1 on 1 with Cleveland’s Wedge Expert
I recently had the chance to speak with Cleveland Golf’s VP of Research and Development, John Rae. John has had a hand in designing 14 generations of Cleveland wedges. He’s also written a fantastic book, The Wedge, which is an in-depth explanation of everything related to wedges. It’s truly a must-have for gear heads who want to better understand the short game.
Without further ado, here’s my Q&A with John.
Wedges In General
PIG: What’s the biggest misconception about wedges?
JR: How grooves work. Whenever I talk to consumers, or even head pros and assistant pros, there’s this misconception that grooves are like a bear’s claws that grab the ball and spin it. Realistically, grooves function like treads on a tire. They get dirt and debris out of the way so the ball and face can make clean contact. That clean contact is what produces spin.
PIG: What’s one thing you wish every golfer knew about wedges that they probably don’t?
JR: To get fit for wedges. Ideally you should be buying wedges as a set like you buy your set of irons. Way too many golfers have wedges in their bag they didn’t get fit for. They also have a Titleist, a Cleveland, and a Callaway with three different technologies that perform differently. This combines for bad overall performance.
Keeping your wedges the same will give you similar feel, performance, and shape to give you a sense of confidence in all the wedges rather than having one go-to wedge. That gives you the confidence to hit the right wedge for the right conditions rather than leaning too heavily on one.
PIG: What is your approach to fitting wedges?
JR: Model is the first place to start. Better players should be playing a blade wedge. A high handicap golfer should be in a Smart Sole or bunker buster wedge. Someone in the middle needs a game improvement wedge that gives you the right amount of forgiveness and the right amount of performance.
Next is gaps. Making sure you don’t have a 120 yard pitching wedge and your next wedge goes 90 and then 85. You want to hit more full shots with your wedges rather than ratcheting up and down to hit the yardages you need.
Finally, you work on bounce, lie angle, length, grip.
PIG: Why are golfers so afraid of bounce?
JR: I don’t have a good answer for that. If you went across the board, more often than not golfers needs more bounce than they’re playing. I don’t know if they’re playing less because they’re afraid of it or because someone told them better players play lower bounce. I regularly run into golfers who think of game improvement product as “less than” better player product. I try to get them to think of it like cars. If you have a family, a Corvette is useless, a minivan is what you need. One isn’t more than or less than, it’s just what fits your needs.
Better players needing lower bounce is a misconception. Plus, when you let a Tour player influence your decision you end up in the wrong stuff.
PIG: What is your approach to fitting bounce?
JR: Assuming you don’t have a good fitter to work with, and you’re not able to work with Cleveland’s Wedge Analyzer? If you’re self fitting, I would ask, “What types of conditions am I playing? Wet and soft or dry and firm?” Wet requires more bounce, dry needs less.
Than I’d think about the divots I take. If I take really big divots, I need more bounce because you don’t want to take the big beaver pelt divot. You want to be in and out of the turf quickly to maintain speed. If you take little turf, you need low bounce so you don’t hit it thin.
PIG: The Wedge Book describes some soles as being more “game improvement” in contrast with versatility. Can you explain how a sole can be forgiving?
JR: Typically the trade off in sole design is game improvement versus versatility. In the versatility side is generally how much you can open the face and how many types of shots you can hit with the sole design. To get more versatility you take material out of the heel and back edge so you can open the face and keep the leading edge low. The downside is that the more of that material you take away, the more you dig in, the less material there is to push you back out of the turf.
For the golfer who isn’t as precise and hits behind it, if there’s no sole material, they will bury the sole and lose all their head speed. That could lead to being 20 yards short of your intended target. In the extreme, our Smart Sole wedges have an extremely wide sole that comes in and out of any turf condition. Keeping the toe section thicker or doing a reverse C can give a little more stability through the turf or bunker without being extreme.
PIG: Are wedge grinds overrated for amateurs? At what level does it matter?
JR: Short of elite amateur, you shouldn’t be thinking about physically having someone grind your wedge. You should trust that the wedge company you buy from, regardless of brand, has done their research and given you a wedge that will work for your player type.
That being said, the fact that we offer three different grinds is a valuable thing for the sub-1o handicap player who is consistent enough to make good solid contact regularly. They can have a sole design that’s right for the places they play, the style of play they have, and the shots they want to execute. It can vary enough between players at that level that the grind is useful.
PIG: Are grinds and soles evolving or are there just trends moving back and forth?
JR: I think there’s evolution. We as a company have been gravitating to V sole designs, it’s been working well for us, and it’s relatively new. Moving forward, the ability to grind a wedge and polish a wedge is getting better with new technologies. We can do finer things within the grind and I can imagine in 10-20 years that everything will be done with machines so that everything can be done in finer detail and with larger swings in the material across the sole. We kind of know the things we’d like to do, we’re waiting on the technology to do them consistently.
PIG: How does Feel Balancing Technology help the average golfer?
JR: Imagine a bell curve. If you hit the sweet spot you get peak performance at the top of the bell curve. Miss left or right, you get a little drop off. Miss more, the drop off is more.
If you center the bell curve on the heel, there’s a lot more drop off as you move to the center and toe. You get this weird parabola of performance across the face and that leads to inconsistent performance. With the sweet spot in the center, you get only a little drop off from missing a little right or left, and you have to almost miss the grooves to get big performance drop off.
Types of Wedges
PIG: How is the new CBX wedge different from the RTX-3 CB?
JR: If you were to think about wedge performance on a 1-10 spectrum, 1 being super game improvement, 10 being a blade. Smart Sole is a 1 or 2. RTX-3 Blade is a 9 or 10. RTX-3 CB has been 7 or 8. It’s only slightly bigger, slightly bigger sole, slightly more forgiveness.
CBX is shooting for a 5, right in the middle for the 8-20 handicap golfer which is the bulk of the market and players. The head is a little bigger, the sole geometry is significantly different – same width in heel, but thicker in the toe for forgiveness and getting in and out of turf easier. We changed the weighting of the club – lighter shaft, lower SW – to align with cavity back iron weighting more closely rather than feeling like you have two distinct sets: irons and wedges.
PIG: There’s only one sole for CBX compared to three on the RTX-3. Why?
JR: In our mind, that follows the target consumer. The better player in the blade wedges wants more options, more finishes, to get dialed in. In the game improvement golfer, we’re trying to not confuse him with too many options. We want that guy to realize “I play GI irons, should play GI wedges to go along” and we don’t want to confuse that with different bounces, shafts, finishes. We’re trying to simplify this for him so we get him into the right model which will give him more performance benefits rather than perfecting the sole.
PIG: What data have you gathered from testing about how the CBX will help golfers?
JR: The best testing we get for this type of golfer is volume testing. We get someone who is 12-15 handicap, they can’t test in 5 shots like a Tour Pro, we need thousands of golfers and a huge number of shots. We’re looking at it in terms of launch, spin, distance control, accuracy control. Also looking at how man swings it take to hit three good shots. CBX generates good shots much more consistently than blade wedges. Also, the CBX has spin technology in the face which set-matched wedges don’t. That’s a performance benefit for the golfer.
PIG: What percentage of players would you recommend play each family of wedge? What does your sales data show the actual percentages to be?
JR: 84% of golfers are playing large CB irons, so the bulk of golfers should be playing a game improvement wedge. The sales for anything in the CB wedge market is less than 10%. That’s a massive disparity in what they should be playing and what they are playing. What I believe, what we hope for, is that golfers who get the CBX message never go back to blade wedge. He should realize, “I’ve been playing the wrong wedge this whole time.” And he’ll be a CB wedge player for the rest of his life. We don’t know how far we can push it, but we hope we can take that 10% to 20% or 30% and maybe one day 50% are getting the max performance for their ability level.
PIG: Why aren’t other makers in the Smart Sole or CB wedge market?
JR: Because we’re such a big wedge company, we have the internal resources to make a broad wedge offering, and we have the volume of wedge sales to justify a broad wedge offering. If you’re 5% of the wedge market, you can’t afford to have 100 wedge SKUs. Cleveland Golf can because we’re a large part of the wedge market.
Until we make this market, no one else is going to join us. We’re going to be the avenue for every golfer who wants wedges that fit his game improvement irons.
A huge thanks to John Rae and Cleveland Golf for taking the time to educate us on wedges.