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What is Forgiveness in Golf?

If distance is the key to selling drivers, forgiveness is probably top of the list for irons. After all, most golfers (apart from me!) prefer to keep the butter knives in the kitchen and have something in the bag that actually helps them. This is where it gets tricky though. What is forgiveness in golf? Can we measure it? In fact, does it actually exist at all? Let’s take a closer look.

  • Some clubs are more tolerant on off-centre strikes
  • Sole design/width is important
  • Perimeter weighting is the key to forgiveness
  • A forgiving golf club might be overrated

Almost all golfers, myself included, will agree that some clubs are easier to play than others. For example, I often switch between different iron sets and two recent favourites show this perfectly. One is a set of 1950s blades. These have a small face, a leading edge so sharp you could shave with it and no offset at all. The other set is (or rather was, i no longer have them) a gorgeous set of becu ping eye 2 irons. These have a wide sole, copious offset and were perhaps the first truly perimeter weighted irons.

There is little doubt that the second set offers an easier day at the course than the first, but just what makes this so?

I suppose the key here is to define just what we mean by forgiveness. There is no industry standard for what this actually means. When you see that a new club is “12% more forgiving on offset strikes” I have no idea what is being measured or how!

I would say that a passable way of looking at the forgiveness of a golf club might be this:

How similar is the result of a strike towards the toe, heel, top or bottom compared to hitting the sweet spot?

Even this isn’t perfect because it is obviously dependent on just how far out of the middle you hit it. Something that barely makes contact with the ball isn’t going to have a good outcome regardless of the club. Let’s stay in the realm of reasonable and call a club forgiving if it lets us get pretty close to the same result if we are half an inch/ a cm or so from being perfect in terms of strike, which is actually quite a way off.

There are several well-known ways of making a golf club perform better in this regard. These are sole design, offset and perimeter weighting essentially.

Sole Design and Turf Interaction

Sole design has become something of a marketing buzzword over the last few years. Whether is something like Srixon’s V sole or having a more rounded edge, the idea that sole design can affect playability has come to the fore. I think there is certainly something to all this and I would, without a doubt, tell you that even a blade with a rounded leading edge is easier to play that my straight-edged fifties blades.

The real key to sole design and forgiveness though is undoubtedly just how wide the sole is. This make a club easier to hit for a couple of reasons. The first one is obvious and it is the reason why extremely wide-soled wedges like the Cleveland smart sole do such a good job. A wide sole will let you get away with a less than perfect low-point in your swing. Instead of the club just digging in on a fat shot, it will, at least slightly, slide across the ground into the back of the ball and a horrible fat that goes twenty yards becomes simply a shorter, but not disastrous, shot.

The second reason why wide soles are good is almost for the opposite reason. It brings the majority of the club head’s weight down to the bottom. This is good when you hit it thin because the ball will get airborne more easily and you won’t feel like you have lost a couple of fingers every time! It is also good on solid shots because it helps the average golfer, especially a slower-swinging golfer, to hit it high. This is certainly part of making something that is easier to hit and therefore more forgiving.

A Bigger Face = A Larger Hitting Area

The next part of the forgiveness picture is the size (and possibly shape) of the face itself. Once more, there is nothing surprising here. Generally, an iron that sits in the game improvement category is going to have a larger, sometimes considerably larger, face size than the compact blade where the face appears to be barely bigger than the ball itself. The reason for this is easy to see-bigger face=more place to hit the ball.

By this logic, you might be wondering why we don’t have huge faced irons. Actually, some are or have been pretty huge. If you see something like a set of Zing 2 irons from Ping from 30 years ago, they do look like the proverbial shovels! However, the cost to benefit ratio doesn’t really hold up after a certain point, both because of overall weight and weight distribution and also because nobody would feel comfortable actually playing something that was too far away from the norm I think.

Offset-The High Handicapper’s Friend

The other universal element used to in club manufacture to increase forgiveness is offset. Essentially, offset is how far the leading edge of the club sits back from the hosel. As an example, my Ping Eye 2 irons that I mentioned earlier have an offset of 0.19″/0.48cm. This is a lot! If I look at something like the Ping blueprint blade iron in their current range, the offset on the seven iron is 0.05″/0.13cm.

These numbers might not mean much to the average golfer. Essentially, if you put a Blueprint seven iron behind the ball, you would see no offset at all. It would appear that the line from the shaft along the leading edge was level. The Eye 2 would seem to have a fairly hefty ‘kink’ backwards looking along the same line. This would be true for virtually any modern (and actually not so modern) cavity backed iron. In fact, if you are one of those golfers who like a large cavity and thicker sole but don’t want too much offset, you will struggle to find much from any manufacturer.

So what does this offset actually do? Well, a couple of things. The first one is that it will generally help get the ball up in the air because the weight is going to be more back and below the ball. The second thing is a sort of band aid against the average golfer who swings out to in and hits a fade or maybe a slice. This offset helps square up the club at impact and can keep it from perhaps disappearing quite so far right.

This is why golfers who like a helpful club but hit it a draw often don’t like offset because they feel, perhaps correctly, that it will turn this draw into a hook. Hitting a blade with zero offset certainly requires better ball-striking to get a decent result than using something with a lot of offset.

Perimeter Weighting: the Key to Forgiveness?

So a club with the right sole geometry and a fair bit of offset is going to be easier to hit for most golfers and offer better results when the strike isn’t quite there. However, I would say that the trump card in terms of forgiveness and tolerance in iron design is perimeter weighting. This is exactly what you would think-simply having the majority of the weight around the outside of the club. This is achieved by having a thicker top line, wider sole and a significant cavity in the back of the club.

A common way of understanding this is to compare hitting something with a small hammer or a frying pan. Although this analogy isn’t perfect, it is pretty easy to follow. Hitting something bang on the head with a hammer will be very efficient. All the mass is concentrated in a small area and it will get the job done well. However, the hammer’s head is small and it is quite easy to mishit your target (and in my case, hit my thumb instead but that is another story.) If you don’t hit it perfectly, the results will be less than stellar.

With a frying pan, hitting whatever you want is easy. The hitting surface is huge and the rim of the pan provides the perimeter weighting. You might not get that fantastic feel from the perfect hit, but you will get away with less than perfect far more easily. Add to this a face that actually flexes in some modern irons and the trampoline effect is a definite plus in terms of forgiveness from off(centre strikes.

What Is Forgiveness in Golf Really?

To be honest, most of this isn’t even debatable. It is just basic physics. Weight spread around and lower, moved back from the face, a friendlier leading edge and a thick sole are present in all modern club designs that aren’t blades to some extent. This is the definition of forgiveness and these elements provide it. But is this forgiveness overrated? I would say that to some extent, yes it is.

I am not just talking about the golfer who prefers less forgiveness because they want to feel their miss-hits and learn from them and believe that having a club that is as hard to hit as possible is the perfect way to progress. This is an interesting theory but debatable. I am thinking more about a golfer who actually wants easier to hit clubs.

As an example, I think it is worth thinking about on course results. Going back to the two sets mentioned in my introduction. Having played a lot with them as well as many other sets all along the spectrum from super game improvement to butter knife blade, my scores are actually affected by this far less than you would think. If I choose to play an old-school 1 iron rather than a hybrid my life certainly becomes more difficult, but in the mid and short irons, not so much.

This is firstly because I will hit both sets quite well in these clubs but also because forgiveness is not a black and white issue. It is impossible to put exact numbers on these things despite what some manufacturers say, but it is far from game-changing proportions. If you put a terrible swing on a golf club, the result will be terrible. No club does the job for you. Laying the sod over the ball is not going to be great however wide the sole. A ball off the hosel or toe will go nowhere or at least not where you want. Quite possibly a slight off-centre strike with a SGI club will be better than with a blade, but let’s think about the guy or girl behind the wheel.

Most of us have a huge variance in our ball-striking. As a single figure golfer, I can see a difference of ten yards between two strikes of a seven iron and they both feel pretty similar. What does this mean when I am actually hitting shots on the course? The fact that my super-tolerant club saves me 7/8 yards is less than the variance caused by my mediocre golf!

I am not saying that forgiveness doesn’t exist. IT is obvious that some clubs are easier to hit than others. Also, everyone should play what they want and I have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, playing clubs from across the whole spectrum of forgiveness from one length irons to blades. But maybe before looking for the easiest to hit club possible, take a little bit of time to try different types of club and you might be surprised at how little an effect forgiveness actually has on your score card.

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