Master clubmaker Don White slips on a green apron, work gloves, and a pair of protective goggles and ambles over to a double-wheeled grinding lathe inside the MacGregor Golf factory in Albany, Georgia. He lifts a rectangular hunk of forged metal from the workbench, cradling it in his gloved hands like a sculptor feeling the contours of a chunk of clay. Then he peers back at me with a sly smile illuminating his dark, scraggly-bearded face, and announces, "This is it!"
All of a sudden sparks begin to fly and an ear-splitting screech pierces the air as White presses the forging against the grinding wheel. I watch in gape-mouthed wonder as the profile of a four iron takes shape before my very eyes. A former welder who was raised by field hands in rural Georgia, the 50-year-old White has made custom-fitted golf clubs for the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, and José Maria Olazabel. Forged irons from his lathe have won scores of pro tournaments and two grand slams. Now this unassuming artist, who was recently inducted into the Professional Clubmakers' Society Hall of Fame, is making a set for me.
I feel like I've died and gone to golf heaven. The MacGregor custom-club-fitting program is a real-life fantasy camp for hookers and slicers. Its mission is to provide regular players with the same type of personalized treatment Tour pros receive when they order a set of clubs. White and his assistants build forged irons designed according to individual preferences and specifications with the kind of attention to detail that you would expect from the finest tailors in London, Milan, or New York.
Like custom-made suits, custom-fitted MacGregor golf clubs do not come cheap. The price for a set of ten forged irons is a whopping $8,000, or roughly seven times that of a top-of-the-line off-the-rack set. After your first set is made, you can purchase a second set for a mere $4,000. "I know that $8,000 sounds like an outrageous price," concedes John McNulty, who is the president of MacGregor Golf. "But the vast majority of our customers say that it's a great value, and more than half of them end up ordering a second set."
If the MacGregor name doesn't seem to have the same prestigious ring as brands like Callaway or Ping, it's probably because you are a golfer under 40. MacGregor started making high-quality golf clubs for the carriage trade in 1897 and went on to pioneer such innovations as face inserts for persimmon woods and the transition from hickory to steel shafts.
From the 1930s well into the mid-1970s, MacGregor was an industry leader, with a staff that at various times included renowned clubmaker Toney Penna and Tour players such as Tommy Armour, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson, and Nicklaus. In 1998, a few years after the founding families had sold MacGregor, The Parkside Group (led by chairman Barry Schneider) purchased it with the aim of restoring the company to its former glory and profitability.
Like its competitors, MacGregor now offers several mass-manufactured models, such as the Tourney MT and MT Tungsten irons and the Tourney Tungsten woods. But MacGregor's custom-fitted clubs, officially branded "Tourney Forged Personal Irons," are still the standard bearers.
"Our goal is to make the best clubs in the world," says McNulty. As he points out, MacGregor's revitalization efforts have indirectly been boosted by the success of Tiger Woods, who plays "blades," a style of forged irons with a traditional butter-knife-shaped design. These irons are made exclusively for Woods by his sponsors at Titleist, a company that otherwise manufactures investment-cast clubs.
The relative advantages of forged irons, particularly the type of blades that Woods uses, can only be fully appreciated by the very best golfers. Like the stars of yesteryear, a growing number of contemporary Tour pros prefer blades because they have a lower overall inertia, which more easily allows an expert golfer to intentionally curve the ball to the right or left; in the hands of less-than-expert golfers, blades usually exaggerate unintended slices or hooks. As a class, forged irons—which also come in the more forgiving muscle-back and cavity-back models preferred by many pros and top amateurs—are stronger, more resilient, and more consistent in overall shape than investment-cast irons, which can contain bubbles and voids resulting from their manufacturing process.
MacGregor deliberately limits access to its custom-club-fitting program to players with handicaps of ten or under. The program aims to give players clubs that fit their swing so they can achieve the type of ball flight they want. If you are, say, a 15 handicapper who gets custom-fitted with clubs that are designed to offset a wicked slice, your set will effectively become obsolete if and when you make fundamental improvements in your swing.
"We're not the doctors, we're the pharmacists," says research and development director Jim Bode. "Teaching pros are the ones who should cure your swing problems. We simply provide the best equipment for your game."
Golfers with good enough games to make the MacGregor cut are treated to a luxury experience unavailable anywhere else. Prior to your scheduled club-fitting appointment, you fill out a player profile detailing your ball-flight tendencies and send in your current set of clubs for analysis. Then you receive a prepaid airline ticket and board a flight for Atlanta via Albany. On arrival, you are picked up by limousine and treated to dinner by a company executive, after which you retire to your presidential suite in a local hotel.
The next morning, you are chauffeured to MacGregor's new clubmaking facility, which features a 100,000-square-foot factory and office complex and an outdoor driving range. After a photographer has documented your club fitting, you review the specifications of your current set of clubs and discuss with White and Bode precisely what it is you're looking for in the new custom-fitted set.
"We only have the capacity to make about forty custom sets a year, and each set has its own personality, just like each golfer," Bode explains. "The one constant is that we make sure the shapes of all the heads match up, and that there is a consistent progression throughout the set in terms of loft gaps between clubs."
At the driving range, White, Bode, and their assistants watch you hit balls with selected irons from your current set in an effort to get the most precise information about what is really needed in a new set. That in itself is a marked departure from the approach taken by most other club fitters, who typically stick a piece of impact-sensitive tape on the sole of your five iron, then ask you to hit balls off a plastic board into a net.
"The board just tells you if you're hitting the ball off the center, toe, or heel of your clubs," says Bode. "When you hit off grass, we can see your actual ball flight, we can see the shape, depth, and direction of your divots, and we can see the way the sole of your club cuts through the turf."
I inform Bode and White that I want a bit more distance out of my irons as well as the ability to curve shots in any direction at will, but do not think myself capable of the swing precision required to hit blades like Tiger Woods. They recommend that I try a CV89 forging with a large cavity-back head and a center of gravity more toward the middle of the club face than in a traditional blade, for more forgiveness, adding that they'll strengthen the lofts for more distance. They also recommend inserting two wedges with rounder sole edges than the wedges in my current set, for more versatility around the greens. "We're going to get your lob wedge so you can open the face and play that flop shot Phil Mickelson plays," White promises.
For the next few hours, the MacGregor staff builds five prototypes—which typically include a long-, short-, and mid-iron, and two wedges—while you watch. They start out by setting the lofts, lie angles, and hosel offsets on the raw forgings, using steel hammers to bang the heads against a lead block. Bode cuts the cavity backs into the eight iron and four iron with a computerized numeric-control device. White uses a series of lathes fitted with six progressively softer sandpapered wheels to grind, blend, and buff the toes and the top lines of the forgings, asking you for feedback each step of the way. One of his assistants then creates scoring lines, sandblasts the faces, and inserts the shafts in the forged heads. Finally, White hands over the assembled prototypes and declares, "This is you."
Back at the driving range, you test out all four prototypes. As it so happens, I fall in love with the wedges at first try. Not only am I able to execute a passable version of the Mickelson flop shot as White had promised, but I can calibrate shot distances up to 105 yards with ease and precision. The eight iron is equally appealing to my eye, and its meticulously sculpted sole cuts through the grass to produce a crispness in each shot that I had never imagined possible. I have a few minor reservations about the four iron, which lacks the offset of the four iron in my current set. I find it easier to hit fades, but somewhat harder to hit draws. White suggests that we install a slightly more flexible shaft.
Once the second round of driving-range tests is done, Bode insists that you put the prototypes through more extensive hitting tests on your home course. "If you're hitting the ball well, we don't want to hear from you for at least three weeks," he says. "If you hit something bad with one of the clubs, send it back to us. We'll fix it, and overnight it back to you for more testing. When you think everything is right, send us all the prototypes and we'll make the full set. The key is, when all is said and done, you feel like you can't possibly have a better set of clubs for your game."
If you're like me, your only parting regret will be having to wait at least until the next morning to hit your new custom-fitted clubs again.
MacGregor Golf, Albany, GA 31707; 800-841-4358; www.macgregorgolf.com.
Tailor Your Game
Once you've customized your clubs, it's hard not to want to follow suit with everything else. Here are a few more temptations to consider:
If the Shoe Fits The new generation of golf shoes is lightweight and flexible, but the truth is, synthetic materials just don't breathe—or last—like good old-fashioned leather. For those who crave sturdiness and quality, there is nothing quite like John Lobb's impeccably elegant custom golf shoes. (By special order; about $4,200.) Designed in water-repellant black calfskin with white buck detailing and boasting an indestructible double sole with soft spikes, they will withstand years of long walks across the links. John Lobb; 212-888-9797.
His Aim is True A decade ago, Bob Bettinardi changed the way putters are made by inventing a special milling process that uses a single block of steel to forge both the head and the hosel, thereby minimizing imperfections in the metal. More recently, he has added a new touch, etching a honeycomb of dozens of tiny cuts in the putter's face with a jeweler's tool to keep the surface as flat as possible. The resulting putters are uncannily accurate. Even better, Bettinardi Golf will customize one for you ($295-$1250). Bettinardi Golf; 708-802-7400; www.bettinardi.com.
Harry Hurt III, a scratch golfer, also writes for T&L Golf.