You would imagine that, as your experience of golf grows, your understanding of the game would increase exponentially. Problem is, the deeper you get into the game, the more there is to find out and more baffling acronyms and phrases come your way. Things like MOI, COG, COR, ‘kick point’ and so on. Some of this simply reflects new technological advances but a lot of it is poorly understood because it is poorly explained, so here’s our guide to the myriad mysteries of the world of the wedge.
What is a wedge
There are four main types of wedge but they all have commonalities, which are – shorter shafts (for greater control), increased loft (a greater angled clubhead), and more weight in the clubhead. In statistical terms, 70% of all shots you hit on the course are from within 100 yards. A significant number of those are putts but nevertheless, the rest of the short game is incredibly important. It’s hugely satisfying to let rip with a driver and blast the ball as far as you can but ultimately it’s much more satisfying to consistently get up and down for par or birdie.
History of Wedges
Oh, but wasn’t life simpler back in the day, especially in golf? We used to carry just one lofted iron in our bags, a pitching wedge or, more likely, a niblick, which roughly equates to a 9-iron. Now there’s virtually no limit. If you want someone to blame, look at Gene Sarazen, one of the game’s greatest players and the first man to win all four of golf’s modern majors (the Masters, US PGA, US Open and Open Championship) because he is credited with inventing the sand wedge, the first truly specialised modern short club to meet a specific need. Legend has it that while Sarazen was flying in a private plane (owned by multi-millionaire Howard Hughes – knew you’d be impressed), he noticed that on take-off, the flaps on the wings of the plane were lowered, to create lift. He wondered if the same principle could be applied to a golf club – lower the back of the club to create more lift, especially in bunkers, so that the club splashed out a portion of sand, along with the ball.
Sarazen experimented with soldering lumps of lead to the underside of wedges until he found the combination that worked best. When he came to Britain in 1932 to play in the Open Championship, he smuggled the new club into his bag, scared that the authorities would ban it. They didn’t, and he won the claret jug. This style of design was subsequently deemed to be legal by both the R&A and USGA – the rulers of the game worldwide – and almost immediately became a must-have item for golfers.
Things calmed down a bit until towards the end of the century, when professional golfers in particular properly recognised how crucial the short game was if they wanted to improve their scores. Even the best in the world almost never hit all 18 greens in regulation (that is, in one stroke on a par three, two on a par four and three on a par five). For the rest of us, hitting the green in regulation is much more an ambition than achievement – four to five times a round might be an average – which means that the rest of the time we are trying, in golfing parlance, ‘to get up and down’, that is, pitch or chip onto the green and hole the putt.
What's the difference between pitching and chipping?
The easiest way to remember the difference is that you pitch up to the course and the chips go down. Float the ball high to stop it quickly and you have hit a pitch. Punch it low so that it hits the ground early and runs further, you have hit a chip. With a pitch your ball spends longer in the air; with a chip it spends longer on the ground. Simples.
The modern game
From the old days of pitching and sand wedges can now be added gap and lob wedges and the names are pretty self-explanatory. A gap wedge (sometimes called an approach wedge, just to confuse us) is designed to fill the gap in distance between the pitching wedge and sand wedge. The former might hit the ball, for example, 95-yards, while a sand wedge might be good for a 70-yard shot. So, what if you’re faced with an approach of 80-yards? In this instance you have three choices – try to take a little off your pitching wedge swing (recipe for disaster); go really hard with a sand wedge (recipe for even greater disaster) or buy a gap wedge. Lastly, we have lob wedges, which have a great deal of loft (clubface angle). Hold your hand straight out in front of you as if offering to shake hands with a stranger. Now rotate your hand so that the back of it points to the floor and your palm increasingly points to the ceiling. If the palm of your hand is the face of the golf club, you have just increased the loft. The greater the loft, the higher the ball flies but with less forward distance. With these clubs you don’t have to manufacture a shot, just swing hard and let the club do the rest.
As a rule of thumb, lofts are as follows:
Pitching wedge: 46-48 degrees
Gap wedge: 48-52 degrees
Sand wedge: 54-56 degrees
Lob wedge: 58-62 degrees.
Shock fact: In golf, there is no agreed industry standard on the loft of any given club. A 6-iron, for example, is typically about 31 degrees but could be as low as 24 degrees.
When it comes to wedges, the more loft, the higher the ball will fly and the quicker it stops on landing. If you need to get the ball up and over a bunker, bush, tree or pond and don’t have much green to work with, a lob wedge would be your club of choice. If you have no obstacles to overcome and a lot of green between you and the flagstick, a pitching wedge could be a better option.
Almost any statement you make about golf can be contradicted but, as a general rule, graphite shafts are lighter and more expensive but easier to swing harder, generating more clubhead speed and therefore distance. However, if you’re only 100-yards from the green, increased distance is not a concern, what you need is accuracy, and that’s where steel shafts come into their own. They tend to be stiffer, heavier and offer you greater clubhead control, which translates to increased accuracy. Graphite shafts in your wedges aren’t bad but steel is better.
Now we’re getting technical but don’t worry, many golfers have no real idea what bounce means. In brief, it refers to the angle of the sole of the clubhead, and will dictate how resistant the club is to digging into the turf. Think of the underside of the club and remember Gene Sarazen soldering all that lead to the back of it. The lower that part of the club sits, the higher the leading edge of the club will sit. The greater the degree of bounce, the higher the leading edge is off the surface at address.
High bounce, as you might guess, means the clubhead is much less likely to dig into the ground, so someone who tends to gouge out big, deep divots might want a high bounce wedge. They are also good for soft, powdery sand and soft turf. Conversely, a low bounce wedge would come into its own on firm, hard-packed ground or wet, firm sand and a mid-bounce naturally, is between these two extremes.
Low bounce: 4-6°
Mid bounce: 7-12°
High bounce: Over 12°.
There is almost no limit to the look you can buy – from shiny stainless steel, to matt black, to a dull, oxidised finish – it all depends on preference. Some wedges are designed to rust over time because the oxidised or rusty finish gives greater grip on the ball, and therefore more spin. They might look ugly but if they work, what do you care?
What you will almost certainly need to begin with is a basic pitching wedge and sand wedge – both of which probably came with the set of clubs you bought. Spend some time getting used to them and, if possible, find a piece of ground where you can hit around a dozen shots with each and then pace them out, to get an idea of how far you hit each. Don’t take the furthest as your range but the midpoint of all 12 shots so that you get a reasonably accurate average. If you have a significant gap between your average distance for these two clubs, you may well want to consider a gap wedge to fill that void. Finally, if you find that you often overhit your chips onto the green, or play a course with a lot of greenside bunkers that you need to pitch over, a lob wedge could be the answer.
Lastly, no matter what wedge you have in your hand, these are the shots where you are most likely to muck it up by lifting your head to see where the ball has gone, before you have completed the stroke. Try to get into the habit of saying to yourself that you will watch the bit of grass underneath your ball, until you hear the ball land on the putting surface. Watch where your ball was, not where it’s going, for greater consistency with your wedges.
About the Author
Martin Vousden - Golf Writer
Martin Vousden joined Today’s Golfer in 1988 as a staff writer and quickly rose to become editor; under his stewardship it became Britain’s best-selling golf title. He then became launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines, before moving to Scotland to take over at ScottishGolf. After five years he became (and remains) a freelance journalist, having written for numerous titles, including Golf Monthly, Golf Punk and The Clubhouse, which is based in Malaysia. He lives in Angus, about 12 miles from the Carnoustie course that beats him up every time he plays it, so he joined Kirriemuir GC. His handicap of 19.3 rises inexorably with every passing year.
Martin’s golf bag contains:
Ping G400 driver
King Cobra F/Speed 3-wood
Kane Golf 5-wood
Callaway Big Bertha 7-wood
Wilson D9 irons, 5-gap wedge
Yonex Z-Force sand wedge
John Letters Golden Goose lob wedge
Putter: GEL Ruby or Odyssey 2-ball blade (depending on which is behaving itself)
TaylorMade Distance Balls (yellow, just because he likes the colour)