Clone Clubs

Two words: Don't bother!

Before I say why, fairness demands that I distinguish between clones and clubs that are all-too-often referred to as clones by people who have no idea what they are talking about. There is my distinction:

  • Clone clubs are very deliberately designed, and often advertised and sold, to be confused with name-brand clubs. Shape is only a small part of it. The cosmetics may be similar or even the same. The name is chosen to be similar; e.g., "Gallery" (for a Callaway clone) or "King Snake".
  • There are plenty of non-clones that are just not well-known brand names. And too many people refer to component clubs as "clones"; occasionally true, but usually that is just plain slander. The shape may or may not be similar; sometimes shape is an important part of function. But the is no obvious intent to be mistaken for a name-brand club.
Clones were a much bigger problem in 1998, when this was first written, than today. But an awful lot of this page still survives intact. The problem may not be as widespread, but it is still important to avoid the problem.

That out of the way, there are two reasons to avoid clones:

  • They often don't work.
  • They may have enough legal problems that you shouldn't bother.

First the legal problems:

The major manufacturers (called "OEM"s or "Original Equipment Manufacturers") like Cobra and Callaway won every lawsuit against cloners that got to court through the 1990s. I don't know that this situation has changed since then, but I'd be surprised if it did. What that tells me is that the clones are illegal. If the fact that buying "hot" golf clubs is wrong doesn't bother you, consider this:

  • Depending on how agressive the OEMs get, you may or may not get in trouble. (This is scary but highly unlikely.)
  • It's completely conceivable that the OEMs could get your name from the vendor that sold you the clone, as part of a settlement. You might be out the clubs plus whatever you paid for them. (This hasn't happened yet, but it's not out of the question.)

OK, you're still not impressed. Well, go ahead and spend your money on a clone. But don't count on its playing anything like the club that it's trying to look like. The reasons should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention throughout the Club Design Notes, but I'll recite them anyway:

The biggest determinants of performance are length, lie, swingweight, and shaft flex. Since 2000, some of the advances are genuine technical improvements, specifically use of "exotic" materials to change things like weight placement and coefficient of restitution. What are the chances that, by matching the exact look of the clubhead, you will match any of the things that matter. Almost nil. Any match will be due to:

  • You found out the exact shaft used by the OEM and matched it. This is seldom possible, because OEMs frequently use proprietary shafts not available to the independent clubmaker.
  • Well then, you checked length/lie, flex, and swingweight against the OEM clubs, and carefully matched them to a catalog shaft.
  • And of course the head design was simple enough (and devoid of expensive technology) that looking alike might actually make it play alike as well.

This can be done, and good clubmakers do it. (See the anecdote at the end of this section.) If you do it, you can closely match the performance of the club even without a clone clubhead. And if you haven't done it, your club will never be a "performance clone", no matter what clubhead you use. Think about the obvious:

I can take a genuine King Cobra clubhead, removed from an OEM Cobra club, and replace the shaft with another of different characteristics. The result will be a completely different club, that doesn't play at all like the Cobra. It may play better for you. It may play worse for you. It's impossible to say it plays better or worse on any absolute basis. And finally, it's impossible to say whether it plays anything like a King Cobra.

And what are the chances that the look-alike head that you bought has the same specs as the OEM club it's trying to copy? My experience has been that the component makers working hardest on getting the look the same tend to be the worst at getting the spec right. The "clone houses" frequently have quality problems; not that their clubheads will break, but that they don't match the cloned clubs' specs, nor any other consistent set of specs.

On a practical note, a discriminating clubmaker can usually get a legal (that is, non-look-alike) clubhead that "clones" the performance characteristics of the OEM. For instance, the things that make the original Big Bertha driver perform as it did (apart from Callaway's selection of shaft, swingweight and length) are:

  • The short hosel, which helps get the CG lower.
  • The keel sole, which is the ultimate in "rocker".
  • The wide body and face, which give a wide "sweet spot".

Sure, the Mercury does this, and looks very much like the Bertha. But the Mercury is no longer legal to import or sell. However, the Acer M160J has all the same performance characteristics, while passing the "trade dress" test for Callaway's lawyers. (That example was written in the mid-1990s. I don't know which components to single out today, so I won't bother to try.)

So don't fall for the clone pitch. Make the right club for the golfer. If he/she must have the performance of some OEM club, try to duplicate the performance characteristics of the club without duplicating the looks. Remember that:

  • 90% of the performance of a club is in the things you can't see.
  • Duplicating the looks is only randomly related to duplicating the performance.

I'd like to close this section, and these design notes, with an anecdote of how clubmaking in general and "performance cloning" in particular should be done. Markus Heinimann posted the following anecdote to the newsgroup around 1994, relating an experience with Bob Schreiner, a clubmaker local to him at Purdue. I'm reproducing Markus' post without comment, because I can't think of a better example of a skilled and responsible piece of club design.

After all the discussion on this newsgroup concerning clones, custom clubs, and brand names, I thought my recent experience with a custom club maker might be of interest.

After trying many different drivers, I bought a Tommy Armour 855 Hot Scott with Tour Step II Stiff steel shaft earlier this summer. I hit the TA 855 much better than my old driver (straighter, longer on mishits), and love the way it swings and feels. I even have good success using it off the fairway. I decided that I would like to get "matching" fairway woods, but at a cost of $120 per club that was too expensive for my grad student wallet. I found a local certified Class A clubmaker, that was recommended by a local pro. I took my TA 855 driver to him and asked him, if he could make me a 3 and 5 wood that would match the feel and playability of the driver. This launched him into a 5 minute "discussion" on "clones". In short, he made the following points:

  • 95% of a club's performance is in the shaft, 5% in the head.
  • Clubs can be cosmetically identical, but play completely differently (look-a-likes are not play-a-likes).
  • Clubs that look cosmetically different can play the same (component heads can match playability of brands)
  • He refuses to build any kind of look-a-likes (Big Bursar, King Snake, etc.)

He proceeded to measure the length, swingweight, and frequency of the TA 855 and determined that the shaft was a TT Dynalite, stiff flex, which is what TA customer service had told me previously. We proceeded to look through various component catalogues looking for clubhead to match the playability features of the TA 855, namely: contoured sole (keel, central rail), mid- to oversize, shallow face. He offered to order heads he did not have in stock, to let me see what they looked like before deciding. I decided on the XPC Plus head from Golfsmith and got my preferred grip put on. I have hit the new woods on the range and on the course and they do swing and play just like my driver, and all that for less than what a single TA 855 fairway wood would have cost me.

My experience goes to show, that it is possible to "clone" or match the feel and playability of brand name clubs, without using look-a-like heads. When I am ready for a new set of irons, this capable clubmaker will get my business.


'Nuff said.

Last modified May 23, 2017