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Game improvement irons are a constant in the golf industry, promising ego-boosting distance mixed with forgiveness across the face. While blades are sexy, game improvement irons are the foundation of nearly every manufacturer’s lineup. Good, bad or ugly, they offer something for almost everyone.
We are here to help you navigate the “Wild, Wild, West” that is the game improvement market. The category is loaded with distance, forgiveness and, believe it or not, looks. This stagecoach has 18 different models on board so hop on, strap in and get ready for this wild ride.
If you are in the market for game improvement irons, the 2020 Most Wanted Game Improvement Iron test is for you.
Most Wanted: Titleist T300 and Mizuno JPX 921 Hot Metal
Below is the Best Player’s Distance Iron 2020 broken down by performance grades for each iron length. The percentages displayed for each iron represent the frequency at which each was among the best performing irons for each tester across the test pool. For more information about how we arrive at these results, see our How We Test page.
Expert Consultant – Lou Stagner
Lou serves as the Director, Analytics at a multi-billion dollar privately held company. He has over 20 years of experience in analytics, data architecture, and machine learning across a variety of industries, including finance, manufacturing, and energy. Lou recently partnered with Scott Fawcett, creator of the DECADE system, where together, they use stats & analytics to help improve the games of professional and amateur golfers.
Iron-Buying Considerations for Game Improvement Irons
Performance should be your primary concern when buying new irons but there are additional considerations to think about before you make your purchase.
Picture two scenarios: a shot into a long par-3 or a short to medium approach shot to a tucked pin that requires a soft landing. The proper set make-up can boost your confidence and performance with each of those scenarios and additional ones, too. Game improvement irons provide greater consistency across the face for better distance, more control and higher launch, which can lead to boosted confidence.
The number of shaft options for irons is growing. It can be challenging to navigate the different models, weights and flexes to find the shaft that is right for you. The answer to the best-performing shaft question stretches well beyond graphite versus steel.
We recommend a professional fitting. If you don’t have the resources, ask your local golf shop if they have a Mizuno Shaft Optimizer. This advanced technology utilizes gyroscopes and strain gauges to measure club speed, tempo and how much the shaft is flexing at impact. It will then recommend a list of shafts based on the data collected. Additionally, it records lie angle. All in all, a multi-purpose fitting device.
Shafts in the game improvement category tend to be lighter so while we always recommend a proper fitting for everyone in the market for new irons, choosing the right shaft is especially important for faster, more aggressive swingers.
DISTANCE VERSUS FORGIVENESS
If you think “distance versus forgiveness” is an easier topic to maneuver in this category than the 2020 Most Wanted Players Distance Iron, think again. We all know game improvement irons equal eye-catching distance. More so, these irons are known for their forgiveness. Finding and discovering the proper balance between the two qualities is a daunting task. However, this test reveals leaders for both qualities. If you are looking for pure distance, Callaway Mavrik, Wilson Staff D7 and TaylorMade Sim Max OS are the leaders. If you are searching for forgiveness, the kings of the category are the Honma T//World XP-1 and the PING G410.
Over the years, iron prices have steadily risen. However, the 2020 Most Wanted Game Improvement Iron test reveals some hope. The majority of the irons run between $800 and $1,000. The PXG 0311 XP GEN3 carries a hefty price tag: $299 per club. But the PXG 0211 is only $89 a club. If you’re looking to spend even less, the Tommy Armour 845 can be had for $449.99 for a seven-piece set.
Best Distance – Callaway Mavrik
Built utilizing AI Technology, the Callaway Mavrik led the field in distance. While our metrics focus on long and mid-iron distance, Mavrik’s short irons were also longer than most. If more distance is at the top of your wish list, your search should begin with the Callaway Mavrik.
Field Notes – Game Improvement Irons
During each test, we look for insight into where the market as a whole is moving. Furthermore, we analyze noteworthy changes manufacturers have made to improve year-over-year performance. Throughout testing, we solicit feedback from our testing pool. Although the testers’ subjective feedback is enlightening, it has zero impact on the overall rankings.
TRENDS AND TWEAKS
- In all honesty, you want the power, you want the speed and you want the distance. The manufacturers brought the heat with thinner faces to increase ball speed. Mizuno JPX 921 Hot Metal, PXG 0311 XP Gen3, PXG 0211 and TaylorMade Sim Max OS, each feature technology that allows for a thinner face for more distance. Mizuno has Chromoly. PXG has an impressive DuelCOR system to support its HT1770 steel face. Finally, TaylorMade’s SIM leverages Progressive Inverted Cone Technology to produce a an eight-percent thinner face than its TaylorMade M6. By some measure or another, nearly everyone is promising benefits from their take on thin faces.
- Technology is constantly changing. Over the past couple of years, Callaway has pushed the envelope with AI-powered designs. The Callaway Mavrik irons are a prime example. Utilizing artificial intelligence, Callaway creates their Flash Face Cup Technology which boasts unique performance from each individual iron.
- Once again, we are seeing manufacturers set a trend with hollow-body design in their game improvement irons. Manufacturers such as Tour Edge Exotics EXS 220, Honma T//World XP-1 and Cleveland Launcher UHX, all implement hollow-body design aspects, especially in their longer irons. On the other hand, Cobra KING Speedzone and PING G410 leverage cavity badges to enhance feel and sound.
- Once upon a time, game improvement irons had respectable lofts. Nowadays, that is questionable, to say the least. Strengthened or jacked lofts continue to be a theme in the category. We measured the lofts in house and, for example, found pitching wedges with lofts as low as 41 degrees. Strong lofts can be great for distance but when pushed too far, performance can be put at risk.
Best Forgiveness – Honma T//World XP-1
There is always an under the radar performer. In this year’s test, Honma T//World XP-1 was a bit of surprise as the most forgiving iron in the test. If you are looking to narrow the gap between your best shots and your worst, the Honma T//World XP-1 should be on your list.
NOTES FROM THE TESTING POOL
We compiled the subjective feedback from our pool of 20 testers. While their insights are often thought-provoking, they don’t factor into our overall rankings.
- A tester favorite by far, the Srixon Z585 was lauded for its outstanding feel and eye-catching design. The Honma T//World XP-1 was popular with the testers for similar reasons.
- Testers were extremely pleased when long irons were easy to hit. Noticeable headliners were the Cleveland Launcher UHX, Cobra KING Speedzone, Cobra KING Speedzone ONE,and Wilson Staff D7. With its shorter length, Cobra’s ONE Length 5-iron had tremendous appeal to testers.
- Throughout the test, golfers were pleasantly surprised by the XXIO X Series. Multiple testers said it was the best XXIO iron they ever hit. According to one, “This iron will be a dark horse in this year’s test. This is an incredibly appealing club.”
- When a phrase keeps getting repeated, you know there is substance. The Titleist T300 and the Mizuno JPX 921 Hot Metal were the two clubs first mentioned by a majority of testers in terms of checking all the boxes. Their feel, looks and performance were cited as positives.
- Often, clubs receive mixed reviews. This year, it was the Epon AF-505. Some testers said they were some of the best-feeling, best-looking clubs in the test but there were others who disliked the feel and design, ranking them near the bottom.
- In the golf world, direct-to-consumer products are the underdogs. New Level MODB-1 was not the club rolling off testers’ lips but it had its share of positive feedback, specifically for excellent feel. The shape of the toe was often cited as a negative.
2020 Most Wanted Game Improvement Irons Data
EXPERT TIP – SHAFT MATERIAL
For many golfers, a heavier (and often stiffer relative to flex) steel shaft will produce lower launch and spin with greater consistency delivering the club. While that’s great for some, it isn’t what every golfer needs.
Graphite shafts are often lighter, though modern designs offer improved stability, making them more viable than ever for higher swing speed players. The lighter weight, which often brings with it more speed, generally produces higher launch and more spin, which can benefit slower swing speed players.
As always, it’s essential to get properly fitted to ensure the most consistent and accurate results.
- Distance sells but make sure you’re not trading high shots that land soft and hold greens for a few extra yards you may not need.
- It’s not unusual to struggle with long irons. Instead of suffering unnecessarily, consider replacing your difficult-to-hit long irons with hybrids.
- If you struggle to hit your scoring clubs high enough, consider switching to ONE Length. The longer short irons often produce higher trajectories and more stopping power.
HOW WE TEST
Our mission is to help you find the best Game Improvement Iron for your game.
We are 100% independent and unbiased, and always put the #ConsumerFirst
ABOUT OUR TESTERS
Our pool of testers consists of 20 golfers with handicaps ranging from plus to the mid-teens. As a group, they span a broad range of swing characteristics.
Over the course of several sessions, each golfer is required to hit PW, 7 Iron, and 5 Iron. Iron groupings and order are randomized on a per tester basis.
LIMITING VARIABLES AND GATHERING RELIABLE DATA
To minimize variables, all testers hit Bridgestone Tour B-X Golf Balls inside our dedicated Lab X testing facility located in Yorktown, Va.
While it doesn’t affect the final results, subjective feedback on looks, feel and alignment is taken from each tester on every putter in the test.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
To determine the Most Wanted Game Improvement Iron, we calculate the strokes gained value for each iron relative to the average strokes for each tester. Those values are aggregated and totaled with the Most Wanted iron being the one that produced the highest average strokes gained value across the test pool.
Q: How often should I buy new irons?
A: While on rare occasions there are quantifiable year-over-year breakthroughs, typically it takes three to five years for manufacturers to make significant performance gains. With the USGA further tightening restrictions on manufacturers, it’s possible, even likely, that it will take longer still moving forward. Our recommendation is to buy new irons only when they appreciably outperform what is already in your bag. Of course, if you want new irons because you want new irons, be our guest.
Q: How do I determine the right category of irons for me?
A: The four main categories of irons – player’s, player’s distance, game improvement and super game improvement – can easily be differentiated by your skill level as well as what you need in your game. First, be realistic about your skill level. If your handicap is above 10 and ball-striking is not a legitimate strength, consider game improvement or super game improvement. For more skilled players who hit the ball more consistently, a set of player’s irons or player’s distance irons may benefit your game the most.
Q: Does the shaft matter?
A: Absolutely. While changes to launch and spin differences are rarely massive, shaft changes frequently lead to improved accuracy, tighter dispersion, and greater overall consistency.
Q: What should I look for when testing irons?
A: While golfers have been conditioned to consider distance to the exclusion of nearly everything else, we recommend looking at the little numbers and looking for small circles. When comparing metrics like distance and ball speed, be sure to look at your standard deviations (the small numbers usually found under the big ones on the data screen). Smaller numbers mean better consistency which will usually mean more than an extra yard or two on the golf course. Similarly, look for tighter dispersion ellipses (small circles). We can’t overstate the importance of consistency with irons.
Q: How are the irons in the test fitted to each golfer?
A: We use a fitting process that we call fit from stock. Irons are fitted to each tester using the stock, no up-charge options from each manufacturer. We test one short iron, one mid-iron and one long iron from each set. While there are no irons in our testing that feature adjustability, we fit to flex for each tester in the pool. Occasionally, manufacturers will send multiple sets with different stock shafts that we can utilize to improve launch conditions.
Q: How do you determine in which category to test a given set of irons?
A: To ensure that we’re testing irons as alike as designers allow for, in addition to the design of the head itself (profile, sole width, etc.), we sort by length and loft. Our goal is to keep differences as minimal as possible within any test cohort. When an iron reasonably fits in more than one category, we defer to the manufacturer’s category choice.
Q: How is the Most Wanted- Best Game Improvement Iron 2020 determined?
A: To determine our rankings, we collect key performance metrics with Foresight GCQuad Launch Monitors. After eliminating outliers, we use a utilize a proprietary methodology to calculate Strokes Gained values for each combination of tester and golf club. The iron that produces the highest Strokes Gained values relative to the field average is our Most Wanted.
Q: How is the “longest” iron determined?
A: The process to determine the longest game improvement iron is similar to how we arrive at our overall rankings. For distance, our critical metric is Total Yards. We identify the iron that produced the most total yards with the long and middle irons relative to the field average.
Q: How is the “most forgiving” iron determined?
A: We’ve taken a practical approach to forgiveness. The club for which Strokes Gained values for the best shots are closest to the Strokes Gained value for the worst shots (relative to the field average) is the Most Forgiving.
Q: You discuss subjective feedback for things like looks, sound and feel. How much do those ratings factor into your rankings?
A: ZERO. Our rankings are based purely on launch monitor data and quantifiable performance metrics.