No course puts wedges to the test like Augusta National
Instead of hacking chips and greenside pitch shots out of long, gnarly rough, as they do in a U.S. Open, the competitors at the Masters are forced to perform acts of short-game heroism off tight lies.
Really tight lies.
"Augusta National and the Masters put more of a premium on technique than a U.S. Open," says Roger Cleveland, who as chief of golf club design at Callaway Golf makes the wedges for three-time champ Phil Mickelson (right) and 2008 Masters winner Trevor Immelman, among others.
Cleveland notes that under U.S. Open conditions, the ball sometimes buries in the rough and other times sits up. Regardless, pros can swing steeply with a high-lofted wedge and pop it out like a bunker shot.
That technique won't work at the Masters, where tight lies make it hard to get under the ball. Only crisp, in-the-grooves contact will produce the spin a player needs to control the ball on Augusta's legendary greens.
Equipment preparations for the Masters usually begin in Florida several weeks before the tournament.
Bob Vokey, who designs wedges for Titleist and works with many of the company's staff players, was busy two weeks ago at Bay Hill. "[The pros] think it's going to be firm greens, so I switched out some [wedges] of staffers like Zach Johnson and Ricky Fowler and Charlie Hoffman," he says.
According to the man they call "Voke," the rule of thumb is to use wedges with slightly less bounce at Augusta National. The less bounce a wedge has, the easier it is to slide under a ball resting on a tight lie. But taking too much bounce off a wedge has a downside at the Masters.
"Sometimes I'll be working with the player and we'll talk about taking the bounce off,” Vokey says. "But the sand there, you know, it gets kind of fluffy. If you take too much bounce off to make the club work from the tight lies, you're going to take away from the benefits you get in the soft sand.”
Brandt Snedeker, who tied for third at the 2008 Masters, recently asked Cleveland Golf's Rob Waters to make him a new 60° wedge with reduced bounce in both the heel and the toe.
Reducing the bounce in the heel allows Snedeker to open the face more while still being able to slide the club under the ball. Taking bounce out of the toe means Snedeker's wedge won't rebound off the turf as much as it swings through the hitting area. The bounce remaining in the middle of the head is helpful when Snedeker hits square-faced bunker shots. It's a subtle detail, but an important one.
Roger Cleveland also says that he gets many requests from Callaway staff players for Augusta-specific wedges in the weeks leading up to the Masters. He notes that both Mickelson and Ernie Els made modifications to their wedge setups, with the tournament in mind, a few weeks ahead of time.
Like playing a series of practice rounds at Augusta before Masters week, Cleveland says it's one of those things that veterans simply know to do, but some rookies don't.
Another strategy to increase spin and control at Augusta is to add a super-high lofted wedge. Mickelson used a 64° wedge to get up and down several times at Winged Foot in 2006 during the U.S. Open, and a few players now carry one all the time. Cleveland warns that it's not a magic wand.
"You have to practice with it,” Cleveland says. “You can't just put in a 64° wedge. I mean, these guys are incredible, but it still takes a big commitment to swing as hard as you need to swing with that club. You've got to get used to it, especially under pressure. It's difficult, which is why I think a lot of guys are reluctant to use it.”
Vokey notes that adding a 64° wedge also presents another challenge: What club is the player going to take out to make room?
One thing that Waters, Vokey and Cleveland all agree on is the necessity of fresh grooves. Regardless of the sole grind or the loft, the USGA's recent groove rule changes make sharp grooves critical to generating spin and control.
Reps and club builders from all the major manufacturers will be on-site in the days leading up to the opening round of the Masters. If players need last-minute tweaks, complete back-up sets of clubs are waiting in each company's tour van across the street.
They can work a lot of magic on wedges in those trucks, and they’d be happy to do some tailoring too if one of their players ends up with a new green jacket.
(Photos: top, Robert Beck/SI. Bottom, John Biever/SI)