BY SHAUN TOLSON
For more than two decades, Jose Miraflor has built a career centered on golf club design and engineering. Following a stint as a custom club technician at Titleist, Miraflor transitioned to a senior manager’s role at TaylorMade, where he specialized in product creation for seven years before accepting a research and design position at Cobra Puma Golf.
Away from the office, Miraflor has leveraged that expertise to provide his son with the most pertinent golf clubs for each stage of his son’s progression in the sport, beginning as a youngster who first tagged along with his dad at the range to a now 16-year-old who boasts a low, single-digit handicap.
Miraflor, who serves as vice president of marketing at Cobra Golf, is like any parent trying to navigate the world of junior golf equipment. He just wants what is best for his son — and other juniors like him.
Miraflor and executives at other major equipment brands recently spoke with TEI contributor Shaun Tolson about the most important factors that parents should keep in mind as they’re researching and subsequently buying golf equipment for their kids.
Don’t Cut Down Your Old Clubs
Decades ago, before junior golf equipment existed, kids who wanted to play the game were stuck using their parents’ old clubs — cut-down and re-gripped versions of drivers, fairway woods, and irons that were too heavy, with shafts that didn’t accommodate a child’s swing.
Miraflor acknowledges that some of the game’s greatest players (and hardest swingers) — like Palmer and Nicklaus — grew up playing golf this way. Today, however, equipment exists that’s designed specifically for kids, which allows them to hit better shots with greater consistency.
So while you may have that old set of irons gathering dust in the closet, basement, or garage, don’t mistakenly think that cutting them down to the right height for your child will be all that he or she needs to find success out on the course.
“It doesn’t reward a kid for making a good move at the golf ball,” said Miraflor of an adult’s cut-down club, “because the shaft is probably too stiff.”
“The lighter the club, the faster you’re going to be able to swing it,” adds Josh Kinchen, the senior director of product development at U.S. Kids Golf, who acknowledges what we’ve all learned over the years — that faster swings produce greater distance. “Beginning junior players have slower swings, and if you put them in clubs that are too heavy, it’s going to slow down their swing speed [even more] and create a lower launch angle with less spin. It’s going to create a shot that doesn’t look like a typical golf shot that they’re trying to emulate.”
Appropriate Length Is Paramount
Everyone is chasing distance, which is why Kinchen often sees junior golfers trying to play with drivers that are too long for them. As he explains, when a driver is the correct length for a golfer the butt end of the grip should come up to a player’s sternum (just below the chest cavity) when the club stands next to the player. Too often Kinchen has seen kids trying to play with drivers that are as much as 10 inches too long for them. That requires them to learn to play golf with two drastically different swings. According to Kinchen, a number of other negative reactions also occur.
“Their hand speed slows down,” he said. “The club head is moving faster, but their hands are moving slower because the club is heavier and longer and they’re having to get into awkward positions to hit the ball with the face of the club. Their smash factor goes down drastically and their dispersion increases because they don’t hit the ball as pure with the center of the clubface.”
Club length is crucial, and not just for drivers, which is why U.S. Kids Golf builds 11 sets of clubs tailored to a child’s height — in three-inch segments, starting at 36 inches.
“Our philosophy is to always have kids grow out of clubs as opposed to growing into clubs,” Kinchen said. “And kids grow, on average, about two to three inches a year.”
If the set of clubs you buy for your child aren’t designated by height, but instead are categorized by age — as some other manufacturers market them — a good rule of thumb for a driver fitting is to determine 66 percent of your child’s total height. That represents the ideal length of their driver.
Proper Club Fittings Are Key
Speaking of proper fits, it never hurts to schedule a club fitting aided by a launch monitor, since certain metrics can guide you — and a professional clubfitter — toward the right set of sticks for your child. As Kinchen acknowledges, the combination of ball speed, launch angle, and spin rates not only determines which junior clubs will perform best for your child, it will also tell you when your child may be ready to graduate into something more serious.
“All of our R&D is backed by TrackMan data,” Kinchen said. “Through this process, generally speaking, we found that the slower the swing speed, the greater the need for a higher launch angle and a higher spin rate. Slower-swing-speed players aren’t generating a lot of spin and a lot of launch, and that’s what’s going to create maximum carry and maximum distance.”
Less Is More, Especially For Beginners
Young kids who are just starting out in the game always want to hit shots like the more accomplished older players around them, but that doesn’t mean that their golf bags needs to be equipped the same way. In fact, a small set with just a few clubs in each category is the ideal starting point.
“A smaller set configuration helps them get accustomed to the different clubs required to play the game,” said Pete Samuels, Ping’s director of communications. “As they improve, they can add clubs to the set to help round out their ability.”
“Sometimes parents think, ‘My son or daughter needs a pitching wedge and a sand wedge and a 9-iron and a 7-iron,’” said Tomo Bystedt, the senior director of product creation at TaylorMade, “but [the children] are really going to hit them all similarly at that age.”
Jason Finley, the global director of brand and product management at Callaway, concurs and suggests a more streamlined focus on the game’s objective is what’s needed at that young age. “If you think about other sports — in pee-wee basketball, for example — they’re not calling double dribbles and travels,” he says. “They’re just trying to get the kids to put the ball in the basket.”
As Finley sees it, the message to beginner golfers should be, “let’s make contact, keep the ball moving down the fairway, and get the ball in the hole.” A young child’s golf bag filled with too many clubs can complicate that objective.
Too many clubs can also be confusing for a young child. TaylorMade’s 8-piece Rory set of junior clubs, for example, only includes a driver, a fairway wood, a hybrid, a 7-iron, a sand wedge and a putter. The limited number makes it easier for the child to know which club to hit in most circumstances. “Kids at that age, they like to have a feeling of some autonomy of being in charge of what they’re doing,” Bystedt said. “If they can make some decisions out there on their own, that adds to the fun.”
Appearance Is Only So Important
When purchasing junior golf equipment — especially for younger children — a temptation might arise to buy clubs that are bright and flashy, so as to spark or retain a child’s interest. But that can be self-defeating if the club’s design doesn’t first and foremost emphasize performance.
“Designing a club that visually appeals to young golfers is important as it can catch their eye and create a ‘cool’ factor,” Samuels said. “But it ultimately comes down to ensuring the club has the performance to help the player hit rewarding shots that make them want to keep playing the game.
“We really focus on designing clubs to help them enjoy the game which comes down to hitting good shots and showing improvement. We believe it is vitally important the young golfer has a positive first experience with the game. For example, helping the golfer to get the ball in the air easily. That is a wonderful feeling.”
Shaun Tolson is a New England-based writer and journalist who has written about golf for a number of lifestyle publications, including Robb Report, Luxury, Elite Traveler and Private Clubs.
This article was originally written for Morning Read