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The History of Custom Fitting (and why it matters)

Part 2 of John Krzynowek’s in-depth look into this exciting category

the history of custom fitting

Golf Datatech recently released the eighth instalment of primary research investigating the Custom Fitting of golf equipment, covering 2 decades of change. As the author of all 8 volumes, along with 15+ years of experience in golf club product development and management, prior to joining Golf Datatech, I have a unique perspective on the evolution that became a revolution – as fitting changed from a niche play to massive accessibility and broad-based acceptance of premium brands. 

Golf Datatech’s first Custom Fitting Study was completed in 2001, 2 years before Trackman was invented, and 3 years before the TaylorMade r7 accelerated mainstream branded driver fittings by offering adjustable heads. Twenty years ago, clubs that were sold as “custom built” were either for elite tour level players or, more often, lower price point products, and were frequently knock-offs or special make up heads that were mass produced in Asia, assembled in a garage, basement or very small workshop, and usually did not feature any brand name components.

 No Power Required – The Early Days of Fitting

While the process of being fit has changed dramatically over the years, it is most important to note that the fitter themselves remains the most important part of the process. In the “old days” (pre digital data and interchangeable clubs), a fitter came armed with a lie board (essentially a piece of plywood or high impact plastic), a ruler (to get finger tip to floor measurements for length), some lie tape (or masking tape would do in a pinch), and perhaps a piece of face tape to highlight strike patterns. In addition, fitters would normally have a few different fully-assembled, non-adjustable clubs for the golfer to hit on the range or into a net.

Notably, none of these tools of the trade required electricity. A good fitting experience required substantial interface with the fitter, who would base their product recommendations upon information gathered from the interaction of the club, the ground, and the ball, upon various pieces of tape, combined with studying ball flight. While this methodology might seem uninspiring and pedestrian today, in the midst of the digital age, in its day, “dynamic fitting” (fitting while swinging) was cutting edge. Prior to being fit dynamically, fitting was done statically with measurements such as height, arm length, how hard the golfers swings, as the primary factors taken into account.

 Quantum Leaps in Club/Shaft Attachment & Digital Data Gathering

Toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century, manufacturers developed a means to easily change out shafts and heads while doing a fitting. Combined with advancing digital technology available to gather data, the process of fitting quickly changed. Initially, local fitters, who recognized the ability to improve results, started to use these technologies to create a better fitting experience. And the purchase process for golf clubs would never be the same.

Club assembly during the 1990’s was designed for cost efficiency, but did not allow for the nearly infinite number of tweaks necessary to meet the needs of the individual golfers swing.

Around 2010 the germ of a new business concept started to grow roots. Over time, Custom Fitting Specialists/Club Builders would became a significant force in the industry, initially selling primarily irons, but eventually fitting for more drivers as well.

Today, Golf Datatech estimates Custom Fit clubs account for over one-half of all new premium clubs sold in the market.

Mass Customization vs. True Customization

Custom fitting from the 1990’s would more likely be considered a form of “mass customization” today. Clubs were modified slightly to the golfer’s dynamic swing characteristics. However, compared to today’s offerings, it was more like a modification to stock than truly custom-built product. Typically, manufacturers offered 3 lie alternatives for their irons: +2 degrees, standard and -2 degrees. Usually these were made with traditional mass assembly practices of the day: with a line of operators assembling clubs, assuring they were within tolerance, but there wasn’t the same feeling like there is with today’s “custom” operations, where much greater care is taken to spec out and match each component.

Club assembly during the 1990’s was designed for cost efficiency, but did not allow for the nearly infinite number of tweaks necessary to meet the needs of the individual golfers swing.

 The Fitting Cart Era

A custom fitting session during the 90’s used to take 30-40 minutes, or less, and included hitting a few shots with your current club (driver or mid iron), followed by some shots with a head/shaft combo that the fitter had available (which were usually pretty limited).

Because the clubs were fully assembled and epoxied in place, there wasn’t the ability to adjust on the fly.

Often the major brands had “fitting carts” available for iron fitting, and these carts had a flat, stock and upright option for that year’s primary new model: perhaps in steel regular and stiff, maybe a graphite shaft option, but not usually multiple graphite shafts or anything in X or L flex, and certainly no length options.

Because the clubs were fully assembled and epoxied in place, there wasn’t the ability to adjust on the fly. A golfer could only try what they had in the cart, and the fitter would try to interpolate results to order the best possible product to fit the player. For example, if they fitter felt a stiff shaft was a little too flexible, they’d recommend the X, though the golfer never actually hit a shot with one.

Each brand had their own fitting cart which frequently carried numerous finished clubs, which meant significant expense for the manufacturers to build and maintain. For the fitters themselves, carrying multiple brands could be cumbersome and hard to deal with.

 Free Fitting? It used to be…not so much today

During the early days, custom fitting was usually free of charge – or there may have been an up front charge that was applied to the purchase price if the product was bought from the fitter. There were a few innovative custom fit/build operations starting to make waves, but the movement didn’t gain traction until the end of the first decade of the 2000’s.

Over time, as digital devices (with their significant costs) became the norm, fitters began to charge for their time, and the length of the sessions was extended to accommodate more options in heads and shafts, which became the norm once the head/shaft attachment mechanisms became easier to change with a few quick twists.

As the fitting business became more formalized, charging for fittings became more common. Some of the leading edge fitters began to assemble their own product: a move that was initially resisted by some manufacturers, who did not want the perceived quality of their product to be determined by anyone other than their own assembly teams.

 Premium Priced Clubs and Fitting Become One

Today, custom fitting has become a large part of the fabric of buying premium golf clubs. While the majority of total clubs sold in units are still “stock” or non customized product, usually second/third generation, close outs, or lower priced sets, the newer higher priced models in their first year of sales are primarily being fit in some manner.

It’s worth noting that the average consumers perspective on “what is custom fitting?” may vary from those within the industry. While a golfer will frequently consider hitting multiple shots in a net or on the range under the watchful eye of a golf professional or a fitter as “being fit”, manufacturers and custom fitting experts would prefer to see digital data guide the process, utilizing multiple heads and shafts, to maximize the benefits of the clubs purchased.

 My Unfiltered Opinions of the Current State of Custom Fitting

 The “Numbers” Drive the Process. The Fitter Makes it Work

Unquestionably, the custom fitter is a very critical part of the fitting process, and according to the research done by Golf Datatech over the years, it’s consistently perceived as the most important piece of the fitting puzzle. While each individual custom fitting operation can specify their own methodology and high tech analytic equipment, along with unique means for analysis and recommendations, so much of a successful fitting is directly associated with the technical abilities of the fitter, combined with a personal connection and the ability to communicate effectively.

 Custom Fitting Channels Continue to Evolve

I was recently asked, “Can the off course specialty channel bounce back? It used to be the leading channel for fitting, but now golfers are headed to Custom Fitting Specialists more frequently, will that momentum continue?”

There’s no doubt that the Custom Fitters/Builders have grown their share in the US, expanding locations and fitting more golfers every year. That said, there are still many first class fitting operations in golf shops (On Course and in Specialty Golf Retailers), however those tend to sell branded golf clubs that are assembled, and shipped, by the golf club brands and not assembled by their own operations. Typically, these locations do not feature exotic/premium priced shafts in the same manner as Club Fitters/Builders.

Off Course Specialty Retailers, who do a good job in fitting, usually have at least one member of the floor sales team focusing on custom fitting. In fact, it’s not unusual to have several in a large location. Being a good fitter requires a special set of skills that need to be compensated appropriately. Finding and training people for those roles needs to be a focus if they’re going to compete with Fitters/Builders who spend all day, every day, fitting golfers.

 Custom Fitting Works

My personal experience is that custom fitting definitely works, to a point. Ultimately, even the best-fit clubs are only as effective as the consistency of the player who swings them. While custom fit clubs can help lessen some of the negative outcomes associated with a poor swing/strike of the ball, it still comes down to the golfer. Becoming a better player usually requires some level of commitment to playing and practicing, which most golfers are not interested in.

When a golfer has been fit for a new driver where the best possible head is matched up with the best shaft and grip, they undoubtedly will see immediate improvements in their driving of the ball. And an increase in driving distance is easy to see, particularly for people who play one course frequently, as the golfer knows where they normally drive the ball, and with a new stick in hand, they can easily compare vs. their previous club.

Ultimately, even the best-fit clubs are only as effective as the consistency of the player who swings them.

Having an iron set that is fit to your specific swing characteristics should potentially provide a golfer with more meaningful results than a driver, however seeing those results in action is much more difficult to ascertain. While a driver is usually used less than 18 times a round (typically ranging from 10-14 times depending upon playing level and the course played), your irons are struck much more frequently over the course of 18 holes, and accuracy and precision (distance and deviation both) can markedly improve a golfer’s score, however seeing the benefit is much more difficult. The visual cues that are so easily seen in a new driver are more subtle and nuanced in irons. Over time, improved ball striking and accuracy due to custom irons should show up in lower scores and an improved handicap, however that can’t be guaranteed, because the golfer may have other issues that make improved scores elusive.

 Custom Fitting vs. Lessons. Which is Best? 

One of the arguments used against being custom fit is that “a golfer is better off just taking lessons to improve rather than throwing money at custom fit clubs.”

That may be the case, but it’s not necessarily true. Lessons and Fitting are not mutually exclusive. If a golfer truly wants to improve their game, lessons that focus on their areas of weakness can pay huge benefits, however most of the time those improvements only manifest themselves after putting in the time to practice and build the fundamentals into your game. That takes time and significant effort, and doesn’t necessarily meet the requirements of many golfers, who are looking for a “quick fix”.

However, if you are planning on making major swing changes in an effort to improve your game, you might be better off completing those adjustments and modifications prior to being fit/buying new clubs. Buying new custom clubs before changing your swing means you might be fit into product that no longer matches up with your new swing patterns. And, making a change to your golf swing is hard enough.

Golf Datatech is the world’s leading independent market research company focused on golf, golf equipment, golf retail, and golf operations. In July of 2021 Golf Datatech released the 8th edition of the Custom Fitting Study, which is an in depth analysis of the custom fitting business in America. For information about the study please email: info@golf-datatech.com.