We recently caught up with the designer to talk about wedges, bounce, the upcoming U.S. Open and his role in Phil Mickelson's first major title.
1. The U.S. Open is nearly upon us. With such a premium on the short game, is that typically the busiest week of the year for you?
Im busy all of the time. Players are continually changing, not just for the U.S. Open, but theyll change for various courses throughout the year. Theyre always experimenting and wanting to try different bounces, maybe different lofts. With the U.S. Open, they want to spruce up their wedges, especially the older, more experienced guys. I remember working with Tiger (Woods), Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els), they always like to have a new set of wedges they can break in before the Open.
2. The sand at Bethpage Black (site of this year's U.S. Open) is some of the fluffiest anywhere, and will create a lot of plugged balls. Will the players maybe carry an extra wedge or one better suited to these conditions?
No one has come to me and asked me to change them (wedges) out for the sand. Usually, if the sand is a little softer they have to change their technique a wee bit. Instead of hitting a 60-degree wedge they may try something with a little more bounce, like a 56-degree. A lot of players, I send them a combination of wedges before a big tournament. For very firm conditions, like those at the British Open, it's usually something with a little less bounce. For the U.S. Open, they tend to grow the rough really high, so the players might want more bounce.
3. Outside of the putter, is the wedge the most important club at the U.S. Open?
I would say the driver is right up there, too. Youd better drive it straight. But the wedge, definitely. The whole game ' and maybe Im being prejudice ' seems to be played from 135 yards and in. It's a very important scoring club. If you start missing fairways, youre going to be laying up. Next thing you know you're hitting those touchy-feely shots into the green. That takes a lot of talent. Usually the guy who's good with these shots and around the rough is the winner.
4. What is bounce, and why is it such an important feature on the wedge?
One of the easiest ways to explain it is to take your wedge and turn it upside down so its right in front of your eyes, about an arms length away. When you look at it, youll see that the trailing edge is higher than the leading edge. (The angle between the two is the bounce angle.) The bounce almost acts like a rudder on a ship. It allows the club to skid and prevents it from digging. In soft sand, youll need a sole thats a little wider with a little more bounce; in very very firm conditions, you'll need a little less bounce so that angle will decrease.
5. Is there another design feature on wedges that people should be aware of?
The width of the sole, or flange. The wider the sole, the more effective bounce you create. In other words, its going to displace more sand and turf, and offer more resistance to digging. The only negative is if it gets a little too wide, and you have very firm conditions, when you hit those touchy-feely shots you might rotate the blade open a little bit so the leading edge comes up. Then you wind up blading it.
6. How does it help with hitting balls out of the rough?
It allows for a little more weight down there and more momentum, so the clubhead can slide through the grass without being grabbed by the hosel.
7. How important is one's swing shape in determining the amount of bounce you need?
It's very important. You have what I call diggers and sliders. A digger is a person who takes the club almost straight up, and drops it straight down, maybe an inch or two behind the ball in the bunker. He doesnt have that nice syrupy swing that allows the wedge to do what its designed to do. Thats the type of person who needs a little more bounce. The slider tends to be a low handicapper or Tour player. He likes to rotate through the ball and takes a shallower divot, maybe spins it a little more. He needs to play with a club that has a little less bounce.
8. Most weekend golfers carry only two wedges. Is that enough?
When I grew up, pitching wedges were in the 52- to 53-degree range. Whats happened over the years is that pitching wedges have gotten so strong, that all of a sudden theyre down in that 46- to 48-degree range. As a result, theres always been a gap in there between the new pitching wedge and the 56-degree sand wedge.
9. If you were to carry three, what combination of lofts would you suggest?
Always take a look at what the loft is on your pitching wedge and start from there. I always like to go up in increments of four to six degrees. So, if youre pitching wedge has 48 degrees, Id like to see a 52-degree gap wedge, a 56-degree sand wedge and, if youre fortunate enough and have the ability, a 60-degree wedge. Thats not a bad combination.
10. Should the average weekend golfer carry a 60-degree wedge?
I hate to say it, but I dont believe so. Nothing good happens to the weekend golfer when you put a 60 in his hand. The next thing you know he starts opening the blade, adding more loft and more bounce than he wants. He doesnt have that slow, syrupy, rhythmic swing to execute the shot. The other variable with the 60 is Ill hear guys say to me, Oh, sometimes I hit my 60 degree 45 yards, another time 55 yards, another time 65.' The reason is theyre not hitting it on the sweet spot. Theyre hitting it on variable face locations; as a result, the ball is going different distances. Thats another negative.
11. Early on, you worked a lot with metal woods. Why the interest in wedges?
Ive always been a great listener and I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with Lee Trevino back in the 1980s. He was one of the best wedge players Ive had the pleasure to work with. I learned a lot from him, and just kept it in the back of mind. When I joined Titleist, I was asked to work on a metal wood, the 975D driver. Eventually from there, I was asked if Id like to do some wedges and I said Id love to. [Chairman and CEO of the Acushnet Company] Wally Uihlein gave me the opportunity to fulfill a dream. I was fascinated with wedges my whole life but I never had the resources or the focus I wanted until I came to Titleist. They said, 'Voke, we want you to do some wedges.' I said OK, so I took a lot of my ideas that I had in the past.
12. What is the first thing that a Tour player looks for in their wedges?
Wedges are funny. Theyve always been a tough club for me to design because youre seeing more of the clubface. It lays back like a pancake, so as youre looking down at it the toe is very important, the leading edge is very important, the hosel area is important. You see more of it, whereas with a set of irons youre not seeing as much of the face. The wedge is also the only club where you have those touchy-feely shots around the green. You like to lay them open and, as a result, it may look good in a square position but as soon as you set it open the leading edge may not look right. You have to design a wedge with the profile in my mind, not only from a square position but also from a playing position.
13. How about the weekend golfer? Do they prefer a certain look or feel?
I like to have the swing weights a little heavier than in a set of irons, the main reason being the sand wedge, when you pick it up, you want to be able to feel that resistance. A little heavier clubhead weight and swing weight gives you that feeling of a resistance so you can put that slow, syrupy swing on it. But you dont want to make it too heavy so you lose clubhead speed with it. Its got to be a combination of a lot of things.
14. Feedback from Tour players is essential to your work. Does the average golfer factor into your designs as well?
Ill talk to a lot of people at my golf course and I field a lot of phone calls from sales reps who will say they have an individual they want me to call, so Ill call and talk to him. Ill get feedback on what theyre doing. I've always said I've got the best R&D department in the world ' the PGA Tour ' so I take what they want but I always keep the average weekend golfer in the back of my mind. I try to make it playable for not only a Tour player, but user friendly for a weekend golfer.
15. Can you explain what spin milled is?
Years ago when wed test a groove, sometimes the faces would not be perfectly flat because of the cooling process. Its just a natural process or procedure which happens in the foundries. They came along with a computerized mill that mills the face perfectly flat. Then the groove is cut in it. Every one of those grooves is cut individually into the club. Its one of the last things that happens to the club. After the face is perfect, then we cut the grooves in perfectly. They're exactly the same.
16. How do you create spin with the design of the wedge?
It's a combination of the spin-milled grooves, the face being perfectly flat, and the technique of the player. If you've got the clubhead speed of a Tiger or a Phil, you can do wonders with the ball.
17. Do you think that today's generation of golfers is too hung up on creating spin?
I definitely believe so. Id be more worried about trajectory. What happens is a lot of the younger golfers, they never learn trajectory and how to hit a variety of shots. If you were able to control trajectory, then you wouldnt have to worry about spin.
18. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson have all won majors playing your wedges. Is this the greatest statement about your work?
When Phil won the Masters for the first time in 2004, he showed up Monday morning here with a Masters flag and he says, 'Thanks for helping me win this, Bob.' Thats a good feeling. But I get the same feeling when Im walking through the crowd from the chipping area to the driving range and I hear, 'Mr. Vokey, Mr. Vokey, I got your clubs and they've improved my game so much.' Thats what turns me on, when the average consumer comes to me and says youve really helped my game.