1-irons hard to hit, even harder to find

Lee Trevino tried to put into perspective the difficulty of hitting a 1-iron with any degree of success.

Published May 3, 2007

Lee Trevino tried to put into perspective the difficulty of hitting a 1-iron with any degree of success. "If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron, " the Hall of Famer said. "Not even God can hit a 1-iron." Today, he would have trouble even finding one. The 1-iron, used to hit some of the most famous shots in history, has all but gone the way of the gutta-percha ball and wooden shafts. It is not extinct, but it is dying a slow death. "I don't think there is one in the building, " said Steve McGee, the general manager of the Edwin Watts Golf Store in Palm Harbor when asked if he carried any of the clubs. And why would he? "It was too difficult to hit to begin with, " McGee said. "Most manufacturers don't even make a 1-iron anymore. If you wanted one, I'm not sure who would make it for you."

The 1-iron came into being around 1920 when clubs started to be numbered. (Clubs used to have names such as brassie, spoon, cleek, mashie, niblick.) At the time, there was also something called a driving iron, and the 1-iron was likely designed to replace it, although most manufacturers continued offering both.

Before the advent of lofted fairway woods and today's hybrid clubs, the 1-iron served a useful purpose, especially for skilled players. They could use it as a driving club when accuracy was important, but they could also use it for long fairway shots on par 5s or even into long par 4s.

Famous shots

If you've ever seen the photograph of Ben Hogan posing over his approach to the 18th green at Merion during the 1950 U.S. Open, the club he used was a 1-iron. Hogan won that tournament - his first Open after a horrific car accident in 1949 - in a playoff.

Jack Nicklaus hit several crucial shots in his career with a 1-iron.

At the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol in New Jersey, he needed birdie on the final hole to tie the scoring record held by Hogan, but had 238 yards for his third shot. He hit the 1-iron uphill and into the wind to 20 feet and made the birdie putt.

In the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus hit a 1-iron into the wind at the par-3 17th, with the ball hitting the flagstick and stopping 6 inches away for birdie to clinch his third Open.

There was also an important 1-iron shot he hit to the 15th hole during the 1975 Masters.

"I would say that probably the best shots that I've played in golf, and the ones I remember the most, have been 1-iron shots, " said Nicklaus, who is not surprised to see them vanish. "A lot of people had trouble getting the 1-iron in the air. It's basically a technique of power and speed to be able to hit the ball up in the air. ... Part of the game of golf is being able to hit high shots, low shots. And if you've got golf clubs that do it for you, you don't have to do it."

Fairway woods, hybrids

Nicklaus was referring to the proliferation of lofted fairway woods and hybrid clubs. Today, few players even carry a 2-iron, let alone a 1-iron. Tiger Woods wore out his 2-iron at last year's British Open, then replaced it at the PGA Championship with a 5-wood. He has yet to put a hybrid in his bag.

Joey Sindelar was one of the last holdouts on the PGA Tour. A 24-year tour veteran, Sindelar, 49, had a 1-iron in his bag when he won the Wachovia Championship three years ago.

He made news when he took it out of his bag two years ago for the first time in 15 years - although it occasionally finds its way back depending on the course.

"I'm a very stodgy, slow-to-move, dumber-than-a-rock kind of guy, " he said. "I'm very slow to change clubs. But this had to happen."

Sindelar's 1-iron is a Tommy Armour 845, which was considered high-tech when he got it in the early 1990s. He used it primarily off the tee, including on the 18th tee at the Wachovia during the final round in regulation and in a playoff he won.

What eventually changed his mind was watching so many players easily get lofted fairway woods or hybrids into the air and to drop softly on the greens. Being paired in a tournament with Jonathan Byrd finally got him to see the light.

"He's on these tight, wet fairways hitting 9-wood or 7-wood, these magnificent 230-, 250-yard shots, high and soft, " Sindelar said. "I'm standing there watching and I've got a similar shot and I know I can't do that."

Amateurs get the hint

If pros have had trouble hitting a 1-iron, what must that mean for an amateur? Those who carried them either did so because they were a low single-digit handicap or perhaps thought they were better than they were.

Today, many players don't even have a 2-iron or 3-iron. Most iron sets now run 4-iron through pitching wedge and some start high, as players replace the long irons with hybrids or fairway woods.

"The bottom line, " said Keith Sbarbaro, Taylormade's vice president of tour operations, "is that they are very hard to hit and have no chance of stopping on the green. Players that do carry them on occasion use it simply for off the tee. And as balls have been designed to spin less, it has made long irons more difficult to hit high and get enough spin to stay in the air."