is still out there trying to hit that dog-gone 300-yard drive.

I go to driving ranges and I see people hitting drivers and yet there’s nobody over at the short game area. I honestly feel like this is the low-hanging fruit in a player’s bag. With a little bit of coaching and the proper loft, lie and bounce, he has the clubhead speed to hit all those shots around the green. With these little guys right here and the proper fit you can save one heck of a lot of shots.

A funny thing happens too; his putting improves. His putting is so much better because he’s hitting those shots closer to the hole. The best players in the world might hit 12 greens but they’re up and down in par, or under. When they’ve got that wedge in their hand they’re thinking, I’m going to make it.

On any given day I might have seven wedges in my bag. I don’t carry just 14 clubs, I don’t worry about that. I’m a hack, I don’t worry about that stuff! I’m testing! I’ve got to test product.

If I had my bag set up properly I use that pitching wedge and then I go to a 48, a 52, a 56 and a 60. I look at that ‘P’ and to me that’s a 9-iron. My 56 is my go-to wedge. My 60 is almost brand new. I’m a 56 player and I’m an advocate of the 56 wedge as the most important wedge in our bag. It’s fun to take the 56 out and hit all the shots. It’s a very, very high percentage shot. You go to your lobber, when you start laying that face open, you better be hitting a thousand balls a day to make it work. I tell everybody to use that sand wedge. It should be your go-to club.

The wedge is the funnest club in golf. Once you get your confidence you can improve a player so much working with the wedges. Working on your short game versus showing them how to hit that driver. Wedges are where it’s at.

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