Although the subject of much debate, I am one of the converts to the Walter Hagen Ironman niblick. For many, this excessively heavy club is just that. The first one I bought clocks in with something like an “F” swingweight according to the man who sold it to me. I can believe it. As a result, I typically employ the club with a very slow tempo, and allow the heft to really launch the ball soft and high into the air. For me, this club is priceless in greenside bunkers and in greenside rough. For chips, I would never use it, but for a lob shot or explosion from the sand, it is superior.
I first encountered this club in the Pacific Hickory Cup match play at Gearhart Golf Links on the coast of Northern Oregon. This annual event pits hickory associations in California against those of Oregon and Washington state. One of my CA peers had a curious club that seemed to visibly rust between holes! I noticed that he was constantly wiping the clubface and his towel was loaded with rust residue. As it turns out, the club was a Hagen Ironman, and the name bears witness to the metal used in the making of it! In the coastal Northwest, a well-worn Ironman is subject to the effects of mist and humidity.
This competitor told me that he had a second one with him in the car and he was contemplating a sale, should a buyer have interest. The catch? The second club was ground down to reduce some of the weight – thus it wasn’t terribly collectible. I took a look at it, hit a flop or two and agreed to the $150 selling price. That was a good day.
I’ve used that club for about a year now and while trolling eBay one day this summer, found an auction of five hickory-era clubheads for just $19 – no shafts, just heads. One was an Ironman, and no photo was provided of the face of the club, but of course I entered my bid. With no other bidders, the heads arrived the next week and I started to inquire about replating services as the Hagen was fairly nicked and would clearly rust as its original surface was basically gone. My pal, Mike Just, at Louisville Golf, turned me on to The Iron Factory and Jim Kronus in Grand Junction, CO. I was highly impressed with his website and spoke with Jim about this special item. He said he had replated many Hagen concave wedges through the years and was certain an Ironman would be a simple task. It took about six weeks and I’m very pleased with the result.
The one advantage of my “new” Ironman is that I was able to put my own shaft on it, and thus made it shorter in length than what seems to have been the standard length of others stock hickory versions. I put about a 36″ shaft on this, which is about 2 inches shorter than others I have seen, and the one I already owned. I haven’t had the heart to hit a ball with it yet, but plan to put it in my bag ASAP in place of the other. I know that Breck Speed, of Mountain Valley Spring Water, is a massive fan of the Ironman as well. These come up at auction fairly regularly in the $200 range. Beware, some are steel-shaft era versions with a straight bore – they were produced in the mid 1930s in both hickory and steel versions. I’ve used a caliper to compare the heads and they seem identical on the outside in terms of dimensions. If you see one of these on sale at a decent price, I think you’d love to own one! It’s a singular-style club for singular-style results in a pinch.
– Rob Birman
THE HISTORY OF THE SAND WEDGE
Besides his seven major titles, what is well known among hickory golfers about Gene Sarazen, who was born on Feb. 27, 1902, was that he “modernized” the sand wedge. Some have credited him with inventing the club, which he debuted at the 1932 British Open at Prince’s Golf Club in Sandwich. He posted a then-record score of 283. But in reality, Sarazen took an already-created idea and made it better.
Sarazen’s daughter, Mary Ann Sarazen, told Golf.com for a February 2010 story that Scottish golfers in the 19th century were already using specialized clubs to extract balls from bunkers. In fact, Walter Hagen utilized a prototype in the late 1920s that featured a smooth concave face – later deemed illegal by the USGA – with a lot of loft and about a half-pound of weight in the flange. Edwin K. MacClain had obtained a patent for the club and assigned the rights to Hagen’s manufacturing company.
“What my dad did was design the first modern sand wedge,” Mary Ann said in the article, “with a steel shaft, markings on the clubface and the amount of flange on it that is still widely used today. The story he told me was that some time in the late 1920s, he went flying with Howard Hughes, the aviation tycoon, movie producer and scratch golfer. When Hughes’ plane took off, the flaps on the wings came down and my father made a connection between the flaps and the flange you could add to a club that would allow it to slide through the sand and help the ball pop up.”
That sand wedge, the one that helped Sarazen claim seven major titles, including the 1932 U.S. Open by three strokes over Bobby Cruickshank and T. Philip Perkins at Fresh Meadow Country Club in Flushing, N.Y., can be found on display at the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History in Far Hills, N.J.
Sarazen, who rented a bungalow in New Port Richey, Fla., experimented with his designs before sending the clubs to Wilson, the manufacturer he represented his entire career. Almost 80 years later, the principles of the sand wedge have not changed much.
Those original wedges had punch marks on the face instead of the familiar line grooves seen on today’s modern wedges. Nevertheless, Sarazen was able to produce remarkable recovery shots thanks to his innovation.
Sarazen, however, never applied for a patent for his idea. It just never occurred to him to file the paperwork. He was a 5-foot-6 Italian-American who was proud to have risen from the caddie ranks to achieve the American dream by earning money and celebrity status from the game of golf.
But even after his death in 1999 at age 97, his ingenuity continues to leave a lasting legacy on the game.
“My father was also a pioneer of the explosion shot,” Mary Ann told Golf.com. “It is the game’s easiest shot, golf teachers say, because the clubface never touches the ball. The explosion shot and the sand wedge have made golf more fun for more people than we can possibly count. My father took a lot of pleasure in all of that.”
According to a book entitled, “Golf’s All-Time Firsts,” the first legal sand wedge came about in 1931. The earlier mentioned Texan, Edwin K. MacClain, designed a club for playing shots out of greenside bunkers. It had a nine iron loft, but more important, the entire back of the head was a rounded mass of metal. Its weight was such that the club could drive down into the sand behind the ball and create enough force to propel the ball up and forward. Up to that time golfers used a thin-bladed niblick for this shot.
Sarazen once recalled that during practice rounds he was getting down in two from the bunkers at the 1932 Open so regularly and with such seeming ease, the gallery began to wonder what sort of weapon he was using. Shrewdly aware of how the conservative R&A rules makers might react to his club, Sarazen put it upside down in his golf bag during his practice rounds and took it home every night (allegedly) under his long topcoat. He was convinced that the R&A would have barred it if they had noticed it prior to the start of the tournament. Using the wedge to great advantage, Sarazen won that Open.
It was estimated that the club took two strokes off the handicap of every golfer in the game when it was introduced, and still does. Sarazen never made a dime off of his modernization.