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The muscle-back mystique

The muscle-back mystique

A few years ago, a commercial for Wilson Golf had an everyday player asking the bag-room attendant to, “Bring the blades… and the back-ups.” That line sums up the mysterious appeal of muscle-back blade irons: golfers are drawn to them even though they’re too difficult for most players to use effectively.

“One of the most perplexing conversations we continue to have with golfers regarding muscle-back blade irons involves the myth that using them will somehow make you a better player,” says Jason Fryia, owner of The Golf Exchange, a Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter. “That train of thought confuses me. I compare it to buying your 5-year-old a unicycle instead of a proper bicycle with training wheels when they’re learning how to ride a bike.”

Sales of muscle-back blades account for only 2 percent of the iron market at on and off-course golf shops, according to industry tracking firm Golf Datatech, but their appeal remains strong. Matt Trenton, general manager of Golfdom, a Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter, says customers ask about blades almost daily. Go to any golf shop, and you’ll see golfers who can’t break 90 pick them off the shelf and give them a few admiring waggles before coming to their senses.

“People still aspire to be good enough to play blades and will at least inquire about them,” Trenton says. “Some customers like the nostalgia of what they used to play. Plus, the blades of today are a little easier to hit than the blades we grew up with. Most of the sales, probably all, are customers who come in already set on buying blades. We don’t ever find ourselves fitting someone into blades who didn’t ask for them.”

Manufacturers understand the sensuous resonance of soft carbon steel meeting a urethane-cover ball. That muscle-back blades are more than a golf club – they’re a piece of fine jewellery and one of golf’s status symbols. Like the bag tag from a top-10 golf course, other players view the simplistic beauty of these irons with a certain envy.

Eric Hanson, 48, of Newtown, Connecticut, played muscle-back blades early in his life before switching to cavity-backs. Hanson has a 5.1 handicap but put a set of custom-made Honma blades in the bag last year. “I know I’m passing on some better performance on mis-hits, but the look and feel of these blades were too much to resist,” Hanson says. “There’s nothing like the feel of a well-struck shot with a muscle-back blade. It’s a feeling of satisfaction that you executed the swing well and got rewarded for it.”

Clubmakers know such consumers tend to be better golfers and want them playing their products. As such, they continue to market muscle-back irons. Current examples include: Callaway’s Apex MB, Ping’s Blueprint, TaylorMade’s P•7TW, Titleist’s 620 MB, Mizuno’s MP-20 and Wilson’s Staff Blade. The market for these irons is small, of course, but companies believe it’s influential – players whom other golfers go to when seeking advice on equipment.

On the PGA Tour, the blade scene continues to evolve. At the 2010 Players Championship, 26 players used complete sets of muscle-back irons, and another 10 used muscle-backs as part of a split set. At this year’s Players Championship – well, the one round that was actually played before COVID-19 shut down the PGA Tour for three months – the number of players using a full set of muscle-backs was only 13, and those using them as part of a split set increased to 36.

The reason is part aesthetics and part performance. Most modern “players” irons incorporate a few forgiveness features, like a slightly larger clubhead or a thicker topline. But some golfers just can’t stomach the beefier look. Others, like Tiger Woods, prefer the higher centre of gravity found in most pure blade irons. It’s this characteristic that helps Woods hit the low “stinger” iron shot [see page 120] as well as lower-flighted shots into greens with his short irons.

For other blade users, like Adam Scott, the key factor is how muscle-back irons fit their swing. “Not a lot of guys on tour use irons with offset, but that’s what I grew up with, and the Titleist 680s have it,” Scott says. Although the amount of offset in Scott’s irons is unusual for a blade, it works for him. “I also like the leading edge and sole design and the turf interaction that comes with it. It’s quite a sharp edge. That keeps me shallow coming into the ball because I know if I get too steep the club is going to stick in the ground. The offset makes me feel as if I can lean the handle into the ball and compress it well. These irons help keep my swing where I like it.”

Shot shape also plays a role. Today’s balls spin far less, making it easier to aim at the flag and fire, especially with a perimeter-weighted cavity-back. However, for those wishing to manoeuvre the ball, blades make it easier. That’s a crucial factor for tour players, says J.J. Van Wezenbeeck, director of player promotions for Titleist.

“These guys are playing green speeds, green firmness and pin positions that golfers who play on the weekend don’t face,” Van Wezenbeeck says. “Take a player like Justin Thomas, for example. To use the slopes and contours of the green when he has 7-iron or less into the hole, he’s having to shape the golf ball into that spot. A muscle-back blade helps him do that while controlling his vertical flight.”

However, Van Wezenbeeck points out that the majority of his company’s tour players carry mixed sets nowadays. Typically, they prefer pure blades for the middle and short irons where control and accuracy are crucial to scoring, he says, and more forgiving long irons where height on shots is valued more than precision. “We have a pretty good inventory of muscle-back 3 and 4-irons lying around,” he says.

One of the hottest players in the game, 2020 PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, has seen the benefit of muscle-back irons from a consistency standpoint. “I switched to blades in the [autumn] of 2018,” Morikawa says. “I found that I was able to control the ball a lot more. I was able to work the ball, and the contact felt so much more solid. I love working the ball left and right, especially my fades. But I can play it right-to-left, too. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

But is it the right decision for you? Unlikely. Van Wezenbeeck says that he sees amateurs coming in for a fitting with blades and walking out with a more forgiving players iron, such as Titleist’s T200, because as much as they want that look and feel of a pure blade, the launch monitor doesn’t lie. A recent test conducted by 100 Best Clubfitter Club Champion showed that for a 15-handicapper, a blade 6-iron flew some 37 metres shorter than a super-game-improvement 6-iron and had a distance dispersion of 55 metres from shortest shot to longest. So why make a difficult game more difficult?

“Even with the really good amateur player we’re seeing a decrease in pure muscle-back use,” Van Wezenbeeck says. “The stature or cool factor doesn’t go away just because you’re no longer using a muscle-back iron.” The modern players iron, he says, can offer that same cachet.

For tour players like Woods, Scott, Morikawa, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama, blades provide a no-nonsense approach that allows them to accomplish specific types of shots. But they are supreme technicians with refined swings and a gift for solid contact.

You are not them. Regardless of the beauty, heritage and allure of pure blades, here’s a bit of advice if you’re anything but a professional or elite amateur insisting on playing muscle-backs: practise, or bring the back-ups.