A club fitting with Doctor Grip

March 10, 2008 1:32:50 PM PDT
Don't be fooled by the faded green paint on David Butler's Tin Cup style motor home adjacent to the Ocean View Driving Range in Half Moon Bay. Its vintage exterior belies the expert who resides inside. Butler, a.k.a. 'Doctor Grip', has stocked it with high quality components; club heads, shafts, grips---and a workshop that looks capable of building a rocket to the moon, or at least a golf club that could send a ball there.

The art of club making now involves fine science, and that would be Butler's department. The man has been an engineer all of his adult life. Before retirement, David was Chief Engineer of Chrysler, Europe, supervising power train components. In the 1950's he built one of the first top fuel dragsters to reach 200 miles per hour.

Clearly, he's into engines. And shafts are the engines of golf clubs. "I enjoy doing this," says Butler. "I like the reactions on people's faces when I help them. I love golf. And my wife, Mary, needs to get me out of the house. She said she married me for better or worse, but not for lunch.

I asked Butler why I always seem to hit balls longer with my metal woods, but only average length with my irons. Would regular shafts serve me better?

Butler guided me to a hitting area adjacent to the driving range. He told me to warm up and then six irons through an array of laser beams and a launch monitor. "Your swing speed ranges from 85 to 91 miles an hour, and your ball speed is 130 miles an hour. Your launch angle is 24 degrees. Your reverse ball spin is 8500 rpm. But that shaft is not as efficient as it should be," he observed. "Try this."

Butler placed a second club in my hand and asked me to swing again---awkward considering the wire running from its butt-end to a nearby computer. The sensors would tell Butler how where, when, and how much my shafts bend in a downswing,

"Got it!" he proclaimed after five or six passes. "Just as I thought."

"Tell me the truth, Doc. I'm getting old. I can handle it. Senior flex, right?"

"No. You're an extra stiff."

"But I swing the six iron at 82 miles an hour."

"It's not about how fast. It's about torque and efficiency. By the time your club head arrives at the ball, it has already unloaded too much energy. The flex is in the wrong point of the shaft. You need a delayed kick-point. Here. See the numbers?"

They looked like gibberish to me, but I was so impressed with 'Doctor Grip' that after our informal computer session, I purchased a set of Mizuno MP-60's from him.

That, alone, comprised a giant leap of faith. In five years of reviewing and experimenting with other irons, I'd always returned to my forged Mizuno MP-33's. They're sleek, soft, workable, and for blades, very forgiving. But, the MP-60, with its cut-muscle cavity looks inviting at address, feels better, and flies more consistently without any noticeable loss of control. In early spring, while still recovering from abdominal surgery and feeling deprived from the loss of recent play, it seemed a good time to make the purchase.

"I don't sell clubs off the rack," Butler tells potential customers. "I build them from scratch." In the case of my MP-60's, he pulled out the stock shafts, dumped them in a recycling bin, and suggested a set of extra stiff Tour Concepts from True Temper. "Fitters, only, get to sell this shaft. We'll make them longer than the set you've been using," he explained. "See that wear mark on your glove? It's a giveaway that your shafts are too short. That, and I see from your club that you've been miss-hitting balls on the toe."

"Mind if I watch you build them?"

"Sure, but it may become tedious." Right. How often does a die-hard golfer get to watch his clubs being born?

David began by selecting shafts. Then he bent and rotated them, identifying their spines. I had heard about this, but never understood. "Aren't all steel shafts consistent?"

"No. When you flex each shaft, you'll find places of increased or diminished resistance. Most manufactures just stick shafts into their club heads without regard for how they bend. As a result, all clubs in a set perform differently. We need to find the optimum flex points for each shaft, and then assemble them. That's what we call 'spining'"

Next, David locked the butt of every shaft and head assembly into a flex frequency analyzer. One at a time, he pulled down and then released them. If, after several seconds, a club strayed from its direct up and down motion along the spine angle, he twisted the head and tried again. "We're looking for uniformity. We want torque, not twist, at impact. Every club must react predictably. We want perfect oscillation in a vertical and horizontal plane, relative to the flight of the ball."

He almost lost me with that one.

"We 're factoring in how the club droops during a swing. Gravity has an influence. That's why it's so important to find the spine, and then build around it. If we don't the club will twist a little at impact, and your ball won't fly as straight. Humans are inconsistent. They do not need golf clubs adding to their swing faults."

After cutting the shafts to precise lengths, David weighted each iron. "What's your preference?"

I produced my formerly favorite club---a seven iron at D-2. David duplicated it by adding weights inside the new shaft, and adjusted through the set.

As a final step, David took the new irons and bent them to my exact specifications in a loft and lie machine. By then, the club building process had taken five hours and I was long gone. He'd been right about the tedium.

But what a difference those custom clubs made. That weekend, I scored five birdies in my first thirteen holes. Stranger still, those stiffer shafts yielded about eight more yards per club, and they felt wonderful---like butter. The clubs just plain fit. If you've ever had a tailor make a suit for you from scratch, or driven a fine car and shifted its seamless gears, you'll understand. The difference is remarkable.

"We will need to make adjustments," said David. "Always do." And he did. After a couple of weeks, Doctor Grip insisted that I return for a tweaking. The man took each iron in his hand and read the impact marks as you or I would a book. "You're still hitting on the toe. We might want to change the center of gravity and the lie angle." Then, as I hit some two-hundred balls, he made more adjustments, bending my wedges, for example, to fly precisely 90. 100, 110, and 120 yards.

"You know, we live in a world that usually compromises," I remarked to Doctor Grip. "How nice, for once, to commit the time, effort, and patience to make something absolutely perfect. It's a luxury."

"It's a pleasure," said Butler. "More than that, this is fun. There is nothing on Earth I'd rather be doing ."

I believed every word. And the next weekend, after feathering a 7-iron stiff from 165 yards and threatening par for the round, I understood the concept.

"Your game is boring," commented one of my partners.

Nobody ever said that to me, before. What a compliment.