Fitting for Length

Having said why we should get it right, how do we make sure we do get it right? There are three classes of methods in common use:

  • The visual sizing-up approach, common in many pro shops and most golfing "department stores". This involves no more than looking at the golfer's gender (and height, if it's unusual), and taking a hot guess.
  • This gives a decent fit (perhaps not ideal, but acceptable) to at least half the population. But that's hardly a desirable "design method"; the less said about it, the better.

  • Static measurement of the golfer. For example, some club manufacturers (Ping and Nicklaus come to mind) supply their retailers with a hinged, telescoping shaft to measure the position of a golfer's grip at address. But I feel that a naive static "measurement" of a properly positioned clubhead at address gives a club that's too short or a lie that's too flat, for several reasons. Because of the flex of the shaft, the clubhead will be toe-down at impact. Also, the golfer's position at impact is going to have the arms and club in the same plane, making it play longer (i.e.- more upright) than it was at address. I prefer estimating club length from a static measurement of the golfer's "fingertip height".
  • Properly used, static fitting will give a good match for perhaps 90% of the golfing population, in my experience.

  • Dynamic measurement of the golfer swinging a club.
  • Obviously this is a more accurate, fitting 95-99% of the golfers correctly. The only ones that aren't fitted correctly are those with a swing that doesn't repeat, so it's impossible to get a consistent measurement.

  • Educated dynamic measurement of the golfer swinging a club. This involves much of the input from normal dynamic measurement, but also includes an educated evaluation of the golfer's swing and swing faults. A good instructor can not only notice them, but understand whether and how the problems might be caused by too-long or too-short clubs.

    This is the most accurate method of fitting for length, since it incorporates all the information from dynamic fitting, plus the eye of a good instructor capable of evaluating things like posture and balance that might be thrown off by bad club length. Of course, it requires a very good understanding of the golf swing, as well as an instructor's eye for swing problems. Not many are capable of this level of evaluation. I doubt I could do this. I know some fitters who can, and they have an enviable record of success.

Both the static fingertip height method and the dynamic method depend on a "standard" club. For the fingertip-height method, the standard is a set of "ideal" measurements, not physical clubs that the clubfitter must have. In the case of the dynamic method, the standard club is a physical collection of clubs of known length and lie.

Standard ClubLengths

Every static method of determining the proper length depends on a "standard set" of lengths, and measuring the golfer's deviation from this "standard", in some way related to proper length. The method I'll discuss here uses the measurement of the golfer's fingertip height, but the current Golfsmith recommendation is based on wrist height.

Since the methods depend on a "standard", let's start with the nominal club lengths for a "standard" men's set. The following table agrees with the recommendations from Golfsmith (before about 1995), GolfWorks, and numerous books:

Club Length Lie
1-wood 43" 55
3-wood 42" 56
5-wood 41" 57
1-iron 39.5" 56
2-iron 39" 57
3-iron 38.5" 58
4-iron 38" 59
5-iron 37.5" 60
6-iron 37" 61
7-iron 36.5" 62
8-iron 36" 63
9-iron 35.5" 64
Wedges 35.5" 64

I am unable to account for the seeming discontinuity of the length-lie relationship between the woods and the irons, but these measurements have been around for quite a few years and seem to cover quite a range of manufacturers.

The nominal women's set is one inch shorter for each club, at the same lie angle.

More recently, Golfsmith has come out with new recommendations, with all the clubs 1/2" longer. Many of their clubheads are being built with lies more upright than the traditional standard. In reading between the lines of Golfsmith's comments about the reason, it seems to be based on the fact that the majority of golfers slice. The longer clubs and more upright lie both contribute to a hook, which may lessen the average golfer's slice. Of course, if you have a hook, it will make it worse. And, in any event, it will result in striking the ball "toe up".

Finally, modern clubs (as of 2017, but true for probably a decade before that) seem to be based on a drive of 45-46 inches. That is a commercial reality, not a recommendation from me -- nor from most experienced clubfitters I know. Most golfers can't handle a 45" club. In my estimation, 44" or even 43" results in a lower score for all but the tallest and/or most skilled golfers.

Fingertip-Height Method

According to Carl Paul in Golfsmith's "Golf Clubs - Design and Repair", the best way to design the length for any particular golfer is ...

"... by measuring the golfer's 'hand height'. This is accomplished by measuring the distance from the golfer's fingertips to the floor while he stands erect with arms hanging straight by his side. Standard clublengths are based on the average 'hand height' of 27 inches for men. A general rule of thumb in determining proper shaft length is to increase or decrease the club length by 1/4 to 1/2 inch for each full inch of 'hand height' over or under the 27 inch average."
Geometry says that changing club length by only 1/2" per inch of hand height isn't enough. My own calculations indicate that you want about a one-to-one ratio; that is, add or subtract an inch of club length for each inch of hand height. Moreover, I know at least one rather tall person who didn't feel comfortable with his clubs until they were increased to a full one-to-one to his hand height.

One reason for being "conservative" in changing length (that is, following Carl Paul's rule of thumb) is that changes in length can make significant differences in swingweight and non-negligible differences in flex. If you go a full inch of club difference for each inch of fingertip height difference, you need to take some design measures to keep swingweight and flex from getting out of hand. We'll get into some of these design approaches in later chapters.

As a testimonial to the value of fingertip-height measurement, let me relate a personal experience. My brother visited me, and we decided to go golfing. He hadn't swung a club in almost twenty years, and had no clubs of his own. Since my garage and basement contain about two sets for each member of the family, I told him to pick a set that felt good and he could use it. I fully expected him to pick one of mine, since we're a similar height and build. So I was surprised when he picked my wife's set. I was even more surprised (matched only by his own surprise) when he hit the ball better than he ever had twenty years ago. When we got home, I gave him a fingertip-height measurement. His fingertips were almost and inch and a half lower than mine, and the same height as my wife's. The difference in length between my wife's clubs and mine is almost exactly an inch and a half.

Anyway, now you've heard Carl Paul's opinion and mine; you're free to develop your own. ("One nice thing about standards is there are so many of them to choose from." - anonymous engineer.)

Dynamic Length Fitting

This is the most accurate method (especially if it adds a skilled, educated eye for swing faults), since it measures directly the length of club the golfer needs. The minuses are the necessity for several calibration clubs and the time and place to take some swings. (Note that there is a similar procedure for dynamic fitting of lie angle. What is described here is related, but it determines length independently from lie angle. After you've read and understood the chapter on fitting lie angle, you would do well to combine the fitting of length and lie.) Here's how to dynamically fit for length:

You need several clubs of differing lengths. Ideally, you'd want a series of, say, 5-irons of known lengths in 1/2" increments (though 1" will do nicely). It would be a good idea to have both irons and woods, say a set of 5-irons and a set of drivers or 3-woods. That is because most people can hit woods that are longer than the longest iron they can hit well. So you want a measure of each.

Prepare the clubs so you can see, after each swing, where the clubface struck the ball. This is easiest and most professional looking with "impact tape" made for the purpose. But a perfectly serviceable and much less expensive solution is to take a bit of talcum powder or foot spray powder to the range, and lightly dust the clubface with it. You'll see the imprint of the ball very clearly after the shot.

Have the golfer swing at the ball with various length clubs, and note the point of impact on the clubface. Is it high or low, heel or toe? But, most important is it CONSISTENTLY in the same place?

  • If it is consistent in the middle of the clubface, try a longer club. It's possible the golfer can deal with a longer club, and might get more length (or even more comfort) with one.
  • If it is inconsistent, a shorter club might be called for. Or it might just be that this golfer has an inconsistent swing. The clubfitter has to be enough of a swing coach to tell the difference. But do experiment, because even most inconsistent ball-strikers have some length beyond with they become even less consistent -- often markedly less consistent. Find this point and treat it as the maximum length the golfer can handle.
  • If it is consistent but on the heel, the golfer may need a shorter club. Conversely, consistent but on the toe may indicate a longer club. But don't count on it. While geometry suggests this, experience seems to suggest otherwise. The consistent toe or heel hit most often indicates a faulty setup. In that case, going to a longer or shorter club will not change the position of the ball mark; the difference in length is compensated for in the setup.
This test was designed to find the longest club the golfer can hit.

You probably ought to determine the shortest club as well. This will usually be a wedge, and you shouldn't try to use the 5-irons for this purpose. A few sizes of wedge will usually suffice, and the too-short wedge will result in either an awkward stance or balls hit too thin. Nothing as easy to read as ball marks on a club face, I'm afraid.

The professional clubmaker should keep a set of calibration clubs on hand, since their presence makes the more accurate dynamic measurement easy. If the one-time clubmaker cannot get one or more calibrated clubs for a dynamic measurement, they should be reassured by the fact that the fingertip-height approach gives the right answer nine times out of ten.

Last modified May 8, 2017