Spring golf equipment buying guide

May 6, 2011 8:20:12 AM PDT
Enter Spring. Time to dust off the clubs, scrape last winter's mud from your shoes, and hit the links with purpose, hope, and optimism. What? Your driver isn't friendly, anymore? Your swing has a squeak? There's a crick in your neck? Your back hurts? You need more practice? Fear not. Where golf is concerned, cash cures all evils until we return to the course, at least. While your game has been rusting, I have been testing. Here are some product recommendations for that golfer with spring in his step, and some extra money to burn.

MIZUNO JPX-800 Driver:

Mizuno Golf has made a wonderful reputation with their irons. A set of the company's classic MP-33 blades still resides in my closet. I will never part with them. More than once, when my swing has abandoned me, I have taken those clubs to the range, swung them, and rediscovered the move of a more youthful me, at least for a while.

Do not underestimate Mizuno's big sticks, however. This season, Rankmark rates Mizuno's JPX-800 as the third most popular driver for players of all handicap levels. After testing the club, I understand why. It is very, very good.

Credit the company for delivering a club with the specifications I requested. I asked Mizuno for a 10.5 degree driver with a Diamana Blue Board, 63 gram, stiff shaft, at a swing weight of D4. That is exactly what Mizuno sent.

Beneath the look of a traditional, pear-shaped head with deep blue metallic paint, the company has designed an excellent, six piece, 460cc rocket launcher with precise weighting and extremely solid feel for its large size.

If you have read my previous reviews, you know I am a custom club aficionado. I play one of two, super-tweaked drivers built by club maker David Butler in Half Moon Bay. One of them is a small-headed, 390 cc Miura. The other is a Cleveland Launcher we call "Old Reliable" because it has been in my bag for five years. No club off the rack has come close to beating either of my regular drivers for accuracy, distance, or consistency. The Mizuno came extremely close.

For the sake of consistency, I used the Cleveland Launcher as a benchmark because it, like the Mizuno, has a 460cc head. Both clubs have the same Diamana shaft. Both weighed the same. Both have 10.5 degrees of loft. I used Epoch tees, with their unique, horizontal green stripes, to set balls in the exact same places for the clubs' individual sweet spots, and swung away, measuring velocities with a launch monitor.

After twenty passes with each, my swing speed of 103 mph produced ball speeds ranging 146-152 mph with the JPX-800, and from 143-152 mph with "Old Reliable", which is half an inch longer. On paper, that's a virtual tie, with the Mizuno being slightly more forgiving on miss-hits. Ball spin with the newer club appeared to be good. Ball flight with the JPX-800 tended a bit higher, but without shots ballooning. When balls landed, they bounced, released, and rolled out. Distance with the JPX-800 might have been a couple of yards shorter than "Old Reliable", but the landing pattern was still very tight. I could work the ball flight right or left, higher or lower. At least one friend on the range preferred the JPX-800 because he says it felt more solid. And, I might add, he hit the Mizuno better than his own club.

In short, this is a very good golf club for a suggested base retail price of $300---one that competes comparably with an older, custom fit, built, super-tweaked model from a few years ago. Clearly, club heads have improved in that time. The JPX-800 proves it. Frankly, if I dismantled that newer Mizuno and gave the head to Mr. Butler for more of his miracle work, the contest might have been a blow out. Yes, he is that good. And, I think the JPX-800 is that good, too.

SUN MOUNTAIN SWIFT ZG CARRY BAG:

I believe I have found the perfect golf bag for dedicated walkers. The new and extremely light Swift ZG carry Sun Mountain will not exactly take a load off of your feet, but it does minimize the pain from your back.

How? In addition to the two shoulder straps, it has a hip belt. When you pick up the bag, cinch the adjustable Velcro belt around your waist and carry some of that bag's weight on your hips. No matter what your size or girth, customize the bag and belt to fit you. Trust me, I gave the bag to guys with a wide range of sizes and girths. They all liked it.

That belt makes a remarkable difference. I walked 36 holes with the new bag this weekend, and could easily carry it 36 more. I suffered none of the usual late round spasms between my shoulder blades. The bag actually balances so well that a guy could carry it without the shoulder straps if he wanted to. Not that he should.

The ZG is the latest incarnation of the original three-pound Swift that Sun Mountain released in 2008. After more than one hundred rounds, that bag remains in remarkably good shape.

This new bag feels larger and more rigid, but not noticeably heavier. In the years since, Sun Mountain has increased the top opening from 7.5 to 8.5 inches, improved the handle system, and added a leg lock strap for occasional (and I mean rare and occasional), charity golf tournament-type cart use.

The company did have to move some pockets to accommodate the belt. It still leaves plenty of room for more stuff than you would want to carry.

And if, for some reason, you don't want to use the belt, pull it out. You can always put it back in, later. The process might take ten seconds.

Lastly, I really like the this year's colors. Sun Mountain makes a red version of bag with bright green trim, and another one in black. My favorite, however, has the powder blue and gold of UCLA, my alma mater, which happened to win the 2009 NCAA Men's Golf Championship.

Read it and weep, USC.

THE ORANGE WHIP:

Maybe you have seen the ads for that big, rubber, orange ball mounted on a long fiberglass stick. I saw a guy swinging one at the San Jose golf show this past winter. It looked like a gimmick. But, when two of the area's best golf teachers, Susan Young and Ray Leach, each bought one, I looked again. Then I swung it. And, I bought one, too.

The Orange Whip demonstrates the feeling of a proper golf swing so well that it could, conceivably, put Young and Leach out of business. Grab it, swing it, find a rhythm, and keep swinging, back and forth. If a golfer uses his hands or arms too much to manipulate a swing, the Orange Whip flexes, disrupting his balance. It just wants to go straight back, straight through, straight back, straight through, straight back, straight through - oh, sorry. It's addictive.

I use the Orange Whip religiously every night and before every round. It loosens me up in the morning, and builds strength and distance. On the course, I am hitting the ball farther, purer, and less often.

It is not a gimmick, folks. I have seen it work for other players, too.

PRACTICE NETS:

I used to swing golf clubs around my house so much that my wife began to worry about the living room carpet. She mentioned something about how divots would not go well with her carefully chosen d?cor.

So, as per her request, when not using my Orange Whip, I have taken the swing outside where, unlike most other golf practice perverts, I can use one of two nets, depending on rain or shine.

Either one might work well for you.

My Skilz, XL Pop-up Practice Net measures seven feet by seven feet, stores in a small, portable, bag, and sets up in moments. It comes with optional hanging targets, and can serve double duty as a hockey goal or baseball backstop.

It is light, however, and prone to tip over during windstorms. For that reason, I lay it flat when finished. I can report that no wild animals have been trapped in the net, as yet.

Well, maybe a gopher or two.

The other net is considerably more substantial, more permanent, and more work.

Nick's Net is seven and a half feet wide, three and three-quarter feet deep, and six and a half feet high. You will need to assemble it from a puzzle of pcv pipes and ties that comes in a box, and you will need to use glue. Come to think of it, you might also need an engineering degree. However, you can build Nick's Net in multiple configurations. One hangs down from a conventional, roll-up garage door. Another uses the full frame, and is so big that, when not hitting balls, you can park your car in it.

Tell your wife it's a space saver.


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