Irons buyers' guide

Thomas Tanner
Jan 14, 2008
20 minutes
On this page

A set of irons is probably the most expensive single piece of golf kit you’ll buy – so best to get it right! Hundreds of different models, but which set of golf irons will be best for you? To help you narrow down the options, we’ve put together our guide to buying Irons.

  1. Overview of Irons
  2. Which Model?
  3. Iron Manufacture
  4. Steel or Graphite shafts
  5. Shaft Flex
  6. Loft and Lie

Overview of Irons

A set of irons will comprise the bulk of the 14 different golf clubs you’re allowed to carry in your bag. A typical bag might comprise: A driver (sometimes called a 1 wood), a fairway wood, a putter, and maybe a utility wood or hybrid. The other ten will be irons – some of which will be wedges – a sand wedge, pitching wedge, or maybe a lob wedge. You can read our guide to all the different golf clubs and what they do here.

A standard set of irons would be 3 to Pitching Wedge (PW) or 3 to Sand Wedge (SW). You do sometimes still see 1 and 2 irons, but they are generally used by better players so let’s try and keep it simple.

The ‘face’ of the 3 iron has the lowest loft (around 20 degrees to the vertical) - and hits the ball low and long – in the region of 200 yards in the hands of a good player. At the other end of the scale you’ll have a pitching wedge (around 50 degrees loft) or sand wedge (56 degrees) which hit the ball high, but not as far – around 100 yards.

The irons in between – 4 iron, 5, 6, 7 etc fill in the yardage gaps – as a rule of thumb there’ll be around 12-15 yards difference between each club.

So, the lower the number, the lower the loft – and the lower and further the ball will travel if struck correctly. But also, the lower the loft, the harder it is to control (the lower the loft, the more spin imparted on the ball – so if you already slice or hook the ball, you’ll slice or hook more with a 3 iron than, say a 7 iron).

Increasingly, players are replacing the harder-to-hit 3 and 4 irons with hybrid/utility clubs. As a result, you’ll sometimes see sets being sold without the 3 or 4 iron (eg 4-SW or 5-SW) – this is particularly common for ladies’ sets – and in continental Europe where most sets are now sold only from the 4 or 5 iron up.

Which Model?

20 or so years ago, almost all sets of irons sold were ‘blades’ and they all looked broadly similar. Thin, blade-like in looks, they were great for the Jack Nicklaus’s of the world – offering lots of feedback once a shot was struck - but not very forgiving for high handicappers. We had to make do with them anyway since there was nothing else on the market. They were the equivalent of using a small wooden tennis racket to play tennis with nowadays.


Then someone had a bright idea. What if we place more weight around the perimeter of the head? That way, if you mistakenly hit the ball from the toe of the heel rather than right out of the middle of the face, the momentum of this extra weight will prevent the clubhead from twisting as much at impact. Would that make life easier?

Well, it certainly did – and the advent of ‘casting’ (see image to the right) made manufacture possible. Nowadays virtually all sets of irons sold are ‘Perimeter-weighted’ (sometimes called 'Cavity Backed').

Ping’s G10 iron being just one example. Note there is a lot of weight at the bottom of the club – helping to get the ball airborne easily.

It used to be the case that lower handicappers and pros played blades and would never lower themselves to playing with the new-fangled perimeter-weighted clubs. That is rarely the case nowadays and even the best players in the world (Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomery etc) all use perimeter-weighted clubs for the simple reason that they are easier to hit. One or two – notably Tiger Woods – still use only pure blade clubs – but they are the exception.

Offset and Draw Weighted irons

As with fairway woods, Offset and draw-weighted versions of irons are widely available.

The majority of golfers slice the ball (for right-handed golfers that means the ball veers to the right when you don’t want it to). This occurs because the clubface is more ‘open’ (pointing to the right in simple terms) than it should be when the ball is struck – often because the player’s hands are ‘behind the ball’ at impact. Offset and draw-weighted irons are designed to keep your hands ahead of the ball – and the clubface square to the intended direction at impact. Almost all set of irons are ‘offset’ to some degree.

Iron Manufacture

The heads of golf clubs are made in one of two processes - casting or forging.

Cast Irons

The vast majority – probably 90% - of golf clubs sold are made by casting – which involves pouring molten metal into a mould to produce a golf club head. The nature of casting allows manufacturers to be more creative in their designs – the process particularly lending itself to the creation of cavity back clubs and the ability to push weight to the outside of the head which helps prevent it twisting on off-centre hits.

You will hear manufacturers shouting about their use of cast 17-4 stainless steel. No, we didn’t know what it meant either until we looked it up. It means that 17% of the make-up is chromium – and 4% nickel. And that, apparently, is very good news. 17-4 stainless steel is strong, durable, very hard, and doesn’t corrode easily.

You’ll also hear about 431 Stainless steel which is 25% softer than 17-4 – and would claim to give slightly better ‘feel’ . It’s worth noting, however, that the harder the face, the faster the ball comes off it. So everything is a compromise.

Examples of irons with cast heads? Well, where do you start? It’s most clubs that are made. A classic example might be an easy-hitting oversize iron like the TaylorMade rac OS – the weight in the bottom of the club which helps get the ball airborne quickly.

Equally, cast clubs are made which are aimed at low handicappers. The Ping S58 shown, for example, are used by many of Ping’s Tour Players – including one of Golfbidder’s all time favourite players, Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Forged Irons

Forging involves taking a piece of soft steel and stamping or beating it into shape. Because the steel used in forging is so much softer (due to the higher carbon content), some players claim that forged clubs offer better ‘feel’. The process of forging is more labour-intensive which is why they generally cost more.

When players talk about ‘feel’ in irons, they tend to be talking about knowing when a ball has been hit off-centre. Golfers want to hit the ball out of the middle of the clubface to achieve the maximum distance and desired trajectory. But some of the bigger-headed irons are so forgiving that they hit the ball pretty straight even when hit off the toe or the heel.

That is great for most of us – if it goes straight, we won’t ask questions! – but some better players want to know immediately if they have hit the ball off the toe or the heel in order that they can attempt to make adjustments and not make the same ‘error’ next time. ‘Feel’ , however, is much more likely to be a function of the head design than the material and while 20 years ago, all the top tour players used forged bladed clubs, that is not the case anymore - and many of the world’s best players now use cast clubs.

Because of the history, there has been a tendency to assume that forged clubs are more difficult to hit. If they are, it will be because of the shape of the head – not because it is cast or forged.

A classic example of a forged club would be a bladed club such as the gorgeous looking Mizuno MP-33 irons.

The past few years has also seen the emergence of forged cavity back clubs which aim to combine the best of both the cast and forged worlds. Also above (right) is Callaway’s take on the concept – the X Forged irons – as used by Phil Mickelson among others.

Titanium Irons

Cast titanium – the same material used on the outside of the Space Shuttle – is sometimes used in golf irons heads. It is as strong as steel – but half the weight. Titanium allows club designers to build larger heads with larger sweetspots – but without the club being too heavy. (The same reason that virtually all drivers are now made of titanium rather than steel).

By combining ultra lightweight titanium faces with a very heavy metal (typically tungsten) around the outside, designers can produce iron heads which have a greater resistance to twisting on off-centre shots (because the ball is hitting the ‘heavy’ bit of the club on such shots, it doesn’t divert the path of the head as much).

Suffice to say that irons with titanium heads tend to be very light, very easy to hit, very forgiving – and very expensive.

They are aimed primarily at higher handicappers with deep pockets and represent only a tiny portion of the overall irons market. Examples of irons with titanium in the heads include Callaway’s Big Bertha Fusion Irons, TaylorMade’s Burner XD irons, and Ping’s Rapture irons.

Steel or Graphite Shafts?

The main difference between steel and graphite shafts is weight. In simple terms, graphite shafts are lighter. On paper, this should allow the club to be swung more quickly, and should therefore lead to longer shots.

Everyone should have graphite shafts then, correct?

Not so simple unfortunately - as there are some drawbacks with graphite. One, of course, is cost – a new set of irons with graphite shafts will typically cost at least £100 more than the same set with steel shafts.

The other issue is consistency: Steel is not only more durable than graphite, but is less complicated to manufacture. We’ve been using it for hundreds of years and we know how it behaves. What golfers want – especially good golfers – is complete consistency of flex and torque (lateral twisting) throughout a set of irons.

If you know you hit, say, a good 7 iron exactly 150 yards – you want to know it will go that distance every time you hit it well. The behaviour of graphite can sometimes be a little erratic – the ball may fly a little further or less – for no apparent reason. Not sufficiently more or less that most of us would necessarily notice it – we probably wouldn’t – but good golfers do and feel happier with the consistency steel offers.

‘Feel’ is another issue. Graphite soaks up vibration much better than steel – but this can come at the expense of feedback through the hands when a ball is struck. Graphite shafts tend to have a slightly ‘dead’ feel on impact – whereas with steel, the feedback is crisper, harsher and more immediate (this not so desirable if you’ve just ‘thinned’ a ball on a frosty winter morning).

This lack of feel, and a question mark over the consistency of flex and torque throughout the set explains why few male professional golfers or low handicappers use graphite shafts in their irons. And, indeed, the majority of irons sold, are sold with steel shafts.

Nonetheless, the consistency of manufacture of graphite shafts is getting better all the time; Many golfers actually prefer the softer feel that graphite gives at impact, the fact they are light and easy to swing (and also to carry of course) – and the slightly extra length they tend to generate. Graphite shafts are particularly favoured by senior golfers who don’t swing as fast as they used to, by lady golfers – and juniors.

It’s really a case of trying out a few sets of irons – and seeing which ones you prefer.

Shaft Flex

In simple terms, stiff flex shafts offer a little more accuracy for those with fast swing speeds (but less distance for those with slow speeds) And light flex shaft (that is, they are ‘whippier’ than normal) are good for those with slower swings speeds (again, seniors being an obvious example). Regular flex shafts are for the vast majority of us.

Loft and Lie

If you’re tall or short, and/or have an unusually shallow or steep swing, you may want to think about visiting your local club professional who can check whether the lie angle of your irons is appropriate.

At the point of impact, if the head of the iron is too flat (i.e. The toe points down) it can drag on the grass, acts for an instant as a pivot, and causes the plane of the face to tile towards the right – which is where the ball will go. If the lie is too upright, the heel of the club will dig in and cause pulled shots to the left.

As a rule, shorter golfers will generally benefit from slightly flatter lies; taller golfers may need them tweaked upright a little. Most manufacturers do offer irons in a variety of different lies – but generally only as a special order. So how do you tell whether the lie is correct on your clubs?

The technology for testing this is very simple. Your local pro should be able to help, and what they’ll do is put some masking or impact tape on the sole of the club – and gets you to hit some balls off a lie testing board (essentially a black strip of hard plastic). This leaves a mark or hole in the tape when you hit a ball off it.

If everything is hunky dory, the tape will be marked where the centre of the sole is and the clubs are fine. If it’s marking towards the toe, lie angle is too flat, and towards the heel, too upright. It’s worth noting that because an incorrect lie angle causes the plane (and therefore, loft) of the club to become tilted, getting the lie angle correct is much more important on short irons than long irons.

Once you’ve established whether or not the lie angles need tweaking, most clubs can be usually altered in a matter of minutes by your local pro for a modest fee, well worth paying.

Lofts Similarly, it is also worth having the lofts of your clubs checked, say, once a year. If you’re playing a lot of golf with forged clubs –which are made of softer metal – it might even be worth having them checked more regularly.

Club heads are just bits of metal – and hitting them regularly on the ground (as you do with every shot) will over time inevitably bend them out of whack to some extent. Even brand new clubs straight from the factory have a tolerance which might be plus or minus 2 degrees. So why is it important to check them?

With thanks to Ping Golf, here is the specification table for the Ping G5 irons . You’ll see that there is 3 to 4 degrees of loft (equating to roughly 10-15 yards distance) between each club. So, the loft on the 3 iron is 21 degrees, and on the 4 iron 24 degrees etc.

If, for example, on your own set your 7 iron loft was, let’s say, a couple of degrees weak (ie more lofted) and your eight iron a couple of degrees strong (ie less lofted) it could mean that both clubs have exactly the same loft – and you could be hitting both clubs the same distance!

This scenario is not as unusual as you might think – so, go on, get your lofts and lies checked, give your local club pro some well-deserved business, and do your golf game a favour at the same time.

Ping Colour Codes - The Mystery Unveiled

Ping is the pioneer of custom fitting and as such many golfers see them as the only manufacturer that offers this service. Here at Golfbidder we see a hundreds of Ping iron sets each month but unlike the other clubs we see most of the Ping irons are NOT standard - they have a ‘dot’ specifying their lie.

Ping has 12 different colour codes ranging from Maroon (extremely upright) to Gold (extremely flat). Please click here to be taken to the Ping Colour Code page - but below is a simplified version that shows you simply how the system works.

Colour Lie Angle
Maroon 4.5 degrees upright
Silver 3.75 degrees upright
White 2.25 degrees upright
Green 1.5 degrees upright
Blue 0.75 degrees upright
Black Standard
Red 0.75 degrees flat
Purple 1.5 degrees flat
Orange 2.25 degrees flat
Brown 3 degrees flat
Gold 3.75 degrees flat

The Importance of Colour Codes (Lie Angle)

Establishing the most effective Colour Code (lie angle) is very important. Having the wrong lie on your clubs can impact on direction, trajectory and shot shape. Clubs that are too upright may cause a golfer to draw or pull the ball. Clubs that are too flat may cause the golfer to fade or push the ball.

We hope that this has been helpful - but to make sure you get the full picture please read our article on Loft and Lie angles and also visit the Ping Colour Code page.

Please also note that as many of our Ping iron sets are custom fit to specific measurement that the respective length of the individual irons may have been changed too. So even if the dot is the colour you’re after, the length may not be - resulting in a set that is not suited to your build. If you have any queries about a specific set that you see on our website please don’t hesitate to contact our PGA Qualified customer service team on 0208 401 6901 - who will be more than happy to help you find the right clubs for you.

To Conclude

There’s no substitute for trying a few out and seeing what suits you best. All Golfbidder’s clubs comes with a No Risk Trial Period. Try one that seems to fit the bill, if it’s not an improvement on your current driver, simply send it back for a full refund – or try something else.

Further reading

Choosing your irons can be a daunting task. Blades, or cavity backs. Cast, or forged. Seems like a lot of choices to be made, and that’s before you take your needs and ability into account.

Whether you are looking for a new set of Ping clubs from the Golfbidder store, or you already own some PING clubs, then understanding the famous PING dot system is a requirement.