Clubs of art

Written by meraj shah | Updated: Mar 16 2014, 08:37am hrs
Players irons, golf companies like to call them; that euphemism for blades, or traditionally hand-forged irons, is a case of overkill: as if that even needs to be specified. Golf is a difficult game as it is; to make it tougher by playing with blades, is seriously sadistic. But most of us who learnt to play in the 1990s, or before, started with them. Golf sets were hard to come by then, and golf club manufacturing technology a scant patch on what it is today.

One of the earliest pieces of advice I ever got from my dad on the golf course was not to fret about my old clubs while other kids played with fancy shiny irons. Clubs are only as good as you can hit them, and you can hit these better than anything your friends are playing with, he said. The dull gray, hand-me-down Ben Hogan irons were narrow blades with miniscule sweet spotsnot very forgiving to my center strikes. My clubs were tough to hit but superb for ball control. And, when I did manage to hit a flush two-iron, it stayed hit. With wound leather grips they looked classic all right but only to the purist. A fading etching on the back of the clubface was the only proof that they had been hand forged in Japan.

Compared to persimmon woods which have been consigned forever to history and to living room props, hand-forged steel blades have held-their own to the point where they continue to be preferred by single-handicappers and those who like to work the ball. As traditions in golf go, one of the most enduring has been the unrivalled skill and art of Japanese club makers at hand-forging golf clubs. For decades, brands like Honma and Miura have found circulation amongst the golfing elite, revered for their unmatched feel and build quality. Never produced in high volumes or advertised in mainstream media, these high-end, personalised, hand-crafted golf clubs have been coveted by top professionals and connoisseurs of the game alike.

Himeji, a small town in Japan, finds more mention in history books than in current affairs. It was here that craftsmen in the last century pounded steel into samurai swords, producing the finest blades ever known. It is a different kind of blade which has been produced here by Katsuhiro Miura and his family owned Miura Golf for the last fifty years. Forged clubs are made from steel that is heated and pounded into shape, and smoothed and finished on grinding wheels. Most forged clubs are struck twice with a forging hammer. Miuras irons get one more striking, creating a tighter molecular structure in the steel, which under a microscope looks more like a jar filled with sand than a jar filled with marbles. What that translates into is serious feedback for the golfer and a soft feel. As many club companies create oversized, mass-produced clubheads by pouring metal into casts, Miuras 14-step forging process does not lend itself to mass production and remains an anomaly.

Forged irons arent generally considered weapons of choice for the average golfer. That description is applied to investment cast, cavity back and perimeter-weighted irons. Forgings are thought of as players clubs: for the elite golfer who doesnt need help from an oversized club head and balloon-sized sweet spot. Miura believes otherwise, maintaining that a well-made forged blade is actually easier to play and more forgiving, and produces a more precise strike than oversized clubs. Miura Golf makes only about 50 sets of irons each week, or about one percent of the output of major manufacturers like TaylorMade or Titleist. The clubs are sold only through authorized dealers of which there only a handful in the world and typically cost about $ 2000 for the top end custom irons. With little or no marketing Miuras work is still well known because players like Retief Goosen and Jose Maria Olazabal have used his clubs while winning major championships.

Honma, another iconic Japanese clubmaker is well known not only for its exquisite craftsmanship but also for the melding of precious metals in golf clubs which make each set, literally as exclusive, as unique as money can buy. The Honma Beres 5 and 7- series clubs have 24 karat gold and platinum rings in the ferrule between the head and the shaft. The emblem on the iron head is also platinum while the metal on top of the grips is made of gold. The precious metals have been added simply to give the clubs exclusivity and not surprisingly the Beres series are currently the worlds most expensive golf clubs in production. A 14 clubs (irons, woods and putter) set costs anywhere between $32000 - $ 52000 depending on how much gold and platinum detailing you want on each club. If you are lucky (and rich!) enough to get your own set of Honmas then you join an exclusive club which includes the King of Brunei, the Prince of Monaco, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and, closer to home, Pawan Munjal.

High-end golf clubs today are products of an astonishing mix of tradition and technology, of art and science, mirroring the evolutionary, yet deep rooted character of the game itself. Their design is as much about form as about utility and they should inspire you to become an even better golfer. After all, if you can afford to and buy a Stradivarius then you might as well be a violinist of some note. Invest in good swing instruction and put in a few hours of practice every week. The clubs are, after all, only as good as you can hit them.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game