Sure Bet

The new Snake Eyes MB-1 irons offer low-handicappers a big payoff—traditional forged blade design but with a larger sweet spot

If you are over 40, and picked up the game as a kid like I did, you probably started off with forged blades too. Not long ago I found my old set of MacGregor Tourney forged blade irons in a closet in my mother's home in North Carolina. I was struck by their beauty—the simple, hand-wrought, hammer-forged lines, sharp leading edges, small heads, bright chrome finish, and soft rounded toes. They were my first set of irons, and I took them out to the practice range for a little reunion; after hitting a few dozen warmup shots, I was reminded why a classic forged blade is like no other iron: When you hit the ball on the sweet spot, you instantly feel the power and precision of the shot.

The problem with forged blades, of course, is that most of us seldom hit the sweet spot dead-on, which is exactly why Karsten Solheim came up with the revolutionary cavity-back design. By casting, wherein molten metal is poured into molds, rather than forging perimeter-weighted clubs, Solheim was able to move weight to the back of the club head, thus enlarging the size of the sweet spot and providing much more forgiveness on heel and toe hits. The trade-off was less feel. Cast irons made Solheim a wealthy man and sent my Tourneys to the back of my mother's closet. So strong was the "game-improvement iron" revolution that one by one, the houses that produced golf's finest forged blade irons—Hogan, Spalding, Wilson, and MacGregor—abandoned blades. Three years ago you would have been lucky to find one set of production forged blade irons at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.

It was therefore a remarkable turnabout to find a dozen new traditional blades on display—at least half of them classic forged irons—at this year's show. Everyone was talking about blades and the "return of feel" to the game. The question was, Why? Nobody I spoke with seemed to know. One clubmaker told me he thought the cavity-back revolution had gone about as far as it could go, and a swing back to tradition was inevitable. Another said the industry was in a "holding pattern"—waiting for the next breakthrough in equipment design. "Meantime," he said, with a car salesman's showroom smile, "nothing beats a classic. It's like your father's old Buick roadster."

Well, I love classic blades, but I'd still rather drive my new Volvo than my father's Buick. That's why I decided to visit Ernie Vadersen, who owns an upstart equipment company called Snake Eyes Golf Clubs, Inc. Four years ago he sent me a forged pitching wedge that turned out to be one of the sweetest clubs I've ever hit. The moment I swung it, I knew this wedge was almost perfection. It quickly garnered an unpaid following among Tour players, and I extolled its virtues in the equipment-review section of this very column.

Vadersen, I knew from mutual acquaintances, was an industry rebel, an innovator in the style of Barney Adams. (See Departures May/June '97 Teeing Off: "Iron Supplement.") A former top designer for Spalding and MacGregor during the years those companies ruled the clubmaking roost, Vadersen is also a scratch player. But in recent years his quest has been to create fine Tour-quality blades for all skill levels. His standards are among the industry's highest—reflected in the premium prices of his clubs.

We sat in his cozy office in Ponte Vedra, Florida—less than a mashie niblick shot from the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass—and he attempted to convince me that the new Snake Eyes MB-1 forged blade three-iron he was holding could be considered a game-improvement iron.

The golf industry has run the gamut of cast- and oversize-club technology," said Vadersen. "Let's face it, there's only so much weight you can move around before club performance is negatively affected. This is simple physics. We've learned that, for example, due to the drag coefficient, midsize and oversize irons simply don't perform all that well. When you stretch the metal too much—make the sweet spot too thin—clubs dramatically lose feeling and responsiveness.

"I think the main reason you're seeing a return to classic thinking in irons is because golfers want better feel when they hit the ball. When you hit a ball off the heel or toe of a classic forged iron, you know immediately, without even looking, that the shot is off. That's vital information. In that respect, no cavity-back club can compare with a forged blade iron."

The superiority of blade irons is also a matter of physics, Vadersen added. Most people are not aware that carbon steel has a grain structure. (In this way it's not unlike wood.) When the filaments line up properly, as they do in forged irons, energy is easily transferred from your body to the ball. That's why handmade forged irons typically feel "softer" and more responsive than cast clubs. The latter have less feel because pouring liquid steel into the clubhead mold alters the "grain structure" of the metal.

"In simplest terms, the forged club gives you more information. The way I look at it, it's like having someone help you. By that I mean, if you find you are hitting the club on the toe, the computer in your brain will actually start adjusting until you start hitting it on the sweet spot. If you're striking it on the heel, you will eventually automatically make the adjustment to make a better shot. We've learned the best teachers tend to use forged clubs for this reason. They are teaching you how to make shots, and a good forged blade, because of the information it imparts, aids in that process—a game-improvement iron in the end."

This seemed to fly in the face of experience (if we could correct our mistakes so easily, we'd all be Tour players) and received wisdom about forged blade irons, which is that they're for better players.

"Well, there's no question that forged blades have always been designed for the top-tier players . . . until now," Vadersen answered. "If your objective is just to hit a ball straight and you're not really concerned much about learning to make shots, a cast cavity-back club is fine. We even make cast cavity-back irons for that large percentage of players who value forgiveness and straight shots over shotmaking.

"But if you play this game long enough, you'll want to become more of a shotmaker. We think that's something even a ten- or fifteen-handicapper wants. Oversize cavity-back clubs allow you to play lazily, and lazy habits promote poor play."

This sounded good. But I still doubted whether, good as it felt, a classic blade was right for me. I was, after all, a 10-handicap with my old Tourneys; I'm a five with my Callaway cavity-backs.

"Well," said Vadersen, getting up. "The only place to convince you otherwise is the golf course. Let's go."

On the way to the warmup range Vadersen cast another light on the game-improvement revolution. The industry abandoned forged blades, he contends, because casting was a good deal cheaper than forging, which requires hammering, grinding, and polishing the steel by hand. Also, "the abundance of skilled craftsmen in the 1950s and '60s (which was the golden age of great forged irons) made some people think that we no longer needed apprentice programs. Let's face it, grinding and polishing a club all day is tedious, time-consuming, dirty work. We began to lose the people who could do it well. Eventually we all went to casting and pretty much perfected that type of club."

On the range, Vadersen handed me a Snake Eyes MB-1 forged three-iron right out of the box—maybe the most beautiful shooting iron I'd ever seen.

"It has game-improvement qualities you can't really see," he said, "which I'll tell you about in a minute. Now, hit a ball."

I made a good swing, felt the ball fire off the clubface, then looked up to see it drawing gently over a practice target flag 200 yards out. I'd never hit a blade three-iron so sweetly and recall muttering something highly intelligent like "Holy cow."

Vadersen smiled and explained why this forged blade differed from its forebears.

• It's made of 41-40 carbon steel, which has better grain, strength, and durability than traditional steel—thus enabling Vadersen to move considerably more weight into the heel and toe of the club.
• The clubhead is made using a relatively new high-tech process called press forging. In this process the clubhead is squeezed into shape rather than pounded, the traditional method.
• The clubhead is slightly larger than traditional blade designs.
• Every Snake Eyes blade clubhead has its ratio of weight to center of gravity worked out by the company that designed space-suit helmets for NASA.
•The clubs actually have a slight shaft-to-hosel onset to promote cleaner release through impact.
• The lofts are true—meaning a seven-iron is 36 degrees, not cranked down from there two or three iron degrees to compensate for the "ballooning" effect common to perimeter-weighted cavity-backs.

I was deeply impressed but not converted. For the MB-1 was still an iron for the low-handicap player. The Holy Grail, I said, was putting this much game-improvement technology into a traditional blade iron for high-handicap players.

"Funny you should say that," Vadersen said, as we started for the first tee and a truer test of his blades—a spin around a tough Tom Fazio golf course. "I haven't spoken to anybody in the press about this yet, but we're developing a new technology we think will do just that. The challenge was finding a forging, grinding, and polishing process that would meet our rigorous standards and also be cost-effective."

If Vadersen was right, I'd just caught a glimpse of golf's new frontier. With a little help from NASA, its shining future lay in its golden past.

For what it's worth, I reached 14 greens in regulation using the new Snake Eyes MB-1 forged blades that morning, and on a tough course I had never played before. The low irons particularly impressed me: the crisp release I felt at impact and the way I was able to work draws or fades. The sharp leading edges of the mid-to-high irons, especially the wedges, which have considerably less "bounce" than most oversize models, sliced beautifully through the rough and were sensational for lightly "nipping" shots, as they say in Scotland, from tight lies. Most of all, it was nice to feel shots the way I once did—to feel like a kid again.

Best of the Blades

This trio of blade irons particularly impressed me at the PGA Merchandise Show.

These classic beauties were a solid second to the Snake Eyes in aesthetics and performance. They're made of carbon steel and feature a progressive muscle-back design with traditional rounded toes and longer blade lengths in longer irons. Jose Maria Olazábal is using PMBs to great effect on the Tour. They come with True Temper Dynamic Gold Sensicore shafts and retail for about $1,000. For an additional $4,000 you can visit MacGregor's Albany, Georgia, technical facility and have Master Craftsman Don White personally fit you with these irons. 800-841-4358 (cash only).

The Tour's leader in forged irons recently introduced this classic-looking blade, which has a new technological wrinkle—the patented T-Zoid power bar directly behind the sweet spot. Made from mild double-forged carbon steel, with no offset and two degrees of loft, the True blade is very stable through impact, has superb feel and balance, and allows subtle shot shaping. One of my testers grabbed these irons and refused to give them back. About $960 per set. 800-333-7888.

A former top designer for Maxfli, Tad Moore is known for his player-friendly golf equipment. This classically shaped muscleback design is made of forged carbon steel and features a thin top line and a narrower sole for less bounce. Great from the rough and for touch shots around the green. About $800 per set. 888-236-6673.

Why Snake Eyes Surpass Traditional Forged Irons

1. Made of 41-40 carbon steel, which has better grain, greater strength, and more durability than traditional steel.

2. Slightly larger clubhead and better center of gravity promotes higher percentage of true hits.

3. Shaft is onset to hosel to promote cleaner release of ball.

4. A more refined leading edge increases effectiveness in tight or rough lies and makes it easier to put spin on ball.

5. A new press forging and design process allows consistent positioning of the sweet spot from club to club.

6. True loft fosters precise shotmaking.

Is a Blade Iron Right For You?

The answer is yes if:
• You are a scratch to 15-handicap player who consistently makes solid contact with the club's sweet spot on both long and short irons and you like to shape shots.
• You generate enough headspeed to produce high-trajectory ball flight, and you put enough backspin on the ball to make it hold the green.
• You prefer the clean lines and smaller traditional head of a classic blade and find a narrower sole much easier to play from the rough or a tight lie.
• You are a "feel" player: You love the sensation of a perfectly struck ball and desire greater "touch" on shots around the green.
• You consider club feedback essential to improving your swing.

The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans

Old Carolina Golf Club and Old South Golf Links, both public tracks, have earned quiet acclaim in the golf world. Designer Clyde Johnston made wonderful use of oak forests and salt marshes on Old South. Old Carolina, built on the remains of a horse farm, is more challenging (142 slope rating). Shown above: The 13th hole at Old Carolina. Both courses: $79, early September through early November. Tee times can be made 60 days in advance. Old Carolina: 888-785-7274 (cash only). Old South: 800-257-8997.

These high-tech flatsticks use a nickle alloy insert to increase perimeter weighting. The result: one of the best-feeling putters ever made. Three models available: Anser-F, Sedona-F (the best putter I tested so far this year), and the mallet-headed Darby-F. $320. 800-474-6434.

The ninth at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club's Ocean Course (30 minutes north of St. Augustine) is the grandfather of island holes. The layout was designed in 1928 by Herbert Strong, who used some clever sleight of hand on the ninth. The island is large, but looks tiny from the tee. My advice: Swing away. Ocean Course greens fee: $120. Inn open year-round. High season (March through May): $260-$380. 800-234-7842.

The Arnold Palmer Golf Company reported losses of $2.7 million for the first quarter of 1998, yet managed to come out with its best new iron ever. The Tour Iron is a no-offset, cavity-back blade that features an undercut toe filled with polyurethane to absorb vibration. It also has added heel weighting to decrease slices with longer irons, increase crisper shots with shorter ones. Graphite: $752; steel: $592. 800-272-5637.

This Robert Trent Jones golf course (within Colonial Williamsburg and part of the Williamsburg Inn) has just been refurbished by son Rees. It has the best set of par-three holes in the country: All four play from elevated tees and over water hazards. Especially challenging: the 190-yard third, which runs downhill to a kidney-shaped green. Greens fees: $95 (guests); $125 (nonguests). 757-220-7696. Inn open year-round. High season: $295-$750. 800-501-0157.

These irons, which are made from high-grade 431 stainless steel, are among the best-feeling cast clubs I've ever hit. The company president, Terry Koehler, maintains that an extra annealing (or heating) process "softens" the metal so much that it feels like forged carbon. Perfect for the zero- to 15-handicapper. Available only through pro shops. $115 per club. 800-575-3555.

The new Snake Eyes MB-1 Forged Irons cost approximately $1,000 per set. For additional information, call 800-270-8772.

James Dodson is Departures' contributing editor for golf.