Friday, April 18, 2014

Tour Edge Exotics CB4 Tour Driver Review

This equipment review was written by my friend Andrew Rehfeld, who continues to share his large amount of equipment knowledge for the site. 

Some may call me an equipment purist, a player's club enthusiast, or even a snob. For whatever reason, I am always drawn to low handicap player's clubs, possibly even to a fault. I have played forged irons ever since I was able. The difficulty in recent years has been finding woods to complement my player's irons (check out my Miura review here). I think I have found the "Holy Grail" for the woods purist – the Tour Edge Exotics CB4 Tour.

I have played the CB4 15º fairway wood for a little over two years now. Now that I have been playing its driver counterpart for a few weeks, I only wish I would have bought it sooner.

I ordered the driver at 10º with no intention of keeping the stock shaft. I removed the Oban Revenge 55g 04 flex shaft from my old driver, and installed it in the CB4 Tour. The "04" flex ranges somewhere between a stiff and x-stiff shaft. The length is 44.5” and the swing weight is D-2. Due to the shaft being cut down and its light weight, I had to add lead tape to bring it up to D-2 (which can be seen covered in electrical tape). 

First Impression
"Clean" is the best way to describe how this driver looks. From address, there are no alignment aid markings and the crown is a beautiful deep black. The face is very deep, and has a squared off shape. The toe and heel are close to the ground instead of sweeping up in a “V” shape, which I like. The scorelines across the entire face are fairly rare to see on a modern driver, but I think they are aesthetically pleasing. The sole also looks good, but I think it could be even simpler.

Be warned – this driver is not for those who need help getting the ball in the air. This driver launches the ball low, and the spin is nearly nonexistent. With this shaft and head combination, it must be one of the lowest launching and spinning drivers available. I definitely couldn’t play a lower loft. That being said, I find the ball flight to be perfect. With my shaft combination, the ball pops up a little at impact, before flattening and typically running out in the fairway. For a higher swing speed player, this club is great. I was skeptical of the scorelines on the face adding spin, but with the low spin rate of the club, they are probably for the best. The club is not forgiving, and the sweet spot is small. Yet, however bad the body-jarring mishits feel, they often turn out well. Confused? Me, too.

In terms of distance, this thing is long. Tour Edge fairway woods are notoriously long and popular on tour, so it puzzles me that their drivers aren't as popular. I picked up ten yards from my previous driver, which is likely the result of much less spin. If you can launch it high enough, the ball will go for a mile.

Part of the reason I wanted this club was for the 2º open face angle. Yes, there are countless modern drivers that allow players to adjust the face angle, but none that looked as promising as the CB4 Tour. With this setup, the club eliminates the left side of the course. Even as a drawer of the golf ball, I find it hard to turn the ball over at times. For me, this is perfect. I feel as if I swing as hard as I want, without fear of a snap hook. For others, this might not be as attractive.

One thing that stands out about this driver is the sound. I find that many modern drivers make an obnoxious noise at impact; this driver does not. The sound is quieter and duller than most. It definitely doesn’t sound like an iron, but it does complement the sound of a forged iron. This is especially true with the addition of lead tape, which has made it even quieter. To me, it sounds like an older, steel fairway wood. It makes contact really satisfying. For many players, sound off the face equates to feel. Because the sound is so subtle and solid, the feel of the club is great. 

Pros – Look, Feel, Distance, Workability
Cons – Forgiveness

This is a great “player’s” club. However, there is a definite lack of forgiveness. Don’t buy the CB4 Tour if you are looking for a club that is easy to hit. If you have the swing speed and ability to play the club as it is intended, the reward is awesome.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Renaissance Club (Part 2)

This short post on Renaissance Club is a follow up post to accompany my full review of the course, which can be found here.

When I first visited Renaissance Club in April of 2012, the clubhouse was still under construction and three new seaside holes were being shaped out of the rolling East Lothian dunes. As you can tell from my full review, I greatly enjoyed the course, but it was not complete. My host for the day prefaced most sentences with, "When everything is finished up..."

My opportunity to revisit the exclusive private club came nearly two years later to the day, and every promise of "just wait till _____ is completed" during my first visit has certainly come true. The attention to detail and the service at the club are excellent. Everything was first-class, from having guests' names printed on labels in the beautiful locker room to a member of staff bringing us delicious hot snacks at the turn.
The clubhouse in April, 2012
Outside of the great Tom Doak designed golf course, the clubhouse at Renaissance Club is the most impressive feature of the club. The building is massive, with a full gym, five-star rooms to spend the night, and one of the better furnished locker rooms that I have visited (see hot tub below). The food was excellent during my visit and the service was impeccable.
The clubhouse in April, 2014
Renaissance Club does not feel like other clubs in Scotland. It is built off the American model of golf club, with a high initiation fee, highly private membership, and incredible facilities. The club is closer to Loch Lomond Golf Club than to any of its East Lothian neighbors. An American, Jerry Sarvadi, headed up the development of Renaissance Club, leasing the land from the Duke of Hamilton on property from the Archerfield Estate. The land for the course lies in a "green belt" conservation area of the coast, and special permission had to be granted for the golf course. The result is a great Doak design set within naturally beautiful Scottish dunes.
Full hot tub in the men's locker room
My camera lens broke a number of days prior to my round at Renaissance Club, so the limited photos that you see below were taken in a misty rain with my phone. I will do my best to describe the three new holes, numbers 9, 10, and 11 in the round. Brilliant photos can be found on the club website, found here.
The 9th hole at Renaissance Club
During my first visit to the club, there were no true seaside holes on the golf course. It was a feature that the owners felt was holding the course back from a higher ranking and the possibility to host the Scottish Open. Tom Doak was brought back in to design three new holes after additional land was acquired for the expansion.
Click on photo to enlarge
Two of the three new holes are par 3s. The 9th hole measures 190+ yards into a beautiful infinity green, while the 11th hole is a downhill 135+ yard par 3 with a great view. Depending on the wind, one of the holes plays into wind, while the other plays downwind. Depending on your luck that day, the one shot holes can be particularly challenging.
Locker labels mark all guest lockers
The 10th hole is the most impressive of the new three. The hole curls along cliffs bordering the Firth of Forth. Massive waves crashing on the beach to the left of the hole provide a nice backdrop for play. The dogleg left design has a great risk/reward aspect. Golfers can cut off as much cliff as they dare to shorten their approach to the green. The fairway runs along a hillside, and those golfers trying to play the tee shot too safe will find their ball stuck on the hill in thick grass.

I hope to be able to play Renaissance Club again on a bright, sunny day with my camera. The round was very enjoyable, and my 73 won me a few pounds from my playing partners. If given the chance to play golf in Scotland, make sure to play the great traditional links courses. However, tacking on a round at a modern course like Renaissance Club isn't half bad!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Miura Giken MB-5003 Irons Review

This equipment review was written by my friend Andrew Rehfeld, who continues to share his large amount of equipment knowledge for the site.

Part of the mystique that accompanies the brand is that every set must be custom ordered. There are no stores that sell Miura irons "off the rack." Typically, purchases must be made through an elite custom fitter, where the set and custom fitting typically run well over $2,000. Fortunately, I was able to circumvent this process by ordering a custom set directly from Japan. For those who don’t know, Miura is branded as “Miura Giken” in Japan. Apart from aesthetic branding, the clubs, and company, are exactly the same.

Iron Specs
I ordered my set as 4-PW with the addition of a gap wedge, labeled “P/S” by Miura, which apparently stands for pitching/sand. I was looking for a lighter shaft than the KBS C-Tapers I had been playing the past two and a half years, so I went with the Nippon NS Pro 950GH in “X” flex. I completed the clubs with ribbed Golf Pride Tour Wrap 2G grips in .600 size, which is not available in the US.  Based on a previous club fitting, I ordered the clubs to be ¼ inch short and two degrees flat.

First Impressions – Looks           
I was immediately impressed with the look of this set. From the time I discovered that irons could have a finish other than chrome, I have had my eyes fixed on a satin finish, and these look beautiful. The quality of the irons was immediately clear without a single blemish or manufacturer's mistake to be found. I compare the experience to the first time I tried a Scotty Cameron putter. The product isn’t revolutionary, but the craftsmanship and superiority are evident.

The shape of the Mirua irons is what initially drew me to the clubs. Having played nearly every set of Mizuno blades in the last decade, I have become disappointed with the progressively rounder head shape in the MP series. It is hard to find pictures of the Miura Giken MB-5003 irons online, and I had never seen them in person, so the blind purchase was a bit of a gamble. It was worth the risk and these irons look great.

Any offset is almost nonexistent. It is certainly less than any set of Mizuno, Titleist, Bridgestone, or Taylormade blade irons that I’ve played in the past. The Miuras also have a less rounded overall appearance. The beautiful aspect of the shape is the topline. It is an extremely thin topline and is perfectly round. These clubs look great at address. The sole is also exactly how I would design a club - narrow and relatively flat.

One of the only downsides to these irons is the square leading edge in the wedges. This is ironic after my complaints about round Mizunos, but I would prefer the Miura P/S to look more like true a wedge and less like an iron. Another minor complaint is the stamping on the back of the clubs. It is a purely aesthetic issue, but the crowded and plentiful markings are undoubtedly a turn off for some consumers. They are perfect otherwise.

Now for the important stuff: Due to never having played Nippon shafts before, it’s difficult to objectively describe the feel of the heads. In the past I’ve had Dynamic Gold shafts in all of my Mizunos, Project X shafts in my Titleists and Bridgestones, and C-Taper shafts in my TaylorMades. The Nippons are certainly different from any of these, and I will update this section as I play the clubs more throughout the season. What I like about the feel with these shafts is the “spring” I get at impact. I’ve heard about Nippons having a “kick,” but I find it to be more like a “spring,” quick and short. If the C-Tapers are like Jell-O, then the NS PRO is like a rubber bouncy ball. They have a very responsive feel.

I’ve heard many people describe Miuras as having a “soft, yet solid” feel. Reviewers have said that they aren’t quite as soft as Mizuno’s forged irons. Many say that Miura irons have a feel completely of their own. To be honest, I was very skeptical of this “soft, yet solid” jargon. I figured it was a bunch of mid-handicappers with deep pockets just repeating what they had heard from their fitting rep. Well, unfortunately for my ego, they were right.

The truth is that these clubs are not as soft as Mizunos. I haven’t come across anything that truly “melts” the ball like a Mizuno blade. These Miuras are different. They are nothing like any other set I’ve played. I would completely agree with the “soft, yet solid” assessment. In order to know if the “different” feel is for you, it is something you must try. With feel being so subjective, I cannot say that Miura irons are definitively the best, but I will say that they are my favorite.  Is it worth the price tag? That one is up to you.

Some critics have commented about the flat, narrow soles negatively affecting those with “digger” swings. I personally sweep the ball, so I prefer the thin soles. However, even with my “sweeper” swing, I know that soft conditions will be difficult with these irons. Factor this into your decision carefully if you are a bit steep with your irons.

In terms of ball flight, I have to mention the shafts. The launch is very similar to the low trajectory I had with my Taylormade TP MB irons and C-Taper shafts. These certainly should be higher, but they honestly didn’t seem to be. The ball is also definitely been spinning more. I think the lack of difference in launch, and the higher spin rate, probably have to do with these irons shafts being quite stiff.

Concluding Remarks
I love the feel and performance of this set. I am glad I went with the lighter shafts, and the shape of the heads is perfect for my preference. As you may be able to tell, I have an issue going through sets of clubs too quickly, but I think these will stay around for quite a while.

Pros: Shape (topline & sole), Feel (soft, yet solid), Look (that satin is beautiful!), Demand (can’t get these in the US), Performance (right on the money).
Cons: Price $$$, Stampings (too crowded), Shape of wedges is too square, Some people might have a digging problem with the sole.

Note: These Japanese Miuras are identical in size to the US Tournament Blade. However, they clearly have a different muscle shape that is more similar to the new MB-001. From what I have read, the performance is most similar to the Tournament

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Swinley Forest Golf Club

Swinley Forest is completely different from any other club that I have visited. "Extremely exclusive" and "very unusual" only begin to scratch the surface of the club. The membership is comprised largely of British aristocracy and high ranking members of the British military. The Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen's husband) and the Duke of York (the Queen's son) boast membership at Swinley. There is a real sense of occasion when pulling through the imposing gates onto the property. The beautiful traditional clubhouse is exactly what you would expect at a club whose course is ranked #92 in the world.

The 17th Early of Derby founded Swinley Forest, which opened in 1910. The founding principles of the club were eccentric, and nearly all of them have endured to the present day. It has only been in the past decade that the course has been measured. The club history book explains that "every previous attempt to have the course measured was instantly vetoed as being too professional and therefore 'not Swinley.'" Scorecards have also only been consistently printed and used in the last decade. Swinley Forest exists solely for the pleasure of its members, most of whom think the rest of us wring the enjoyment out of golf by taking it too seriously. I saw this personally as the two members in the group ahead skipped from the 11th hole to the 15th, but not before telling me, "feel free to skip ahead with us or play on. Whichever you fancy." 

Complete serenity at Swinley Forest is created both through the beautiful setting and the fact that there are never more than a handful of members playing the course. Even then, most members are just hopping out for a few holes with their dog. The course reminded me of a heathland Augusta National in many ways, especially with an "open" feeling to the course and beautiful vistas across the property. After finishing my round, I had a shower in the locker room and proceeded to join a number of members for lunch in the clubhouse. It is important to emphasize that the exclusivity of Swinley Forest certainly does not equate to unfriendliness. I was treated very well by both members and staff alike. 
Water bowls for dogs are found many of the holes.
Swinley Forest does not host medals, or any serious competitions, on their course. It is also rare that they participate as a club in competitions elsewhere. A section of the history book expands on this topic. "Swinley has two comparatively recent annual fixtures, when they play Sunningdale and the Seniors. They will also sometimes turn out a side for some commemoration or pertinent tournament, such as the Colt Cup... The Club will also field a side for like-minded groups such as the Nibblock Golf Society, made up of members from Augusta National Golf Club and Pine Valley Golf Club." Members do not have handicaps. Outside of the occasional match, those lucky enough to claim Swinley Forest as a home club simply enjoy the great course, and don't worry about such trivial things as scores. 

The course at Swinley Forest is an excellent example of heathland golf. The course architect, Harry Colt, described Swinley in his humble manner as "his least bad course." This is a particularly impressive statement considering Colt's extensive list of great designs, a number of which sit in the top 100 in the world. The overall length of Swinley Forest measures just over 6,000 yards, but with five par 3s and one par 5, the course does not feel short at all. Colt also made excellent use of the terrain, with some very challenging uphill par 4s. While much allure surrounds the club due to its exclusivity and quirky traditions, it is the course itself that takes center stage after spending a day at the club.

Hole #1 - 389 yards
In keeping with Colt's design philosophy, the first hole has a wide fairway and few bunkers. Colt thought that the first two holes should have open fairways, and get players onto the course in a quick manner.

Hole #4 - 184 yards
The fourth hole is one of the best par 3s that I have played while in the UK. This bold statement is backed up by a Redan green sitting on a natural shelf, which is protected by a viciously deep bunker on the front left. This hole is an example of the great use of terrain on the course.

 Hole #5 - 497 yards
This elevated tee shot provides an excellent view of the dogleg right par 5. A bunker sits at the corner of the dogleg, and a small lake protects an area where shorter hitters would lay up.

The green is guarded by a number of fairly shallow bunkers. The foliage and heather would be visually stunning during warmer times of the year.

 Hole #6 - 424 yards
The view from this tee is grander than it appears in the above photo. The drive is fairly open, but the challenge during my round was found at the green.

This green complex was similar to others on the course in that one of the bunkers, which appeared to be greenside, was actually thirty yards short of the green. There were a number of holes with similar optical illusions in the bunkering. 

 Hole #7 - 400 yards
This uphill par 4 plays longer than its yardage and features a line of heather covered mounds 260 yards from the tee. The approach shot plays much longer than the yardage and the front right portion of the green is bunkered.

 Hole #8 - 146 yards
The 8th hole is another stellar par 3 at Swinley Forest. The bunker-less hole has a large slope falling off the right side of the green. If you miss on the right side of this green, a lofted shot from 25 feet below the green is required for a par putt.

 Hole #9 - 434 yards
The sweeping right to left fairway presents a beautiful view from an elevated tee. Thick heather protects both sides of the fairway.
The bunker-less green was larger than it appears from the fairway, but this hole was another very challenging par 4 on the 6,000 yard course.

 Hole #10 - 205 yards
The theme of particularly strong one-shot holes should be apparent by this point. The par 3 10th is well bunkered and the sloping green is deceptively small. The entrance to the green is open, and shorter hitters are able to run the ball onto the putting surface.

Hole #11 - 285 yards
Swinley may only be 6,000 yards, but the 11th was one of only two par 4s under 360 yards. This hole was still no slouch, with heather and bunkers catching any wayward shots.

Hole #12 - 455 yards
The 12th has only greenside bunker and the putting surface slopes heavily back to front. The rhododendron thicket behind the green is one of the largest that I have ever seen, and I can only imagine its beauty when in bloom.

 Hole #13 - 174 yards
This par 3 is framed beautifully by the trees surrounding the back of the green.
Two front bunkers guard the great green complex. It was in this nook of the course, looking back towards holes played earlier, that the beauty and openness of the property really came through.

 Hole #15 - 450 yards
This 450 yard uphill par 4 is another challenging and long hole on the course. The fairway is appropriately wide, but bunkers and a large false front guard the green.
The green slopes heavily back to front and the main objective on approach shots should be reaching the back half of the sloping surface.

 Hole #17 - 170 yards
The final par 3 of the course caps off a masterclass in one shot holes. The raised green slopes off on all sides into heather and deep bunkers. An accurate iron shot is required to hit this small green. I wish I could have had a bucket of balls to practice all afternoon on this hole.

 Hole #18 - 368 yards
The dogleg left finishing hole features a creek running across the fairway. Mid to long hitters can carry the stream and an approach shot is left from the point at which the photo above was taken. The uphill approach is completely blind, and distance control is important as the green slopes back to front.
Bell, originally given by Queen Elizabeth II to an American warship, marks a clear green
I played Swinley Forest the day after playing golf at Wentworth (review here). The two clubs stood a long way apart in their ideologies. The corporate feel at Wentworth was replaced with understated tradition at Swinley. The best way to finish this post is with another quote from the history book that sums up the club very well. "Swinley is an anachronism, living in its Edwardian past. But it is an anachronism that works. Nearly one hundred years on, the membership is drawn from virtually the same families, with a few boasting an unbroken line from a founding member. All subscribe to the original ideas and criteria - a quiet atmosphere, with agreeable colleagues and an old-fashioned lunch."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wentworth Golf Club (West Course)

My visit to Wentworth marked my third foray into the great golf that England has to offer. I was excited to play at Wentworth, which has hosted the Ryder Cup in 1926 and 1953 among many other European Tour events. The West course was designed by Harry Colt in 1927 on the Wentworth Estate, and the prestigious club quickly made a name for itself. 
I found my day at Wentworth to be full of interesting juxtapositionsUnfortunately, there is a sense that the club is run by corporate offices, rather than a committee of golfers trying to offer the best to the members. A corporate feel leaks out of every pore, but just occasionally, a bit of the traditional English club shines through. I will outline some of the reasons below. 
The price to play Wentworth (West) is exorbitant. Between January and March, the price is £195 per round, followed by £250 per round in April, and £360 (caddie included) per round between May and October. In another strange twist, golfers have to purchase range ball coins from the pro shop at £5 for a small bucket. This felt like eating dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant and being charged for bread with your meal. Additionally, a large section of the range is "sponsored" by TaylorMade. This "TaylorMade Lab" is a large fitting center attached to the practice facility, and their branding surrounds you everywhere. I hit my TaylorMade practice balls with a Dustin Johnson advertisement staring me down. It was as far away as you could get from a traditional English club.
A sign on the first tee
In terms of course design, little of the original Colt design is recognizable, obscured by a layout clearly made for European Tour golf tournaments. A passage in the West course StrokeSaver reads, "...with recent advances in golf ball and equipment technology it became necessary to carry out a programme of restoration and modernization in order to restore Colt’s original shot values. There was no better man to head-up that sensitive task than long-time Wentworth resident and respected golf course architect Ernie Els, also a seven-time winner on the West Course... This project involved the construction of 18 new greens including a spectacular new finishing hole... All green side and fairway bunkers were reviewed, remodeled and where necessary repositioned more in keeping with today’s shot patterns." I would argue that Els's work was a full redesign rather than a restoration. Thirty bunkers were added to the course, along with hundreds of yards of length to make the course suitable for European Tour events. The result is a very challenging, aesthetically pleasing, and enjoyable golf course. However, the course lacks character in areas, and it resembles very little of Colt's original design. 
 Hole #1 - 465 yards
The first hole is a short par 5, which features a gorgeous approach shot. The tee shot is straightforward, except for a road and accompanying traffic that pass in between opening shots. Roads dissecting the course were common, with over 11 holes featuring roads, by my count.

 Hole #3 - 442 yards
This par 4 is one of several character-lacking holes on the course. The straight hole features a grouping of bunkers in the landing area, followed by two green side bunkers on the front left and right of the green. It is by no means a bad hole, but follows the formula required to comply with "USGA tournament specifications."
Additionally, the conditioning of the greens was disappointing given the time of year and greens fees. You would expect any course that charges £195 to have the highest quality conditions, even during the spring months. Further, the 2nd hole was even played to a temporary green, set 40 yards short of the putting surface.

 Hole #4 - 485 yards
This dogleg left par 5 featured yet another stunning approach shot. Longer drives reach the bottom of the hill, while shorter tee shots have to contend with the creek crossing the fairway for a layup. One of the largest private homes that I have ever seen borders the right side of this hole. 

 Hole #6 - 342 yards
This green complex on the sixth hole represents much of the bunkering found later in the round. Bunkers flank the right and left entrances to the slightly raised green. Many of these raised greens create semi-blind approach shots, which don't necessarily detract from the round, but do make it difficult having never seen the course.

 Hole #8 - 388 yards
The 8th hole is a short par 4 that, while fun to play and nice to look at, would not resemble Colt's original design. The approach shot is over a lake to a raised green guarded by a single bunker on the front right.

 Hole #10 - 174 yards
This great par 3 is a glimpse of one of Wentworth's traditional features. This classic one shot hole is a long, narrow green with two bunkers right of the green. The hole is a great use of the landscape and could be found on any top 100 heathland course in England.

 Hole #12 - 475 yards
This unique tee shot has to be played over, or between, the large trees guarding the fairway. The dogleg left par 5 was one of my favorite holes on the course. Shorter hitters would definitely struggle with the trees and tee shot... Imagine Augusta National's Ike's Tree taken to the next level.
Layups are guarded by a small stream crossing the fairway, and a raised green is yet again guarded by two bunkers on the front left and right. 

Hole #15 - 458 yards
This is the number 1 handicap hole on the course, and, although it cannot be seen in this photo, a stream runs up the right side of the hole before eventually crossing the fairway at around 300 yards from the tee. Bunkers guard the green that slopes off the back. 

 Hole #17 - 549 yards
Two par 5s conclude the round and this, the 17th, is the first of the difficult duo. The dogleg left hole features a beautiful approach shot to a green with no bunkers, which may likely be the only bunker-less green on the course.

 Hole #18 - 491 yards

Tough third shot...
The finishing hole was completely re-designed by Els and his team. The par 5 is a sharp dogleg right, with an approach shot over a small lake. The hole is fun and challenging, but it follows the template for a European Tour finishing hole. This is not a bad attribute, but it has no resemblance to Colt's original design, and this fact will bother design purists. 

I enjoyed my round at Wentworth. Arriving at the castle clubhouse and observing the gargantuan 30,000+ square foot homes bordering the course certainly create a sense of occasion. However, two questions rattled around my brain during the round. First, does the course deserve to regain its previous world top 100 rating? Not in my opinion. The design now lacks character and subscribes to the formula of so many other European Tour courses. Second, and more important, would I recommend that someone spend £360 to play the course in the summer? Considering that you could play two rounds on the St Andrews Old Course and stay one night in a local B&B for the same price... the choice is yours.